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Tempers Flare at City Hall as Election Approaches in Bell Gardens

The Bell Gardens City Council on Monday unanimously approved a motion to allow the  city’s redlight traffic camera contract to expire and to send a letter opposing the local water company‘s proposal to increase water rates.

Councilmember Pedro Aceituno motioned that the contract with RedFlex Traffic Systems, Inc. not be renewed after city staff reported the traffic cameras had not significantly affected the number of injury accidents at the intersection of Florence and Eastern Avenues, and the police department said there were unanticipated personnel costs to manage the system.

Read this story IN SPANISH: Temperamentos Estallan en el Ayuntamiento de Bell Gardens [1]

The temperature in the council chambers quickly escalated when Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez beat Councilman Daniel Crespo’s attempt to second Aceituno‘s motion. Crespo, a long time critic of the cost of tickets generated by the system, accused Rodriguez of trying to take credit for ending the traffic camera program and using it for political gain.

Crespo’s charge sparked a nearly 10 minute long shouting match that included the mayor pounding her gavel several times as she repeatedly told Crespo he could speak when she was done making her point.

Rodriguez said she and her fellow councilmembers origianlly made the difficult decision to approve the red light camera contract with the safety of residents in mind. She accused Crespo of being a politician who abstains on difficult votes to avoid controversy and responsibility for decisions made by the council.

Rodriguez also accused Crespo of influencing her challengers in the upcoming Nov. 8 election, when she and Aceituno are up for reelection. Holding up a campaign mailer from her challengers, she said they are spreading “lies” manufactured by Crespo and telling voters they can lower residents‘ utility bills and provide housing for seniors when they cannot. The loud rambling also included controversies raised during past election campaigns.

“You use people” and exploit their vulnerablilities, Rodriguez told Crespo.

“These ladies who are going door-to-door are offending the intelligence of our community,” Rodriguez said.
While the name calling and accusations continued, other city councilmembers and city staff sat quietly and uncomfortably. Mayor Pro Tem Sergio Infanzon burried his face in his hands during the tirade. At no point did the city attorney attempt to stop Rodriguez and return the meeting back to the agenda, though he did attempt to signal Crespo to hold his comments.

Both Rodriguez and Crespo brought up decade-old sore points during the shouting match. She accused him of being part of a stagnant city council in the 1990s, and he accused her of causing the death of a cancer-stricken city employee whose hours and benefits were reduced with her backing.

When Crespo was finally allowed to speak, he did so calmly, but he did not attempt to stand up for the city council challengers who are reportedly his friends but were not at Monday’s meeting.

He asked staff to clarify whether the city was benefiting from the red light cameras, and why the price of a ticket was never posted. He asked how the red light cameras were similar to the cameras in the City of Los Angeles.

“This is a good decision for the community, I’m happy we discontinued it,” he said.

Following the meeting, however, Crespo continued to say the timing of the decision to scrap the contract was politically motivated, since it was not scheduled to expire until March 2012: the election is about a month away.

At the end of the meeting, Rodriguez apologized for getting “emotional,” but still added that the community sees right through the political manuverings of Crespo and her opponents.

With order restored, the council moved on to other business and approved sending an official protest letter to the California Public Utitilites Comission (CPUC) over Golden State Water Company’s proposed three year rate increase. The increase would affect 70 percent of the city’s water lines.

Bell Gardens water system is divided and owned by two potable water systems. Bell Gardens owns 30 percent of the city’s water system, while Golden State Water Company (GSWC), a subsidiary of American State Utility Services, Inc., owns and services the remaining 70 percent of the city’s water system.

The Golden State Water Company has submitted a request to the CPUC—the body that oversees and sets utility rates—soliciting permision to increase their residential water usage cost by 20 percent in 2013; 2.8 percent in 2014 and another 3.3 percent in 2015. The increase would mean a monthly household water bill of $51.34 would increase to $65.47 over the three year span.

The water company says the rate increase is needed to cover increased water rates, pumping costs and needed infrastructure and capital improvements.

The rate increase, if approved by the Commission, could take effect in January 2013 and would also apply the company’s metropolitan “Region 2“ area that includes portions of Bell, Unincorporated Los Angeles (Florence, Willowbrook), South Gate, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Artesia, and Norwalk, according to Golden State Water Company’s Central District Manager Katherine Nutting.

Bell Gardens resident and former city council candidate Cristina Garcia congratulated the council for approving the protest letter and suggested they use their power to urge legislators to push for a moratorium and an audit of Golden State Water Company’s expenses, and place a moratorium on other increases.