An outspoken Montebello councilwoman appears to be the target of an effort by her fellow city council members and city staff to regulate who can talk on behalf of the troubled city.
Councilwoman Christina Cortez frequently votes against the majority of the city council. She also invited outside enforcement agencies to audit and investigate the city, which has resulted in findings by the state controller that the city misspent millions of dollars in redevelopment funds.
For the last few months, her colleagues and city staff have repeatedly questioned her conduct. They claim Cortez has given the public a lopsided, negative view of the city, and say some of her actions are hurting Montebello’s chances of finding a loan to keep going.
Interim City Administrator Larry Kosmont and City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman are now seeking the city council’s direction on ways to regulate how city council members communicate with the public, their use of city letterhead, and how they give notice about what they will discuss during city council meetings. The issue was listed for discussion on the agenda for Wednesday’s City Council meeting, which occurred after EGP went to press.
On Monday, Cortez told EGP she believes Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman’s agenda item is “really trying to control and really trying to silence the voice of a single councilmember,” which she says represents Montebello residents.
According to a report the two prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, letters placed on Montebello letterhead by a certain “Councilmember” were sent to the district attorney and the state attorney general “without review by the Interim City Administrator or other manager.”
Montebello has undergone or is undergoing investigations by several agencies including the FBI, the state controller’s office, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, among others.
Cortez has openly admitted to requesting scrutiny from outside agencies, often adding that her fellow council members ought to support her.
She says her colleagues and management staff have done nothing but try to discredit findings by Controller John Chiang that the city misspent $31 million. “We should be defending what we are going to do to correct it, that should be what we should be defending,” she said.
Many of her colleagues do not agree with her and say her use of city letterhead gives the impression that her views are representative of the city and city council as a whole.
On Wednesday, the city council was expected to determine if Cortez’s use of city letterhead violated city policy or if the policy should be amended.
According to existing rules, city letterhead is kept at city facilities and in the custody of a fulltime city employee. If a policy decision or position is the topic of the letter, or if the letter “commits the city to a certain course of action,” it must be reviewed by a management employee who determines if it should be sent out immediately or passed on to the city council for review.
Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman said the letterhead policy is meant to prevent council members and staff not copied on the letter from being “blindsided by such correspondence when letters are sent to other governmental agencies or officials.”
The city council also planned to discuss how council members list their discretionary discussion topics on agenda reports to ensure they don’t violate Brown Act laws. Each council member can discuss topics of their choosing during an “oral communications” period.
Cortez’s discussion descriptions, such as “budget” or “city finances,” have frequently been criticized for being too vague. Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman state that listing these topics in broad terms “fails to provide members of the public a clear description of the intent of the Council Oral and the topic or topics to be discussed.”
The city council recently agreed to use “complete sentences” when listing their discussion topics, but this policy has not been followed, putting “staff in a difficult position,” say Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman, who now want the council to pass a resolution adopting the policy.
Also up for “debate” is who gets to be the spokesperson for the city. “The issue at hand is whether or not any one Councilmember can serve as the spokesperson regarding City policy or whether such authority rests in the Mayor or City Administrator,” write Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman.
The title of mayor, however, rotates among the city council members and is not an elected role The title of mayor, however, rotates among the city council members and is not an elected role as it is in the City of Los Angeles, for example, where the mayor also has the power to veto council decisions and appoint department heads, subject to council confirmation.
According to Kosmont and Alvarez-Glasman, the mayor has “historically” served as the spokesperson, but there is no “direct policy” concerning the position’s authority.
Meanwhile, they also say the municipal code states that the city administrator is responsible for “public relations and the dissemination of information to citizens of the City” – though in a recent letter sent out to the financial lending community, Mayor Art Barajas accused past interim city administrator Peter Cosentini of exceeding his authority in sending out press releases about Montebello’s financial state.
Councilman Frank Gomez thinks Cortez “believed philosophically very differently from the majority of us and has succeeded to go about it in an entirely different way that has not been synergistic to rest of the council.”
He said Cortez “brought headlines to council that were unnecessary… put us in the limelight for things erroneous, untrue or unfounded.”
The council majority and management say they have had to correct perceptions that the city was in danger of bankruptcy, and they insist that the city misspent $1 million, rather than $31 million as State Controller Chiang stated in his recent audit.
Cortez says her colleagues have not done enough to get “in front of” their problems. “Do you know how we look? We’re a laughing stock,” she says. “We should be saying, ‘You know what, let’s work with [Chiang’s] office… we’re not taking that approach.”
Instead colleagues have expressed anger at Cortez that she dominates press coverage. At a recent meeting, Councilman Alberto Perez accused Cortez of calling a press conference and not inviting other council members. Cortez responded that press initiated the interview and she never pretended to speak for other members of the city council.
At the same meeting, Cortez called for the resignation of City Attorney Alvarez-Glasman. The matter of his employment was also scheduled to be discussed in closed session on Wednesday. On Monday, EGP received calls from members of the public saying they would attend Wednesday’s meeting to support the call for Alvarez-Glasman’s resignation.