What would ordinarily have been seen as just another minor traffic accident in the city of Commerce, is these days drawing more attention, and a great deal of speculation, because the car involved is owned by the city and the person driving is the city’s mayor pro tem, Tina Baca Del Rio.
Adding fuel to the fire, Councilman Ivan Altamirano and another person were also in the vehicle, leading some people to question whether the two officials, up for reelection on March 5, were out campaigning.
However, the rumors spreading around town are more intriguing than the reality, say the individuals involved in the incident and city officials.
No one was run over by the car, there was no hit-and-run and there is no cover up, an irritated Del Rio told EGP on Tuesday, questioning why the incident even merits news coverage.
Del Rio, Altamirano and Commerce resident Denise Castro, the lone passenger in the back seat, were on their way to grab a late lunch after meeting with seniors at the Senior Center when the accident occurred.
Del Rio said she had stopped at a stop sign and had just started going forward when something hit the car. “I was not really sure what it was,” Del Rio told EGP. She said she was only going about 10 miles per hour because the traffic ahead had stopped for a red light.
The accident occurred about 4:35 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, according to a Sheriff’s report taken at the scene.
Del Rio was traveling westbound on Everington Street in Commerce when a bike being ridden by an unnamed 13-year-old boy hit the passenger side of the car. The boy said he “noticed the car approaching and noticed he was going to get hit so he jumped off from his bicycle” just before it collided with the vehicle, according to the traffic report.
According to Del Rio and the Sheriff’s Traffic Collision Report, an RV parked on Everington Street blocked her view of the cyclist who was attempting to cross the street.
The traffic report indicates the cyclist was at fault in the accident.
Martha Limon, the mother of the 13-year-old, told EGP that her son had sustained some minor abrasions and bruises after jumping from the bike. Paramedics checked him out at the scene and she later took him to hospital to be evaluated. “He was okay,” Limon said.
She also said she appreciates that Del Rio called her and that she and others took good care of her son until she arrived. Limon said she has no plans to file a claim with the city’s insurer or take any legal actions.
The city car was relatively undamaged, sustaining only minor scuffmarks, no dents, according to city officials.
At the time of the accident, “The young boy’s sole concern [was that] he didn’t want to get in trouble. He said ‘just leave,’ and I said ‘no, we need to call your mom,’” Del Rio said she told him, adding she wanted to make sure he was not injured. “He’s a darling young boy, good kid and it was just a very unfortunate accident.”
Del Rio, Altamirano and Castro have denied rumors that they were out promoting the incumbents’ campaigns at the time of the accident. Castro told EGP she is not a paid campaign worker, nor a volunteer in their campaign, but rather a friend who was invited to join them for lunch.
It is unclear why the police report does not list Castro as a passenger or witness to the accident, however in interviews with EGP, Del Rio has maintained that Altamirano was not the only passenger in the vehicle. But she refused to name the other passenger out of what she called respect for the privacy of someone who is not a public official. Both Del Rio and Altamirano denied rumors that the mysterious third party in the vehicle was Commerce Mayor Lilia Leon. On Tuesday, Castro called EGP and said she was the third person in the vehicle at the time of the accident.
Leon, who is also up for reelection, was outraged when she learned of the rumors putting her in the vehicle, and that all three of the officials had been out campaigning in a city car when the accident happened.
She said the opposition is “grasping its straws” and “running scared” because they are loosing the election.
“Welcome to Commerce [election season],” Leon told EGP, referring to what she called unfounded innuendos.
Commerce resident Mike Alvarado called EGP and said he had heard the scene of the accident was a spectacle, with all the police and city staff at the scene. Alvarado said he heard that “A deputy told the kid he was among royalty,” insinuating the boy had been intimidated.
Council Candidate Art Gonzalez called EGP Tuesday to express concern about the condition of the boy, and that there might be some dispute as to who was at-fault in the accident and whether the city vehicle had been moved prior to the arrival of law enforcement. Upon hearing that the boy was fine, Gonzales said he was glad the child was not seriously hurt.
City Attorney Eduardo Olivo and City Administrator Jorge Rifa both said it was their understanding Del Rio and her passengers were on city businesses.
“The fortunate thing no one was injured. The Sheriffs was immediately called, we also dispatched our community safety officers, we sent our transportation officer out there to inspect the vehicle, paramedics were called. I do believe the process went forward professionally and impartially,” Rifa told EGP.