Fresh off their campaign victory and swearing into office, three Bell Gardens council members came under fire Monday by a failed city council candidate who alleges they illegally used the city’s official seal on campaign materials during the most recent election cycle.
During Monday’s council meeting, former city council candidate Jazmina Saavedra accused Mayor Daniel Crespo, Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores and first time Councilmember Jose Mendoza of mailing out “An important message to our community” that included the city’s official seal.
As previously reported, EGP obtained a copy of the questionable campaign mailer, which includes the city seal, the address of Bell Gardens City Hall and what appears to be the signatures of Crespo, Flores and Mendoza. The mailer touts the accomplishments of the three signers and refers to the election campaign.
City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP he has not yet seen the mailer in question and only became aware of it at Monday’s council meeting.
But “I can assure you that no campaign letter was generated out of city hall,” he said.
For two council meetings in a row, Saavedra has used the public comment portion of the meeting to lambast council members. During a meeting in late November, she accused Crespo and Flores of not living in the city. On Monday, Saavedra, who came in a distant fourth in the race behind Mendoza, focused her attention on the city’s newest council member, attending his first council meeting since being elected.
“I want to give you [Mendoza] a test, I want to see if you’re going to start off with lies or with truths,” she said, speaking from the podium in the council chamber gallery.
“I want to know if you [Mendoza] recognize this letter, if you used it, sent it or signed this?” Saavedra demanded as she waved the alleged flyer and unsuccessfully asked staff to give it to Mendoza. “Please, I want you to see it and let me know if you sent it out to the voters.”
At that point, Assistant City Attorney John W. Lam chimed in to inform Saavedra that Mendoza was not required to respond to her questions because public comment is not for the purpose of questioning the council.
Saavedra said she hoped Mendoza would answer her inquiries by the end of the meeting.
During council orals, however, a smiling Mendoza looked directly at Saavedra and said he had “no comments.”
Saveedra herself, however, has also been accused of using the city seal on some of her campaign related documents, including business cards, a copy of which was emailed to EGP.
Lam told EGP he is not aware of any special ordinance regarding the use of the city seal but said that typically the city complies with California’s government code.
He said Monday was the first time he heard the allegation and has not received any official complaint against the city regarding the manner.
Wagner told EGP allegations involving campaign violations are typically handled by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, FPPC, and not the city.
EGP asked both Crespo and Flores if the alleged flyer was sent by their campaign and if so, was it appropriate to use the city seal and include Mendoza’s signature on a document that appeared could have been sent by the city? Crespo responded in writing by urging EGP to not “be misguided by candidates the people of Bell Gardens, did not elect to further their political attacks and agenda against us.” Flores said she would respond to EGP’s inquiry, but had not done so as of press time Wednesday.
“No comment,” Mendoza told EGP following Monday’s meeting.
The exchange was a sharp contrast from a couple of weeks ago when former councilmember Infanzon directly denied another resident’s accusations over his position on water rates and told her to show him the document she alleges he lied on, which she did not do.
During Monday’s meeting, Crespo said he hopes residents will give the new council a chance.
“Give us an opportunity to work and [judge] us on our performance, our decision making and not attack us,” he said.
Using a city’s seal in campaign materials is usually considered unethical, former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp told EGP. Van de Kamp — who currently serves as Vernon’s reform monitor as the city attempts to rebound from its own past allegations of corruption — told EGP that using the city’s seal could make it appear that the materials were paid for or authorized by the city.
“The argument can be made that they are appropriating some city rights to aid their reelection,” he said.
State law regulates the use of government seals, Van de Kamp told EGP. Using it in campaign materials is illegal and a misdemeanor under California law, which prohibits any reproduction of the seal of the city that would mislead or create a false impression that a public official authorized the document.