Two longtime Bell Gardens councilwoman who until recently were close friends, made it clear Monday there is “no turning back,” with each accusing the other of being unfit for office.
The tit-for-tat of accusations became public during the March 13 council meeting, when Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez accused Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores of not living in the city, a violation of election law. On Monday, Flores responded by calling for an investigation into the finances of a nonprofit group run by Rodriguez.
According to Flores, she has received multiple complaints from parents who participated in Heroes of Dreams accusing Rodriguez of collecting fees for trips and lessons that never happened.
She also accused Rodriguez of failing to include information related to the nonprofit’s finances in in her Statement of Economic Interest, a form required by the Fair Political Practices Commission that must be submitted annually and is used to determine potential conflicts of interests.
“Where is that money going,” asked Flores, estimating the group had collected thousands of dollars in fees.
“Investigate all that you want because there is nothing there,” Rodriguez shot back, challenging her accusers to come forward. “I swear, on my daughter, I did not make a penny,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the nonprofit status of Heroes of Dreams – started to teach young children to perform on stage – was only active for a few months. She later told EGP a lawyer is helping her complete documents she did not know needed to be filed.
Flores accused Rodriguez of violating conflicts of interest laws by using city facilities free of charge for her financial benefit. She later told EGP facility rental fees should not have been waived for Rodriguez because it implies her group’s activities are city sponsored.
According to city records, Rodriguez used the facility periodically over the last year free of charge, most recently in December of 2016.
Recreation and Community Services Director Chris Daste, told EGP it’s “not out of the ordinary” to allow city facilities to be used free of charge for activities that benefit local youth and are a good cause, as long as there is no requirement for city staff to be on site.
If the group is profiting from the activity, however, “that would certainty be an issue,” he said.
Rodriguez scoffs at Flores’ claims she pocketed money, saying many of the children were not charged a dime.
“If anything, I have forked money out of my own pocket,” she said.
Rodriguez told EGP funds collected were used to lease studio space in Bell; rent on the site is now past due.
She complained that other council members have used city facilities for free and it was never a problem until now.
The latest round of accusations come on the heels of the city filing a complaint in Superior Court that alleges Rodriguez “vacated” her office after missing 10 of the 20 council meetings held in 2016. Rodriguez maintains her absences were related to an ongoing illness, but has refused to submit proof fearing it will be used against her.
Rodriguez fired back against the effort to oust her by launching a barrage of accusations against Flores and Councilman Pedro Aceituno. She demanded staff look into the legality of Aceituno holding two elected offices at the same time: he was elected to the Central Basin Municipal Water District board last November.
In response to Rodriguez’ allegations about her residency, Flores Monday asked city staff to conduct an investigation and report back its findings at the next council meeting.
“Even if she lived there a few months, that’s still a violation of the law,” maintains Rodriguez.
According to Flores, she invested in property in Downey but never lived there.
On Monday, Flores listed properties Rodriguez owns outside Bell Gardens and accused her fellow councilwoman of using a property owned by Flores, without her consent, to enroll her child in a school outside Bell Gardens. Rodriguez previously pointed out that Flores’ children do not attend Bell Gardens schools.
Rodriguez laughed off claims about using Flores’ address. She defended her decision to send her son to a Downey high school, saying the political climate at the time made it necessary.
“I wanted to protect him,” she said, adding it was Flores’ idea to use her address.
Rodriguez told EGP she expected retaliation, in fact she expected more.
“It doesn’t faze me anymore,” she said. “A couple of months ago it would have, but not anymore.”
One thing she is certain, Rodriguez believes the rest of the council will point the finger at her just as others have in the past, noting, “history repeats itself.”
“They will say I started this drama …[and] Yes I did,” said Rodriguez. “And there’s still much more to say.”
Updated April 13 11:20 a.m. to correct date of council meeting.
The years of finger pointing and shouting matches that seemed to be a thing of the past in Bell Gardens returned with a vengeance Monday to the southeast city where councilmembers have taken legal steps to officially remove a sitting councilwoman from office.
The political drama involves Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriquez who before Monday’s city council meeting was served with court documents informing her that the city has filed a complaint in Superior Court that allege her chronic failure to attend city council meetings amount to her having “vacated” the office. The complaint also demands Rodriguez be fined $5,000 and forced to pay the cost of the legal proceedings.
Speaking during council orals Monday, Rodriguez lashed back with her own barrage of accusations. She said her absences were due to illness and claims the council’s action is retaliation for her wanting to make public the amount of money council members make representing the city on multiple commissions and with various agencies.
Rodriguez called for an investigation into the residency of a fellow councilmember, implying Councilwoman Priscilla Flores actually lives in a house she owns in Downey and not in Bell Gardens as she claims. She also said the city attorney should look into the legality of a councilman holding two offices, referring to Pedro Aceituno’s election to the Central Basin Municipal Water District board last November.
The accusations are no surprise to her fellow councilmembers, who said Rodriguez is simply deflecting attention from her situation.
According to city records, Rodriguez missed 10 of the 20 council meetings held in 2016. She was only excused on one occasion in July and left within a few minutes of arriving at a meeting in November.
Under state law, if a city council member misses all regular council meetings scheduled within 60 consecutive days, his or her office becomes vacant. The complaint alleges Rodriguez’s Bell Gardens council seat became vacant on Sept. 24, 2016.
“This council did not feel she should be getting paid if she isn’t showing up to do the work,” Flores said, explaining the reasoning behind the drastic action.
During Monday’s meeting, Rodriguez said her long-playing illness had made it “difficult to function, to be in public,” later telling EGP she’d been sick for two years and needed time to heal, which meant “staying away from what was harming” her. She claims she even had to quit her job when things got really bad.
“My mistake was not bringing [my situation] to light, to the public,” she said. “But who would want to?”
Flores said the council gave Rodriguez ample time turn to in a doctor’s note so her absences could be excused, but she did not comply.
According to court documents, Rodriguez was absent from July 26, 2016 through Sept. 23, 2016 and again from Oct. 11, 2016 through Dec. 11, 2016.
Rodriguez told EGP she was not in her “right state of mind” at the time and that’s why she didn’t take steps to be excused.
A skeptical Flores, however, points out that Rodriguez was still able to attend public events where her daughter was performing. “We were getting complaints from residents,” she said. “If we didn’t do anything it would look like we were covering for her. If she was an employee she would have been fired a long time ago,” Flores said.
“I had to go, that’s my daughter,” said Rodriguez in her defense. “Was I comfortable? No.”
As for Rodriguez’ accusations, Flores said claims about her not living in the city are untrue. “Bring on the investigation,” she said, adding she bought the house in Downey as an investment and it’s her sister who lives there, not her. The property on the 11900 block of Pomering Road is listed for $1.1 million on the Zillow real estate website; a sale is pending.
“It’s very obvious she lives there,” Rodriguez insists. “There are witnesses, neighbors who live in that area that attest to that fact.”
Rodriguez believes the council is trying to oust her because she asked the city clerk last month to publicize the list of commissions and the stipends each council member receives for them. The list shows Aceituno serves on 9 of 15 city commissions and receives up to $250 for each meeting he attends.
“[Holding office] has become a career for this individual,” accuses Rodriguez.
Aceituno’s flexible work schedule made him more available to represent the city, said Flores, disputing Rodriguez’ claim. She added Rodriguez herself voted to approve the appointments.
Aceituno told EGP that Rodriguez is trying to use the council as an excuse rather than taking “taking responsibility” for her actions. “It is what it is,” he said.
Rodriguez disputes rumors circulating that her absences are little more than a “power trip” and that she’s angry because the council bypassed her for mayor last June.
It was easier for Rodriguez to get donations for her nonprofit dance group when she was mayor, alleges Flores. “There’s a conflict of interest” there, she claims, implying Rodriguez used her elected position to solicit funds from local businesses that do business with the city.
Rodriguez says she never used her title to get donations, but “simply explained the benefits of the program” to potential donors. She said the program gives local children access to art and “it’s a shame they are trying to make something negative out of something that has been positive for the community.
“What have they done to help youth?”
Rodriguez, and the city for that matter, are no strangers to this type of political infighting. Rodriguez’ long history of heated exchanges with deceased mayor, Daniel Crespo, are well documented.
“I feel that history is repeating itself here in Bell Gardens,” Rodriguez said, before implying her car had been shot at. “I don’t know if I should be scared.”
Flores agrees, but blames Rodriguez for bringing back the turmoil.
“I know there’s going to be retaliation against me and I accept it,” Rodriguez said before being interrupted by City Attorney Arnold Glassman, who said her statements had crossed the line of what is allowed during council orals.
Mendoza attempted to call for a recess, but Rodriguez said she had a right to continue speaking. “This is what happens when government doesn’t want you to speak,” she said before storming out of the meeting.
Flores said she feels sorry for Rodriguez, who she once called a friend. “It’s obvious she’s going through stuff,” she told EGP, still livid from the exchange. “If she can’t be on this council she should just move on.”
On Tuesday, Rodriguez, who was first elected in 2003, told EGP she had considered stepping down but now refuses to be forced out. She said she wants to leave office with her head held high, and as of now has no plans to seek reelection in 2019.
The embroiled councilwoman says the current rancor is the result of many things, and claims “there is more going on behind the scenes.”
Rodriguez told EGP she intends to defend herself against the court claim. In the meantime, she’ll focus on once again being accessible to the community.
“The one thing I’m guilty of is trying to get better and getting healthy,” she said. “For that, I’m being punished.”
Updated: 3/29/17 to correct spelling error in headline.
The Central Basin Municipal Water District is a public agency, with an elected board that sets policy and oversee its operations, the main purpose of which is to wholesale imported water to cities, mutual water companies, investor-owned utilities and private companies in southeast Los Angeles County.
In recent years, the agency has been plagued by accusations of wrongdoing involving how it awards contracts and lax oversight of staff, with some going so-far as to call its board members and staff everything from inept to corrupt.
Now, two local city officials are among the candidates vying for a seat on the Central Basin board in November, purportedly in hope of turning the scandal-ridden agency around.
Candidates running to represent Division 1 on the board of directors include Bell Gardens Mayor Pedro Aceituno, Pico Rivera Mayor Pro Tem Bob Archuleta, Luis Marquez of Downey, and Xochitl Sandoval and Yvette Silva, both residents of Bell Gardens. James Roybal, who currently serves as the Board’s vice president has opted not to run again.
Joshua Acevedo of Bell Gardens will also be on the ballot, but has told EGP he is suspending his campaign to instead concentrate on running in 2017 for a seat on the Bell Gardens City Council.
The race will be one of several on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot.
Division 1 of the Central Basin covers the cities of Bell Gardens, Downey, Montebello, Pico Rivera, West Whittier-Los Nietos and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Directors are elected to serve four-year terms.
Archuleta told EGP he wants to help Central Basin improve its image and recover from a history of financial mismanagement and questionable contracts.
“For years, the general public has asked for change,” he said. “I believe I am uniquely qualified to clean up and reform this agency.”
Archuleta was elected to the Pico Rivera City Council in 2007 and currently serves as a presidential appointee to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
He says during his stint on the city council crime has gone down and retailers and developments are now flocking to do business in Pico Rivera. Conditions at the city’s parks and on city streets have improved since he took office, Archuleta told EGP.
Now he says he’s confident he can help turn things around at the Central Basin, where he blames failed leadership for widespread mismanagement issues identified in an audit by the State Controller. The audit slammed the agency for questionable decisions, including the loss of the agency’s liability insurance, failure to use competitive bidding in awarding contracts and for allowing overly generous benefits and gifts for board members.
“I will not tolerate corruption at this agency, I will provide clean and affordable water,” he assured. “I will stop corruption, government waste, and fight to reduce current water rates.”
Sandoval too sees the water agency as rife with problems. An assistant gaming supervisor at The Bicycle Casino, Sandoval told EGP she feels she can make a difference at the agency because she is not a “career politician.”
“I do not owe any political favors to anyone,” she emphasized. “I will bring an end to the pay-to-play practices and also stop awarding contracts based on nepotism.”
Sandoval has some municipal government experience, having served as a Bell Gardens traffic and safety commissioner.
“It’s time for average citizens to get involved and get the corrupt politicians and greedy special interests groups out of our water board,” she told EGP.
First elected in 1999, Aceituno is the longest sitting member on the Bell Gardens City Council.
Aceituno did not respond to EGP’s phone call and emails seeking an interview for this article, but according to his candidate filing with the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s Office he identifies himself as a “water advocate.” In 2007 a Central Basin press release cited his work on a conservation grant to integrate water-saving measures at public parks and facilities, making it the first city in the region to embrace a citywide conservation program.
Central Basin also credited the then-mayor for his efforts in creating the plan that incorporated innovative conservation measures, which included installation of synthetic turf at soccer fields, wireless valve controller system for irrigation and the installation of waterless urinals and high-efficiency toilets at public facilities.
But Aceituno is also on a city council, which, despite ongoing deficits and much needed costly infrastructure improvements, has repeatedly opted to not increase water rates, which have remained unchanged for 20 years.
EGP also repeatedly tried to reach Luis Marquez and Yvette Silva for comment, but emails and calls were not returned.
Meanwhile, Archuleta is out lining up endorsements and contributions to his campaign. He has received the endorsements of several local officials, including Bell Gardens Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez.
He believes his experience and record in Pico Rivera has prepared him for working on large budgets, long-term planning, both which resulted in citywide improvements, developments and funding for a multi-million dollar underpass.
“I want to bring that change to Central Basin,” he said.
Several local municipalities, including Commerce and Montebello, have long criticized the Central Basin, taking issue with rate hikes, the latest of which was approved last month,
Currently, the Central Basin board includes Robert Apodaca, Art Chacon, Leticia Vasquez, Phillip Hawkins and Roybal.
Over the years, there have been numerous published reports of dysfunction on the board, citing incidents of board members getting into shouting matches during meetings. At one point, the FBI served search warrants at the agency’s offices in connection with their corruption investigation into former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, who’s consulting practice did work for the Central Basin and served on the board of a contractor hired to do work for the water agency.
If elected, Sandoval vows to end excessive perks and travel allowance and to get the board back to doing the business of delivering clean and inexpensive water to communities.
For his part, Archuleta says he plans “to be transparent and invite all to participate, and to “get confidence [in the agency] back up.”
Archuleta, however, is no stranger to government investigations. In 2010 he was investigated by the District Attorney’s office for not reporting political gifts when he repeatedly reused a special elected official movie pass at a Pico Rivera theater. The case was eventually closed and no charges were filed, but Archuleta reimbursed the theater and returned the pass.
He also self-reported the investigation to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which later issued a fine. The issue did not impact his reelection campaign in 2011 or in 2015, when he received the highest number of votes. His term expires Nov. 2019.
Under state law, an elected official may not hold two different public offices simultaneously if the offices have “overlapping and conflicting public duties.” Citing a previous opinion, the Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris informed EGP serving on the city council and on the board of a water district would be deemed incompatible offices.
Archuleta assured EGP he intends to adhere to the law and relinquish his seat on the Pico Rivera city council if elected. The same rule would apply to Aceituno.
Mayor Pedro Aceituno (center) and Mayor Pro Tem Jose J. Mendoza took their oath of office Tuesday during a special ceremony at Bell Gardens City Hall. Aceituno replaces Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez as mayor. The swearing-in ceremonies were followed by a performance by Mendoza’s dance team in the City Hall courtyard.
Bell Gardens officials hope to turn a small golf course that has bled the city’s budget for years into an “ace” that may actually generate a profit of nearly $60,000 annually.
The city council last week unanimously approved a contract with Golf Links – a golf course management company – to oversee the city-owned 9-hole, 3-par golf course located at Ford Park.
The golf course has for years operated in the red, forcing the city to cover its operating shortfall to the tune of $62,000 to $72,000 a year since 2013.
“We have made every effort to operate the golf course, to at least break even, but we have not been able to do that,” said City Manager Phil Wagner during the Nov. 23 council meeting.
The economic recession hit the golf industry especially hard, explained Recreation Director Chris Daste, adding that the decline in pro-golfer Tiger Wood’s popularity has also hurt the sport.
It costs $253,000 to operate the facility but revenues from fees and events only total $166,000, according to Finance Director Will Kaholokula.
“What happened here happened in courses across the country,” Daste said. “Golf isn’t something people have to do” when money is tight, he added.
Golf Links plans to keep fees affordable after they take over in January, said Daste. They hope to encourage the city’s large soccer-playing community to give golf a try, he said. Bell Gardens youth will be allowed to play for free, he added.
Members of the council and Wagner have in the past told EGP that the golf course needs a strong marketing program to turn it around. However, efforts by the city’s parks and recreation department to market the course through social media did little to make it more than Bell Gardens’ “hidden gem.”
With a projected $91,000 operating deficit, city officials decided it was time to make a change.
“The longer we wait the longer we continue to stay in the red,” said Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno.
The golf course doesn’t have many of the amenities that attract golfers, such as water hazards and sand boxes. It is located towards the back of Ford Park, hidden from passing traffic and largely overshadowed by the park’s popular soccer complex.
“The golf course is the city’s best kept secret, but secrets are not good for business,” Daste told EGP.
Golf Links will oversee maintenance, run the pro shop and on-site concessionaire and says it’s confident it can turn a $60,000 profit for the city within a year.
The city will save thousands of dollars in maintenance costs alone, said Daste.
Golf Links’ connections and marketing plans — using mass emails and special events to create a buzz about the course — should turn things around, Kaholokula told EGP.
“This is a company that will do anything it can to make the golf course profitable,” the finance director assured.
For years, regulars like Jerry Smith have enjoyed the peace and quite of the golf course.
“It’s a beautiful place to get away from everything and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” he said.
The beginner’s course has allowed him to bring his stepson and neighbor along; both are new to the sport.
“All you need is a putter, one or two irons and of course balls,” he explained.
“You don’t even need a golf cart,” added Daniel Cervantes of Downey.
Parks and recreation leader James Rodgers has worked at the golf course for decades. He told EGP the word-of-mouth by course regulars is what brings new customers to the “greens.”
According to Daste, the city looked at neighboring communities with golf courses to identify what was working for them. “It was important that we work with a company that was familiar with the Southeast communities,” he said
The city received glowing recommendations for Golf Links, which helped turn a similar struggling golf course in nearby Pico Rivera around, Daste said.
Aceituno said he saw the transformation of the golf course in Pico Rivera first hand.
“I feel confident they can also do that here on our golf course,” he said.
For the first time in decades, a city known for its tough political rivalries may cancel its upcoming city council election because no one has filed to run against the two incumbents up for reelection.
On Monday, the city clerk’s office announced Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez and Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno were the only two candidates to turn in paperwork before the nomination period closed Friday, Aug. 7.
It’s a surprising turn of events considering Rodriguez, and Aceituno to a lesser extent, have in recent years been involved in some of the city’s most volatile elections. The difference this year could be the absence of former Mayor Daniel Crespo, who until shortly before his shooting death last year, was a vocal and often aggressive opponent of the two incumbents.
“In past elections there are usually no shortage of challengers, but I can only assume that residents are pleased with the job their representatives are doing on the city council,” said City Manager Phil Wagner.
Under the city’s election code, if there are no more candidates than offices to be elected, in this case two city council seats, the city council at its discretion can appoint those who turned in their required paperwork before the deadline and cancel the election. The city council also has available to it the option to appoint an eligible voter in the city to the seat, or still hold an election.
“Given that we have two qualified nominations the city council will most likely choose option one and not hold an election,” said new City Clerk Kristina Santana.
Canceling the election will save Bell Gardens $90,000, the amount it would have paid the County for election services, Santana said.
As long time members of the council, Rodriguez and Aceituno are expected to be appointed to new four-year terms when the council meets to consider the issue at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 5 p.m.
Rodriguez and Aceituno will serve exactly as if elected during an election, according to the City Clerk’s office.
Rodriguez has served on the council since 2003. She works as a social worker and director of admissions at a local healthcare facility. Aceituno was first elected in 1999 and was one of the youngest elected officials to serve as Mayor in Los Angeles County.