Election Could ‘Shake Up’ Commerce City Council

June 8, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A contentious election that had candidates accusing each other of spreading misleading information and engaging in dirty campaign tactics appears to have ended with two longtime Commerce city council members being ousted from office.

Councilwomen Tina Baca Del Rio and Lela Leon were trailing Wednesday in the unofficial vote count. According to the city clerk, 179 provisional votes still needed to be verified and tallied.

Elections results aren’t official until certified by the city council, according to the city clerk.

If the numbers hold, Leonard Mendoza, a school district painter, and John Soria, a law enforcement technician, and Mayor Ivan Altamirano, the third incumbent up for reelection, will fill the three seats up for grabs.

Leonard Mendoza, pictured left, currently holds the highest number of votes in the Commerce City Council race.  (EGP photo archive)

Leonard Mendoza, pictured left, currently holds the highest number of votes in the Commerce City Council race. (EGP photo archive)

Without any endorsements and self-funding his campaign, Mendoza was at the top of the vote count with 440 votes, according to the unofficial election results. Soria was in second with 437 votes, while Altamirano received 424 votes to come in third. Baca Del Rio was in fourth with 391 votes, while Leon received 343 votes.

With the totals between the 11 candidates so tight, the top three rankings could still change when the final tally is released.

But on Wednesday, Mendoza was ready to claim victory.

“I think this election spoke loud and clear that us residents wanted change, we want to take our city back from the special interests,” Mendoza told EGP. “It was important to come in first to send that message.”

Mendoza first became involved in city affairs when an I-710 Freeway expansion project threatened to displace families in 240 homes in the Ayers, Bandini and Bristow Park neighborhoods. Since then, he has publically advocated against the Union Pacific Railroad, Vernon Power Plant and the now-shuttered Exide Technologies plant as environmental justice issues.

Commerce City Council challenger John Soria with councilmember incumbents. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Commerce City Council challenger John Soria with councilmember incumbents. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Soria, who unsuccessfully ran two years ago, had the endorsement of Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia. Soria did not shy away from the spotlight after his loss, convincing the city attorney and council to pursue legal action to oust one of the victors in that race, Councilmember Hugo Argumedo who had been prohibited from holding office for three years after being convicted on a corruption charge. After the three years was over, Argumedo ran to regain his seat and won.

The courts found Argumedo could remain in office, a decision that could wind up costing Commerce money if Argumedo prevails in a lawsuit against the city for its role in that effort.

Throughout the campaign, Soria accused the other candidates of engaging in personal attacks in campaign flyers filling up voters’ mailboxes. Last week, his campaign released video of two men allegedly distributing negative campaign flyers without the required Fair Political Practices Commission disclosure of the name of the committee paying for the mailers. When approached, the two men admitted to being hired by a local church.

“It is a shame to see a Christian church involved in the attack of my family and the illegal defamation of my name. This issue should be investigated by the appropriate authorities,” Soria said in a press release.

At one point, the city clerk’s office sent a letter to residents alerting them to complaints about robocalls alleged to have misleading information about the vote-by-mail process. The office cited Election Code Section 3017, which allows voters to designate someone to return their ballot to the city clerk – the city’s election official.

In a sign of urgency, the message was shared last week in an official city emergency Nixle alert.

Mendoza says he ran a clean campaign and was not behind hit pieces that included attacks on Soria, Altamirano and even a former public information officer not running for office.

Baca Del Rio, who has been on the council since 2005, was accused last year of 24 violations of the Political Reform Act, including accusations that she illegally transferred campaign funds into her personal bank account and failing to file contributions and campaign statements in a timely manner. The councilwoman reached an agreement with election regulators that reduced the number of charges and fines against her. Baca Del Rio repeatedly denied she misappropriated campaign funds.

Less than two months later, Altamirano agreed to pay a $15,500 penalty for violating five counts of the Political Reform Act over failing to timely file and disclose financial activity on campaign statements and for voting on matters the FPPC concluded he had a financial interest in. During his campaign, Altamirano repeatedly asked voters to elect him and the other two incumbents, claiming the trio has brought positive changes to the city.

“I’m sad about the potential of losing my colleagues ,but also…ready to work with everyone,” Altamirano told EGP Wednesday, adding he’s worried projects will not move forward as quickly under new leadership.

“I really don’t know what will happen, I’m leaving it in God’s hands,” he said.

Mendoza compared the city election to the 2016 presidential race, with voters electing outsiders over career politicians.

“I think we sent out a message,” he said. “If you are honest, work hard and run an informative campaign you don’t need endorsements,” he said. “Voters will see you are running for them.”


Candidates Face Off on Crime, Ethics, Environment

May 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

COMMERCE – Some familiar faces and novice candidates are challenging three City of Commerce council members up for reelection on June 6. Saying they hope to bring change to the city, last week four of nine council contenders went head to head with Mayor Ivan Altamirano, Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio and Councilwoman Lilia Leon, who have each had their share of controversy while in office.

The face off took place during a candidate forum May 4 at City Hall hosted by the League of Women Voters. Much of the night’s discussion revolved around reducing crime and beautifying the city as a means to attract more business and generate more revenue for city services.

Commerce Means Business

While Commerce may not be strapped for cash like some of its neighbors, large lots along the city’s busiest corridor have remained vacant for years, curtailing economic development, according to candidates who accused the council of not doing enough to attract new business to the city.

Drive a mile and you will see dozens of “for lease” signs, said challenger John Soria, a law enforcement technician and second-time candidate for city council.

The city’s 1 percent vacancy rate can mostly be attributed to a single owner, one of Commerce’s founding families, responded Altamirano, who added he is meeting with the owners to discuss the issue.

“I’m not going to wait until an election to attract businesses back into our community,” Soria retorted, accusing Altamirano of “waiting too long.”

Former councilwoman and nonprofit advisory board member Denise Robles echoed the accusation, saying it’s apparent there “hasn’t been a whole lot of economic development” since she lost her reelection bid two years ago. Robles accused the incumbents of not focusing on city cleanliness, which she said is important when trying to attract business.

“It has not been due to a lack of funds, but a lack of priorities,” Robles said.

Baca De Rio fended off the criticism saying the current council has worked hard to change the city’s aesthetic, which she admitted many potential businesses previously found to be too “industrial looking.”

“This didn’t just happen in a handful of months, this took years” of working hand-in-hand with the business community to bring change, Baca Del Rio said, adding, “We didn’t have that relationship” before.

This council has put Commerce on the map, said Leon, citing as an example a city-sponsored shuttle service to the Citadel Outlets that attracts 17 million visitors annually.

When the city was strapped for cash, during the recession and following the loss of its redevelopment agency, it was she and her colleagues who kept the city afloat, said Leon, who has served several terms, though not consecutively, since 1998.

“I brought in donations [from businesses] to make sure services were not taken away,” Leon told the audience.

By thinking outside the box, this council kept a lot of people from being laid off, said Altamirano, who was appointed in 2012 and won re-election in 2013.

Seven candidates running for one of three seats on the Commerce City Council took part in a forum last week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Seven candidates running for one of three seats on the Commerce City Council took part in a forum last week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)


Quality of Life Issues

Highly industrial, Commerce has long struggled to balance its need for revenue to pay for city services and the environmental impact businesses have on city residents.

Pollution and contamination caused by industry, rail yards, and the never-ending flow of diesel trucks, has left many residents concerned about their health and quality of life.

The city should defer to what residents want when it comes to new businesses moving to Commerce, said Robles, referring to a failed venture to bring a Walmart to the city that caused protests from residents.

Other candidates said the city council should be making sure that existing businesses are complying with the city’s green zone initiative, and should be required to erect improved signage informing the public of any emissions or impacts to the environment.

“I’m in favor of working with businesses that will create jobs and create a balance with environmental issues,” said Johncito “John” Peraza, a 20–year-old loan analyst and city commissioner.

Leonard Mendoza, a school district painter and member of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, argued that public health and safety should come before business. “It doesn’t matter what projects we’re working on if our people are dying,” he said. “Let’s stop the crime and let’s clean up the air.”

Soria said industry is not the only culprit when it comes to environmental issues, attacking incumbents for failing to expedite the lead clean up underway at Veterans Park, which has been closed to the public for months and may require a complete renovation. He stressed that parks are a deterrent to crime and provide a safe place for children to spend their free time.

Each of the challengers said the council has not done enough to reduce crime and he or she would do a better job if elected.

But according to Altamirano, public safety has been his top priority. He said he has been working to open a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s substation in the city, which he believes will help reduce the spike in crime by making law enforcement more visible.

Lacking any real detail on the proposal, most of the candidates said they are reserving judgment until the substation project is officially presented to the city council on May 16.

Soria called it “very premature” for individuals to “flaunt” the merits of such a proposal.

Robles says it is more important to improve the city’s current patrol system before building a station.


Question of Ethics

For Peraza, “restoring integrity and honesty in our government” is his top priority.

He was referring to the controversies surrounding the incumbents, who in the past have each been targeted for recall and in the cases of Baca Del Rio and Altimarano’s, have also been fined by the Fair Political Practice Commission for ethics violations.

Last year, Baca Del Rio, who has been on the council since 2005, was accused of 24 violations of the Political Reform Act and faced a $104,000 fine, one of the largest in state history before it was later reduced. The councilwoman was accused of illegally transferring campaign funds into her personal bank account to pay for personal expenses related to a kitchen remodel and failing to file contributions and campaign statements in a timely manner.

Baca Del Rio denied she misappropriated campaign funds and claimed she paid herself back for campaign loans, something FPPC investigators said they found no evidence of.

The FPPC ultimately reached an agreement with Baca Del Rio, who admitted to 12 of the charges and agreed to a reduced fine of $55,000.

Less than two months later, Altamirano agreed to pay a $15,500 penalty for violating five counts of the Political Reform Act, when he failed to timely file and properly disclose financial activity on a pre-election campaign statement and for voting on a matter the FPPC concluded he had a financial interest in. He was accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to a city commission, which comes with a stipend.

But it is not just the incumbents who have been the center of controversy in recent years: Former councilwoman Robles was also at one point targeted for recall and was accused of using a city-owned vehicle to commute to school, personal business which is not allowed.

Soria unsuccessfully ran for office two years ago, but it is his failed campaign to oust Councilmember Hugo Argumedo from office that may ultimately wind up costing Commerce money if Argumedo were to prevail in a lawsuit against the city for its role in that effort.

“I believe our government officials need to be held to the highest ethical standards and treat people with common courtesy and respect,” says Peraza in his campaign statement.

Businessman Charles Calderon, former councilwoman Sylvia Muñoz, truck driver Randy “Sax” Romero, and Jaime Valencia, an accountant, are also on the ballot, but were not at the forum.


Commerce Resident Helps Save Man from Burning Car

November 17, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

When Jason Stinnett discovered a man trapped in a truck engulfed in flames on the I-5 Freeway, the longtime Commerce resident did not think twice before springing into action, saving the man’s life.

On Tuesday, the Commerce City Council recognized Stinnett, commending him for his part in the courageous rescue.

Stinnett, a former public information officer for the City of Commerce, was on his way to drop his youngest daughter off at school last week when he saw broken trees and smoke on the side of the I-5 freeway in Silver Lake, according to the city.

The smoke led him to an overturned vehicle, its engine on fire, and a young man trapped inside, according to the Stinnett. Four other drivers were already on the scene trying to get the semi-responsive driver out of the vehicle.

The rescuers couldn’t break or remove the windshield and the fire had reached the cab. As the fire continued to grow, Stinnett and the others struggled to break the windshield, finally pulling the man to safety.

Jason Stinnett, center, is recognized by the Commerce City Council Nov. 15. Photo: City Of Commerce

Jason Stinnett, center, is recognized by the Commerce City Council Nov. 15.
Photo: City Of Commerce

The victim was treated for minor burns to his leg.

“It comes down to saving someone’s life or walking away and I just couldn’t walk away,” Stinnett told EGP.

Had it not been for Stinnett’s quick thinking or selfless actions, the man could have been seriously injured or killed, reads Commerce’s commendation.

“With everything going on in our country, your actions brought comfort to my heart and restored faith in humanity,” Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo said Tuesday before presenting the commendation.

“You could have continued to drive” but didn’t, she added.

Council members said they were not surprised that Stinnett instead pulled over and put his life on the line.

“I’ve known you since we were kids,” said Mayor Ivan Altamirano. “The way you are today reflects the way you were back then.”

Stinnett told the council his involvement with the city’s Emergency Preparedness Office and a member of the city’s Urban Search and Rescue prepared him to react.

“The other part is the principles my mother raised me on,” Stinnett later told EGP. “You do what you need to do to help someone.”

Accepting the commendation, Stinnett advised residents to carry fire extinguishers in their cars and to equip themselves with an emergency vehicle escape tool that can be used to cut seat belts and break glass.

“We’re lucky to have you as a member of our community,” concluded Rebollo. “There’s no commendation that can ever say thank you for the life you saved.”

Officials Discuss FPPC Fines, Apologize

September 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

COMMERCE – Two City of Commerce council members apologized to residents Tuesday for campaign and conflict of interest violations that resulted in each having to pay thousands of dollars in fines.

Mayor Ivan Altamirano and Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio made their apologies during Tuesday’s city council meeting, with each of the elected officials telling residents they’ve learned their lesson and will not repeat the offenses.

“I created these issues for myself,” admitted Baca Del Rio, “I want to apologize to this community for what I have done.”

Baca Del Rio initially faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the Fair Political Practice Commission, $104,000. According to the FPPC, Baca Del Rio illegally transferred campaign funds to her personal bank account, used a campaign debit card to pay for a kitchen remodel and  repeatedly failed to properly and timely report campaign donations. Under a negotiated settlement approved by the commission last week, Baca Del Rio’s fine was reduced to $55,000, $40,000 of which she was allowed to pay using campaign funds.

On Tuesday, Baca Del Rio said procrastination and not having access to her bank statements were the cause for her late filings, not an attempt to deceive the public.

“This was never my intention,” she tried to clarify. “It was a really bad mistake on my part.”

Altamirano also settled with the FPPC last week, agreeing to pay a $15,500 penalty to resolve multiple late filings of campaign and donation reports claims and allegations that he violated conflict of interest laws when he voted to appoint his sister to the city’s planning commission and for a stop sign to be installed near a rental property he owns.

“I’m a man of integrity,” said Altamirano, inviting any resident who has questions or concerns about what transpired to personally meet with him.

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio, left, and Mayor Ivan Altamirano, right, discussed their FPPC fines and apologized to residents during the city council meeting Tuesday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio, left, and Mayor Ivan Altamirano, right, discussed their FPPC fines and apologized to residents during the city council meeting Tuesday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Both elected officials blamed their late filings on changes to campaign reporting laws that occurred mid-election, which they said they had not been made aware of.

The apologies, however, did not sit well with residents, including some who said the two council members should have faced harsher penalties.

“Residents, wake up to the corruption going on!” said Charles Calderon, who traveled to Sacramento for the FPPC meeting last week. “The City of Commerce deserves better.”

According to Altamirano, the FPPC’s investigation started shortly after he was elected in 2013. He implied the inquiry was triggered by a complaint filed by a failed campaign competitor.

In an interview with EGP Tuesday, Altamirano defended his role in getting a stop sign installed at the intersection of Fidelia Avenue and Jillson Street – about 150-feet from his rental property. He told EGP that area residents begged him to get the city to install the stop sign to keep vehicles from speeding through the intersection, the only one along Jillson where there was no stop sign.

According to Altamirano, he pushed for the sign for public safety reasons and not to raise the value of his property as alleged by FPPC officials.

“Little did I know it would raise my property value,” he reiterated at Tuesday’s meeting.

Altamirano also defended his sister Julissa Altamirano’s appointment to the city’s planning commission, telling EGP she’s “one of the smartest people” he knows and that she has no qualms about telling him when she thinks he’s wrong.

According to Altamirano, there would be no issue if it weren’t for the $50 a month stipend paid to commissioners, which he says his sister has agreed to donate to the city’s senior center.

The mayor repeatedly claimed he’s been in conversations with the FPPC to determine if the conflict of interest concern would be eliminated by his sister donating the stipend, noting that she’s willing to resign if the FPPC says no.

The planning commission is one of the city’s most powerful civilian bodies. Commissioners make recommendations to the city council on zoning ordinances and request for variances, building and development plans, conditional use permits and other decisions that can green light or kill a project. In most cities, planning commissions wield a great deal of influence.

Because Julissa is the mayor’s tenant and paid him rent for at least 10 years, she is considered a source of income to him, which the FPPC determined to be a violation of the Political Reform Act, which prohibits public officials from voting on matters in which they know they have a financial interest.

According to Altamirano, his case was colored by past FPPC cases, which the regulatory agency’s enforcement officials were obligated to consider even though the issues in those cases were significantly different.

Altamirano emphasized that while Julissa may be his sister, she makes decisions on the board independent of what he thinks. For example, he told EGP, “she voted against the Walmart development and I voted for it.”

He acknowledged, however, that out of precaution if he had to vote today he would not reappoint her.

He went on to say he had reluctantly accepted the FPPC findings: “I could have let this go on but I wanted to put this behind me.”

Last week, Calderon said he was collecting signatures to ask Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey to open an investigation into Baca Del Rio, accusing her of abusing her power as an elected official and for continuously violating campaign and conflict of interest laws.

On Tuesday, Baca Del Rio said she was limited in what she could say because of the potential investigation, but went on to tell the audience they should be scrutinizing other councilmembers, specifically naming Councilman Hugo Argumedo.

Argumedo was reelected last year after completing a sentence barring him from holding office for three years after admitting to filing a false affidavit in a lawsuit against the city: Now his fellow council members are spearheading a lawsuit to try to remove him from office over his past conviction.

“If you hold me accountable, you have to hold everyone accountable,” said Baca.

Updated: 10/04/16: Clarifies that the “illegal transfer of funds” and use of a campaign fund debit card for a kitchen remodel are two separate items. 

Second Commerce Official Faces FPPC Fine

September 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Less than two months after Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for campaign violations, a second city elected official is also facing fines and is accused of violating conflict of interest and campaign filing laws.

Under a negotiated agreement with the FPPC, Mayor Ivan Altamirano has agreed to pay a $15,500 penalty for violating five counts of the Political Reform Act, including failing to timely file and properly disclose financial activity on a pre-election campaign statement, failing to file 24-hour contribution reports and for voting on a matter the FFPC concluded he had a financial interest in.

The proposed agreement will go before the FPPC board today for final approval. The panel will also decide on whether to approve a settlement between the agency and Baca del Rio reducing her fines down from $104,000 to $55,000.

EGP reached out to Altamirano for comment, but he he said via email he would have no comment until the case is closed.

Altamirano was appointed to the city council in March 2012 to fill the seat left vacant by former Councilman Robert Fierro who resigned after pleading guilty to a felony conspiracy charge. Altamirano was elected for the first time in March 2013.

Commere Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, is facing a $15,500 fine from the Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

Commere Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, is facing a $15,500 fine from the Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

Unlike Baca del Rio, who is accused of using campaign funds for personal expenses, Altamirano is accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to the city’s planning commission and to get approval for the installation of a stop sign near his home.

As in most cities, Commerce council members nominate members to the various city commissions and boards and for the most part the full council routinely approves those nominations.

Altamirano first moved to appoint his sister Julissa Altamirano to the city’s planning commission in November 2012. She was re-appointed in April 2013 and again in April 2015 to serve an additional 2-year term, all the time receiving the $50 a month stipend paid to commissioners.

That’s where the appointment appears to have run afoul of conflict of interest laws, accoring to FPPC.

Because Julissa is the mayor’s tenant and paid him rent for at least 10 years, she is considered a source of income to him, making her appointment a violation of the Political Reform Act, which prohibits public officials from voting on matters in which they know they have a financial interest.

Appointments to city commissions and boards are often viewed as political perks, earning the appointee money, influence or both.

At the April 2015 city council meeting, a Commerce resident questioned how commission appointments are made in the city.

“What exactly does that entail? How is that decided,” asked Sharon Basik. “What are the qualifications” needed to be appointed?

Then-mayor Lilia R. Leon responded that the city council reviews all commission applications, but went on to point out that appointments are often made based on the relationship a potential commissioner has with a member of the council.

FPPC officials have also found fault with Altamirano’s role in getting a stop sign installed within 150 feet of his home and rental property – at the intersection of Fidelia Avenue and Jillson Street – overturning a denial by the Commerce Traffic Commission in 2012.

Undeterred, Altamirano in 2014 submitted his request for a stop sign directly to the city administrator, then directly to the city council at the Feb. 3, 2015 council meeting where he personally entered a motion to reverse the Traffic Commission’s decision. The council approved his motion.

At the time, Public Works Director Maryam Babaki said her department had analyzed the traffic report used by the commission to deny the all-way stop, but using their own set of safety criteria in addition to the report, decided to recommend the stop sign as a way to improve traffic at the intersection.

“This is the only street that does not have a stop sign into Jillson [Street] from Washington Boulevard,” pointed out Altamirano from behind the dais. “There’s a lot of cars that speed through there, they are residential areas,” he added.

Altamirano went on to note that a stop sign had been approved for an intersection near the home of then-Councilman Joe Aguilar.

“I remember Leo [Street] where Councilman Aguilar, his home they didn’t have a stop sign either,” he said.

Then-Councilwoman Denise Robles asked why it had taken so long to get the appeal to the council, to which Altamirano responded that he brought the item back after receiving more complaints from residents. “I said I was going to install a stop sign myself,” he jokingly added.

According to Altamirano, he had also informed the city administrator of other intersections where there was an even greater need for a stop sign.

He argued that the stop sign installation was done to protect public safety, not to improve the market value of his property.

But according to the FPPC’s claim, “Altamirano knew or should have known he had an impermissible conflict of interest.” It goes on to state that “Altamirano made or participated in other decisions regarding improvement projects in the area in which he resides and misapplied the public generally exception.”

The exception allows public officials to vote on a matter if a significant segment of the city population would benefit from the decision.

According to the stipulation agreement, Altamirano “now understands these rules and contends that he will abide by them in the future.”

The remainder of his violations stem from his failure to turn in pre-election campaign statements before his 2013 election and failing to disclose the proper amount of expenditures made during that election. According to FPPC documents, Altamirano and his committee “Friends of Ivan Altamirano” submitted $11,054 in expenses when in fact $14,237 was spent on his campaign.

That year Altamirano also failed to disclose 17 late contributions of $1,000 each, which require 24-hour filings under the Political Reform Act.

“One of the purposes of the Act is to prevent conflicts of interest by public officials,” reads the FPPC’s document. “Another purpose of the Act is to provide adequate enforcement mechanisms so that the Act will be ‘vigorously enforced.’”

In 2011, Altamirano was fined $200 by the FPPC for failing to file a statement of economic interest when he served on the city’s planning commission.

Commerce Councilwoman Facing Heavy FPPC Fines

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio is facing the state’s largest proposed judgment against a sitting local official over allegations she illegally transferred campaign funds into her personal bank account and failed to report contributions in a timely manner, among other violations.

The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) is proposing to fine Baca Del Rio $104,000 for some 24 different violations of the Political Reform Act, which regulates campaign finances, conflict of interests, lobbying and ethics. Of those fees, $20,000 must be paid out of her pocket and cannot be funded by campaign monies or donations. Her campaign committee, “Tina Baca Del Rio for Commerce City Council 2013” is responsible for the additional $84,000 in fines, and could seek donations to pay it off.

Lea este artículo en Español: Alcaldesa Interina de Commerce Enfrenta Duras Penalidades de la FPPC

The proposed judgment goes to the FPPC July 20 for final approval. Baca Del Rio’s penalty dwarfs a $40,000 fine levied in 2011 on former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who agreed to a settlement, for failing to disclose free tickets to sports and entertainment events.

Baca Del Rio was reelected to the Commerce City Council in March 2013. She was first elected in 2005 but recalled in November 2008.

Elected officials are required to file routine statements twice a year, and multiple statements prior to an election.

The Mayor Pro Tem was re-elected to office months later in March 2009. She served as treasurer for her campaign committees during the periods in question, according to the FPPC.

(City of Commerce)

(City of Commerce)

The 500-page complaint against Baca Del Rio includes accusations that she used campaign funds for personal use and failed to timely file and properly disclose financial activity on three semiannual campaign statements, one pre-election campaign statement and fourteen 24-hour contribution reports. The document also states Baca Del Rio failed to pay the Secretary of State Office her 2013 and 2014 annual fees.

In the document filed June 30, Baca Del Rio is accused of transferring a total of $8,134 into her bank account between April 2011 and August 2011, claiming to repay herself for a loan made to her campaign committee. According to the FPPC’s Enforcement Division, there is no evidence she ever made such a loan.

Baca Del Rio also admitted in October 2014 her husband accidently used the campaign committee’s bankcard to pay for $1,400 in kitchen remodeling expenses but that he paid the committee back. According to the FFPC, however, she never provided evidence of repayment.

The Commerce City Clerk, the Secretary of State’s Office and a formal complaint referred the case to the FPPC.

Baca Del Rio did not respond to EGP’s call for comment, but in an interview with the LA Times, she claims she was “responsive to commission officials, that the proposed judgment took her by surprise.”

This is not the first time Baca Del Rio has been charged with violating campaign reporting regulations.

As reported by EGP in 2011, the FPPC fined Baca Del Rio “after concluding her filing practices showed a ‘pattern of negligence’ and ordered her to pay $26,000 out of a maximum of $35,000 in administrative penalties.

“Voters in Commerce were ‘deprived of important information’ about a city official’s campaign fundraising and spending habits because she failed to file multiple disclosure documents on time, according to the FPPC’s judgment.

As in 2011, Baca Del Rio’s case was aggravated by her failure to file even after multiple notifications to do so.

In determining its fines, the Commission considers past penalties involving similar cases, and noted in its complaint that “Baca Del Rio had reason to be aware of her filing obligations, as she had been previously fined for failing to file campaign statements.”

According to the FPPC’s report, the purpose of disclosing campaign finance activity is “to ensure that receipts and expenditures in election campaigns are fully and truthfully disclosed in order that the voters may be fully informed and improper practices may be inhibited.”

Baca Del Rio was notified of her violations and provided a summary of the evidence and her right to go before the Commission to determine if she truly violated the Act. She was given multiple opportunities to respond to the report or come to a settlement but failed to respond in a timely manner, prompting the default judgment.

If the commission approves the $104,000 judgment, fines would be paid directly to the state’s general fund.

The FPPC told EPG the commission does not comment on ongoing cases.


Twitter @nancyreporting


Major Retail Project Approved In Commerce

July 7, 2016 by · 3 Comments 

After six-hours of heated debate over the building of a controversial retail center in Commerce, the City Council approved two resolutions early Wednesday that will allow the project to move forward.

The proposed project runs along Washington Boulevard, from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street. It will include four smaller individual buildings for retail stores and restaurants, and a Walmart box store as the anchor tenant.

While the council meeting started at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, it wasn’t until after midnight that the council ultimately voted 4-1 to adopt and certify the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Commerce Retail Center. Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo was the sole dissenting vote.

Lea este artículo en Español: Proyecto Controversial es Aprobado en Commerce

On a 3-2 vote, the council also approved development of the 142,997 square foot Commerce Retail Center, this time with Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca joining Rebollo in voting no.

City Council Chambers were jammed packed Tuesday with supporters and detractors of the project, leading to hours of public testimony after the presentations on the project by city staff, the developer, Gatwick Group LLC, and representatives of Walmart.

As the meeting went on, it was clear that the hot button issue was not necessarily the retail center itself, but the inclusion of Walmart as the development’s main tenant. Many of those who spoke on both sides of the issue were not residents of Commerce, but either employees of Walmarts in other cities or activists who are fundamentally opposed to Walmart, wherever they may be.

Supporters see the potential for increased revenue for the city and more jobs, while detractors attempted to paint the big box retailer as unscrupulous and bad to its workers.

Explaining his support for the project, Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano told EGP he sees the new center as a win-win situation for the city.

“The land is contaminated and no one wanted to clean it up because it was too expensive,” he explained. “Only one entity said ‘yes, we will clean it up,’ and that was Walmart,” Altamirano said.

“It would have been irresponsible of me to allow that land to stay contaminated. It took confidence to possibly stand alone in my decision, and the courage to make the tough decision that I made,” he told EGP.

Resident Erika Bojorquez disagrees that the development is good for the city. She told the council bringing Walmart, with its “bad reputation,” works against the city’s “Model City” motto.

“People talk about the donations Walmart makes, but why don’t they donate living wages to employees,” she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Commerce City Council Chambers was jammed packed with people wanting to speak on plans that would bring Walmart to Commerce. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Commerce City Council Chambers was jammed packed with people wanting to speak on plans that would bring Walmart to Commerce. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Small business owner Michael Belgan said his 52-year-old company will go out of business if   Walmart is built, costing his 12 employees their jobs.

“My little company’s employees make about $40,000 a year, and that’s way more than what Walmart will pay,” he told the council.
Several other speakers said Walmart is a bad neighbor because they pay low wages and take advantage of people in need of jobs.

Everything sounds good, drawings and video are great, but how many people from Commerce will actually be hired? Commerce resident Richard Hernandez wanted to know.

“You [have to] negotiate with these people. We are depending on you” to get them to hire locally, he told council members.

Walmart opening in Commerce will revitalize the city, the company’s Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations Javier Angulo said Tuesday. He cited a substantial reduction in the number of daily diesel truck trips, cleaning of the contaminated industrial site and an additional $600,000-$800,000 in annual revenue to the city’s general fund as benefits from Walmart opening in the industrial city.

“We want to be the anchor tenant…we are in it for the long term,” he said.

Sal Lopez works at the Downey Walmart and said the company has been great to him. “I have been with Walmart for over 10 years,” he said. “Walmart has a training program, bonuses according to performance” and other benefits, he said responding to criticism of the retailer’s employment practices.

You talk about the positive, but what about the negative, demanded Mayor Pro Tem Baca del Rio. “Look at what happened in Pico Rivera,” she said, referring to the closing of the Pico Rivera Walmart.

The store in Pico Rivera was old and it had plumbing problems, said Angulo. “Now we have higher participation in the store and our associates are very happy,” he told the council.

Jessica Piedra was one of the workers displaced when the Pico Rivera store closed down with little notice, and says the company supported her during the transition. “When the Pico Rivera store closed they sent me to the Baldwin Park location and when the store reopened I was interviewed to be brought back to Pico Rivera,” she said.

Opponents claim the real reason the store was closed was because workers had started to unionize.

Mayor Altamirano asked Gatwick representatives about their hiring plans during construction.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

“You don’t hire unions. You outsource from other states. How do we ensure the construction of this project stays local?” he asked.

Gatwick is very committed to working with the city as much as we can to hire locally, responded the developer’s attorney, Morgan Wazlaw with Rutan and Tucker.

Council approval of the project, despite their own criticism of Walmart’s business practices and “overwhelming” community opposition, is embarrassing, Mark Lopez, co-director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice told EGP, adding “The fight is not over.”

One of the speakers before the vote, however, pointed to a time years ago when there was opposition to another big commercial project in the city, the Commerce Casino.

People at the time thought it would drag down the city, draw prostitutes to the city, but that didn’t happen, pointed out the speaker.

Today the Commerce Casino is one of the largest tax generators for the city, she pointed out.


Twitter @jackiereporter


Commerce Council Votes on Retail Ctr Project Tuesday

June 2, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The Commerce City Council is expected to vote June 7 on whether or not to allow construction of the Commerce Retail Center Project on Washington Boulevard. The proposed development will include a “Big Box” store, with a Walmart store being the expected tenant.

The proposed project runs along Washington, from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street. It includes a 122,450-square-foot “Major Anchor” retail store, with adjoining restaurants and other retail spaces.

Opponents to the Walmart store told EGP they are organizing to voice their concerns against the project.

“We reject the whole project,” Mark Lopez, director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) told EGP Tuesday.

First, this is a contaminated site that has not been fully cleaned, and second, the location collides with the I-710 Corridor Project, he said.

Others in the community, however, see the development, and a Walmart store in particular, as positive for the local economy.

In a letter to EGP, Ken Merriam, director of Commerce-based Mohave Foods, writes that the “majority of the residents and businesses in Commerce support retail progress in the City of Commerce and the jobs and tax revenue that a retail complex of this magnitude would generate for the city.”

He goes on to point out that many of the jobs created by the development will go to local residents, adding that the revenue generated would “provide an increase in critically needed public services like police and fire protections to its residents and businesses.”

The voting will take place during the regular bimonthly City Council meeting at City Hall. People interested in providing input will be able to speak during the public comment at the start of the meeting, 6:30pm.

‘Move Quicker,’ City Tells DTSC

September 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A small breathing machine in his hands and on the verge of tears, Javier Hernandez asked  Commerce city officials to explain why they had not do something sooner to stop the lead contamination flowing from a controversial batter-recycling plant in Vernon to Commerce homes.

“We are here to demand a speedy clean up of our area,” Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the council during its bimonthly meeting last week. “I have to use this oxygen machine to sleep for the rest of my life,” he desperately added.

As previously reported by EGP, Commerce officials were caught by surprise when they recently learned that at least one city neighborhood is among the areas state regulators believe to be contaminated with lead from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon.

Concerned about the exposure, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) was asked to attend the city council’s Sept. 8 meeting and to explain their findings to the council and residents.

In March, Exide was forced to permanently close down over its illegally handling of hazardous waste, violations that had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities to dangerous levels of cancer causing levels of lead and arsenic.

On Aug. 20, DTSC announced the contamination area was larger than originally believed, and that new wind pattern modeling had determined that Commerce should be added to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties on the north side of Commerce could be contaminated with lead from the battery-recycling plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.

Gina Solomon, MD. MPH, deputy secretary for Science and Health with California Environmental Protection Agency, Cal EPA, described lead as a type of poison that could cause anemia, abdominal cramps, seizures, kidney damage. It can also lead to neurological and birth defects.

“Lead doesn’t really [ever] go away,” she explained.

Solomon said that while the investigation is ongoing, she “strongly” discourages allowing children to play in the dirt and people gardening with the soil in their backyards.

“People can also take off their shoes or wipe them well on the entrance mat” to prevent tracking the contaminated soil inside their homes, she suggested.

Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca del Rio told the audience she’s worried because DTSC at first said Commerce was not impacted. “Now they say we are but we don’t know to what extent,” she said.

Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo told DTSC’s representatives she is very disappointed that they are not moving faster with their investigation and that they had not yet even notified the Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) about the potential contamination at schools in Commerce.

“You won’t have a draft [of your action plan] until October, that means you will not start sampling until December,” Rebollo said in frustration. “That’s not quick enough.”

DTSC Site Project Manager Su Patel said testing is being delayed due to a lack of available funding, but once they get started they would move quickly to test the large number of properties.

She said the agency would need help from the city to identify and contact property owners.

Which area is contaminated? asked Baca del Rio. “We need to know, to create some relief,” she said.

While Patel was reluctant to specify an area, a map provided by DTSC shows possible contamination in and around the Bristow Park neighborhood.

The focal point should be our schools, we need to highlight any problems around our children, Councilman Hugo Argumedo told DTSC.

Patel said DTSC has been in contact with MUSD and is doing its best to make sure everyone is informed.

“Fix it! Figure out who’s doing the damage,” Baca del Rio told state regulators.

“We are aware we are not the only [contaminated] community, but this community is my priority, as it is the priority of the council,” she said.

Hernandez told EGP he’s tired of hearing promises that the problem will be fixed. He was very upset that the doctor focused on a general study about the impact of lead on children and did not included local statistics in her presentation.

“How is it possible that we allow these people to come in and let them talk to their benefit?” he said. Hernandez wants more than talk, he wants a speedy cleanup.

But according to Solomon, they are still in the very early stages of the investigation in Commerce.

Hernandez’ situation highlights the complexity of identifying with certainty the source of the contamination, at least how it got to where it might be found. Hernandez told EGP he worked for 35 years at a painting company near Exide, and blames the battery recycling plant for his asthma.

Solomon said the agency would like to hear from people like Hernandez and former Exide employees so they can test them for lead, pointing out that most of Exide’s workers did not live in Vernon. She said in cases like Hernandez, who worked nearby—they could have unwittingly spread the contamination to their homes.

“They usually come with lead on their shoes, clothes, inside of their car,” Solomon said. “It is an important issue for them and their families” to consider.

Council Explores Challenge to Commerce Election

May 7, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Commerce Councilman Ivan Altamirano says the recent action taken by four members of the city council, which in theory could undo the results of the city’s recent election, is intended to “provide clarity to the community.”

He was referring to a closed session decision last month that directs City Attorney Eduardo Olivo to initiate communication with the state’s Attorney General regarding the “legitimacy” of Councilman Hugo Argumedo’s election to the council in March.

The action comes following an email sent by John Soria to City Administrator Jorge Rifa and the city council, which Soria subsequently read aloud at the April 7 city council meeting during public comment to ensure his words “would not be misconstrued.”

“One could easily conclude our electorate has spoken, but whether this is an authentic representation of our electors and whether Mr. Argumedo is legally holding the position of council member remains to be seen,” Soria writes in his email.

Commerce City Councilmember Hugo Argumedo, left, was sworn into office March 19 . (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Commerce City Councilmember Hugo Argumedo, left, was sworn into office March 19 . (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

During a phone interview Tuesday, Altamirano said he and his fellow council members —Mayor Lilia Leon, Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio and Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo — are now asking the same question in response to complaints they’ve received from residents and business owners who are “angry” about Argumedo’s return to the council — despite pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for statements he made during a civil case involving Commerce’s former city attorney.

In his email to the council, Soria, who lost his bid for a council seat during the same election, details his belief that the city council has the “authority to implement fraud and theft policies prohibiting an elected, appointed, or employed representative of the city from returning after having being caught committing or attempting to commit theft or fraud against the City of Commerce.”

In an email earlier this week, Soria told EGP the intent of his email “was simple, to enlighten the City of Commerce…”

“A legal removal from office is what my letter outlined, which I do support,” he said.

The question is, can it be done retroactively?

It should be noted that Argumedo completed the terms of his conviction, which included an order to resign from office, be on summary probation and not hold public office for three years.

Altamirano acknowledged that fact but said the council is asking for an opinion if the “city is safe … or should they [Argumedo] not serve.”

He said he too had earlier told residents that Argumedo had served his time and nothing could be done, but changed his mind. “If I’m arrested for murder but the court let’s me go [because there’s not enough evidence], should I be forgiven?” he said as a hypothetical example for his reasoning.

“The cities in the southeast are seen as corrupt. Everyone accuses us of being corrupt all the time; I’m always being accused of being corrupt,” he said, “I don’t want to hear this anymore.”

Asked if Argumedo’s past was such a big problem why there was not greater outrage during the campaign or rejection by the voters, Altamirano said he asked the same question. Most people thought there was no way Argumedo would win, he said.

Argumedo told EGP Tuesday that he’s “in an odd situation,” after being advised by Olivo to recuse himself from the discussions to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

“I don’t have the privilege of sitting in on the discussion …there’s a question if I even had to recuse myself,” but I did it because that’s what the city attorney advised.

Argumedo, who along with former Councilwoman Denise Robles was endorsed by this newspaper’s editorial board in the March election, received the most votes of any of the six candidates seeking one of the two seats on the ballot. Oralia Rebollo came in second, winning the other council seat. In its endorsement and other articles about the election, EGP referenced Argumedo’s conviction and forced resignation from office.

“Unfortunately, going through this process, it now appears that they are trying to overturn the will of the people,” Argumedo said about the council’s actions.

Even after all the negative stuff that was out there from his opponents about his past troubles, “I still got the most votes,” he said.

“I was honest with the people, I told them I made a mistake and asked them to not judge me on the one mistake, but all the good I did as a councilman,” he said emotionally.

“I was told I could not hold office for three years and I followed that to the letter of the law,” he said. “I continued to work, I continued my family life,” he said, adding he wants the city to move forward.

“I received overwhelming affirmation of that, look at how many people turned out for my swearing-in ceremony,” he said.

Argumedo said he’s not sure what his next step will be but he is considering seeking legal council if it comes to that point. “I think I need to explore not only my right to serve, but the right of the people to select who represents them,” he said.

During public comment at Tuesday’s council meeting, Commerce resident Leonard Mendoza expressed disappointment on the direction being taken by the council.

“We just had an election, it was pretty bad, it was a dirty election, it was tough fought election … If you guys are doing anything against the political process, you are telling nearly 700 voters, ‘your vote is no good, you voted for the wrong person.’”

Altamirano was not at Tuesday’s council meeting due to a death in the family, but earlier in the day said he expects the council to report at its next meeting what action they will take.

“If it comes back that this is a bunch of nonsense, than everyone needs to bury it,” he said, adding he would not support a recall election directed at Argumedo.

“I would fight it.”

EGP Staff writer Jacqueline Garcia contributed to this story.

Updated 2:03 p.m: Added question about retroactively removing a council member.


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