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 them 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 to pay for a home kitchen remodel and she 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 he admitted 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.

 

FPPC Approves Penalties Against Commerce Officials

September 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Despite residents demanding harsher penalties, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) today approved reduced fines against two Commerce officials accused of violating campaign-filing laws, among other charges.

The commission approved a $55,000 fine against Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio, who initially faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the FPPC  over allegations she had illegally transferred campaign funds into her personal bank account to pay for a kitchen remodel and had failed to timely file and properly disclose contributions. Under the agreement, $15,000 of the fine must be paid out of her own pocket, the remainder can be paid by campaign funds and donations.

The commission also approved a $15,500 penalty against Mayor Ivan Altamirano. As EGP detailed in separate story published today, Altamirano is accused of  violating conflict of interest and campaign filing laws, including failing to file and properly disclose financial activity on pre-election campaign statements, late filing of 24-hour contribution reports and for voting on a matter the FFPC concluded he had a financial interest in.

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)

Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, has agreed to pay a $15,500 fine levied by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

The mayor 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 within 150 feet of his rental property.

The penalty amounts approved by the Commission are the result of negotiations between FPPC Enforcement Division officials and the Commerce elected officials. The recommendation by enforcement officials did not sit well with Commerce residents who asked commissioners to reject the settlements.

“I’m asking that you be a lot more firm,” said Richard Hernandez, a Commerce resident who traveled to Sacramento for the hearing. “Make this case an example, not just for Commerce but all the other cities, show them that you’re not going to show any type of tolerance for their violations.”

Hernandez added that other elected officials are following her, citing Altamirano’s troubles as an example. He told the Commission that Commerce residents had been harmed and deserved justice.

FPPC enforcement staff initially proposed a $104,000 default judgment against Baca Del Rio for 24 different violations of the Political Reform Act. The Act regulates campaign finances, conflict of interests, lobbying and ethics laws.

In a 500-page complaint against Baca Del Rio, the councilwoman was accused of illegally transferring $8,000 in campaign funds to her personal bank account and using the money to pay for a kitchen remodel. Baca Del Rio claimed the funds were  reimbursement for a loan she had made to her campaign committee.

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio will pay a $55,000 fine to the FPPC. (City of Commerce)

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio will pay a $55,000 fine to the FPPC. (City of Commerce)

According to the FPPC’s Enforcement Division, however, there is no evidence she ever made such a loan.

Baca Del Rio was first elected to the Commerce City Council in 2005, but recalled in November 2008 only to be reelected a year later. She was most recently reelected in March 2013

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.

The 5-member commission heavily discussed Baca Del Rio’s reduced fine during a meeting in August -that had been negotiated that same say – but voted 2-2 to hold the matter over until the full settlement agreement was in writing and available for the Commission to review. Commissioner Eric Casher, who ultimately voted in favor of the settlement, was not present at the previous meeting to cast his vote.

At the time, citing Baca Del Rio’s past problems and delayed response to the current action against her, the commissioners strongly stated they wanted to see all Baca Del Rio’s stipulations in writing before voting, adding they were reserving their right to reject the settlement agreement if not satisfied by its final form.

Today, Commissioner Maria Audero cast the lone vote against the settlement, saying Baca Del Rio had a history of  violating the rules and not reporting contributions, noting that although the Commerce councilwoman was fined in 2011 for many of the same violations, within months of stipulating “she would not do it again” she was again in violation. Audero said she supported issuing a more punitive fine based on her belief that Baca Del Rio had an “intent to disregard” the law.

Commerce resident Charles Calderon also spoke during the meeting, telling commissioners he was disappointed by their decision to approved the reduced penalty for Baca Del Rio, despite her having been fined for similar infractions in the past.

While both Hernandez and Calderon spoke against reduced fines for either of the elected officials, most of their criticism was directed at Baca Del Rio.

According to Calderon’s testimony, a number of residents are collecting signatures to hand over to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey asking that her office open an investigation into what he called Baca Del Rio’s abuse of power as an elected official, and her continuously violating campaign and conflict of interest laws.

Calderon said the ethics and campaign violations by the two sitting council members have harmed Commerce’s public image, claiming Commerce is now being bundled up with Southeast cities that have had a history of scandals involving politicians accused of corruption.

“Now we’re being compared to the cities of Bell and Vernon.” he told commissioners.

Pursuit Ends in SWAT Standoff

September 8, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A suspected drunken driver pulled a gun on CHP officers as he abandoned his pickup truck on the Santa Ana (5) Freeway in Commerce, backed into some roadside businesses, and held officers off for 8 hours before surrendering.

The man was arrested by SWAT team members at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, according to Deputy Guillermina Saldana of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.

The pursuit began before 9 p.m. Sunday in Orange County, when California Highway Patrol officers attempted to pull over a green GMC pickup truck for swerving and possible drunken driving, CHP Officer Francisco Villalobos said.

Los Angeles-based CHP officers took over the pursuit at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Santa Ana (5) Freeway as the truck left Orange County. It veered off the freeway at Garfield Avenue in Commerce, Villalobos said.

The northbound and southbound lanes of the 5 Freeway were shut down at 12:45 a.m., Villalobos said. The northbound lanes were opened at 1:30 a.m. and the southbound lanes followed at 2:21 a.m.

Television journalists captured video of the man – shirtless, tattoed and waving a pistol – backing into an industrial area.

Deputies from the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station were called to the scene at midnight, said sheriff’s Sgt. T. Kim. Attempts had been made to contact the suspect.

The sheriff’s Special Enforcement Bureau was dispatched to the scene about 3 a.m., Saldana said.

City to Require Businesses to Invest in Public Art

September 8, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

COMMERCE – In a city perhaps better known for its close proximity to freeways, rail yards, diesel trucks and blocks upon blocks of large cement warehouses, there’s a move afoot to bring more art into the public landscape.

The Commerce City Council approved an amendment to the city’s zoning code Tuesday that adds an “Art in Public Spaces” requirement for future construction. Under the ordinance, new commercial, industrial and residential projects that have building costs of $250,000 or more will be required to provide public art on site that is visible to the public, or pay a one-time fee that will be used to fund public art throughout the city.

“We wanted to take advantage of the uptick in development to try to get a level of investment in properties and our city,” explains Commerce City Planner Jose Jimenez.

The value of the artwork to be installed will be calculated at one-percent of the total building costs. For example, a project with a construction cost of $500,000 would be required to install artwork with a value of at least $5,000.

If the business does not want an art installation on-site, they can opt to pay the fee.

Those fees will be set aside in a separate account that will be used for art education programs, maintenance, repairs, identification plaques and to fund the installation artwork near existing businesses that are not required to participate, according to city planners.

This large sculpture sits in front of a business in the city of Commerce, which plans to incorporate more art in public spaces. (EGP photo  by Nancy Martinez)

This large sculpture sits in front of a business in the city of Commerce, which plans to incorporate more art in public spaces. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Similar programs in the cities of Downey, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs have generated a collection of nationally recognized artwork throughout each of those cities. In nearby Downey, public art pieces include a descending sphere sculpture, a headstone of Governor John Gately Downey and a sculpture portraying the Roman god Neptune gripping a trident.

In Santa Fe Springs, over one hundred pieces of permanent art have been installed in the city since the program was implemented in 1989.

Public art installations, however, are rare in Commerce. Two of the more notable works include a sculpture of a tire at the Citadel Outlets and a steel sculpture standing dozens of feet tall in front of a large warehouse in the city’s southern border.

According to Jimenez, the city will not impose design requirements for the artwork, but he noted that many of the existing art installations reflect the city’s “industrial heritage.”

City staff originally proposed that the ordinance apply to all new construction over $500,000, but council members asked staff in June to lower the threshold amount in hopes of capturing more projects.

“We would encourage any existing property to provide some level of art,” Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio said during the June 21 meeting. “Maybe we can work with those in lieu of fees to add art to the properties that have greater exposure to the community.”

Existing businesses that spend $250,000 or more on a remodel or upgrades to their sites will also be required to abide by the new ordinance, but the council cautioned that they do not want to burden businesses currently in the city.

“They have been here for years, they paid their dues,” said Baca Del Rio. “We would like to see them participate, but not in the matter or expense of a new business,” she said.

Jimenez told EGP the program, which has been on the books for years, will “bring art for all to enjoy and generate something unique for us in our community.”

A second reading of the ordinance will take place at the Sept. 20 council meeting; it will take effect 30 days later.

 

Judge Rejects Lawsuit Challenging Measure M Language

September 6, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A judge Tuesday rejected a petition filed on behalf of Commerce and 7 other cities seeking significant changes in the ballot language for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed half-cent county sales tax measure, saying there was no evidence the wording was confusing to voters.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel said Measure M is not an initiative and therefore did not require the ballot language specifics sought in the action filed last week by the cities of Carson, Commerce, Norwalk, Torrance, Santa Fe Springs, Ranchos Palos Verdes and Signal Hill.

The petition alleged that the ballot label for Measure M did not include the actual 1 percent total rate of the tax to be imposed. The petitioners also claimed the ballot label for Measure M does not state that the proposed tax would be permanent.

Carson Mayor Albert Robles said after the hearing that he and the other coalition members were disappointed with the ruling and are considering an appeal. He said Metro’s argument that the coalition was required to seek help from the Legislature was not an option because it would have been too late to do so in time for the November election.

“All we are seeking is transparency,” Robles said, adding, “The voters shouldn’t be misled and confused.”

Signal Hill City Councilman Larry Forester said many residents of the southern part of Los Angeles County do not have access to computers in order to read background material on Measure M.

“It’s a sad day for voters,” Forester said.

The petitioners said the ballot measure leads voters to believe that there will be an equal distribution of projects. In reality, projects in the western and northern of the regions of the county will take priority, while southern Los Angeles County regions will not see any benefits until 2039-2040, according to the petitioners.

“The plaintiffs attempted to mislead the voters with a politically motivated lawsuit, but the court ruled today that there was no evidence the wording is confusing to voters,” said Yusef Robb of the campaign on behalf of Measure M in response to the judge’s decision.

“Measure M is clear on what it will do: ease congestion and make transportation improvements Countywide and in each of L.A. County’s 88 cities … The plaintiffs should stop interfering with the voters’ right to make their own judgment on Measure M.” Robb said in written statement.

Cities Claim Measure M Misleading, File Lawsuit

August 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Attorneys for a coalition of seven Los Angeles County cities will try again Tuesday to file a request for an accelerated hearing on a lawsuit filed last week on behalf of taxpayers concerning the
ballot language for Measure M, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed half-cent county sales tax ballot action.

The Los Angeles Superior Court petition filed by the cities of Carson, Commerce, Norwalk, Torrance, Santa Fe Springs, Ranchos Palos Verdes and Signal Hill alleges that the ballot label for Measure M is misleading and does not include the actual 1 percent total rate of the tax to be imposed. Lawyers for the petitioners arrived too late to Judge Mary H. Strobel’s courtroom today for a hearing.

The petitioners also say that the ballot label for Measure M does not state that the proposed tax is permanent.

Measure M opponents say that the ballot measure leads voters to believe that there will be an equal distribution of projects, according to the petitioning cities. In reality, projects in the western and northern of the regions of the county will take priority, while southern Los Angeles County
regions will not see any benefits until 2039-2040, the petitioners say.

The group is asking a judge in a suit filed Friday to correct what they maintain are numerous inaccuracies, misstatements and misrepresentations by amending the ballot label so that voters can cast an informed vote.

“The public deserves, and the law requires, a transparent, accurate description of tax Measure M, including spending priorities,” said G. Ross Trindle, the lead attorney for the petitioning cities.

“At a minimum, state law requires the ballot label to disclose how much money Measure M will cost taxpayers every year and it does not do that. The public will not receive this essential information from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s current title and description of Measure M, which is critical for taxpayers to cast an informed vote.”

Measure M “does not meet the simple test of fairness and equity,” said Carson Mayor Albert Robles. “But you wouldn’t know that from its current description. If Measure M passes, taxpayers in about 50 communities, representing at least 2 million residents, will be paying for Measure M
forever, but won’t see any traffic relief on their freeways and roads for decades down the line.”

Southeast Areas Question Measure M Benefits

August 25, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Located along the state’s worst traffic bottleneck, the city of Commerce has for decades had to deal with more than its fair share of traffic, yet it’s unlikely that a proposed half-cent sales tax hike going before voters in November will help alleviate the area’s transportation woes anytime soon.

Home to hundreds of distribution and manufacturing businesses and located along a major rail yard and network of freeways, Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa points out that the city is one of the country’s busiest “ports.”

“We get a significant amount of traffic based on the role Commerce plays in the regional distribution of goods,” but he said the “dry port” receives no special state or federal funding to support its role in the goods movement.

“This is a regional place of investment and employment,” but “the southeast won’t see the benefits of this new tax for the first 15 years,” Rifa told EGP.

In November, voters will decide whether to approve an added half-cent sales tax that could generate at least $860 million annually for highway and street repairs, transportation improvements, and new rails and bus lines in Los Angeles County. If approved by the two-third margin required to raise taxes, the half-cent bump would start in 2017, permanently increasing the Measure R temporary half-cent sales tax hike to a full cent.

Measure R was approved by voters in 2008 as a temporary increase and is currently set to sunset in 2039.

Metro officials tout Measure M as a solution to the region’s traffic congestion problems that will also improve air quality and create jobs.

Large trucks overflow into the streets surrounding the I-5 and 710 freeways in Commerce, creating gridlock traffic throughout the day. (EGP photo archive)

Large trucks overflow into the streets surrounding the I-5 and 710 freeways in Commerce, creating gridlock traffic throughout the day. (EGP photo archive)

Rifa counters that in Commerce the claim should be accompanied by “fine print that says ‘20 years from now.’”

Like Measure R, Measure M would earmark funds generated for specific transportation projects outlined in an expenditure plan. The proposal has angered communities along the County’s southeast corridor that accuse Metro’s Board of pushing Measure R approved projects to the back burner under Measure M’s new expenditure plan.

Unhappy that improvements to the I-5 and 710 freeways and other regional transportation plans would be delayed under Measure M, the 23 cities that make up the Gateway Cities Council of Government are now spearheading an educational outreach campaign to specifically inform voters what Measure M’s impact would or would not have in the region.

In Commerce, the impact goes beyond the obvious traffic and environmental concerns and deals directly with the region’s goods movement, says Eddie Tafoya, executive director of the Commerce Industrial Council – Chamber of Commerce.

“We get a significant amount of traffic based on the role Commerce plays in the regional distribution of goods,” he explains. “If it’s not Vernon, it’s Commerce,” he told EGP.

Metro’s Chief Communication Officer Pauletta Tonilas told EGP it’s important to note that the agency has been working on its expenditure plan for years.

“We understand that not everyone is thrilled but this plan reflected what we heard from stakeholders,” she said. “We believe it is balanced and equitable.”

Currently, Commerce generates about $8 million a year in Measure R sales tax revenue for the county, but annually only gets back about $150,000. The city’s contribution would double to $16 million under Measure M, but it would only receive around $300,000 a year based on its population.

Tafoya is quick to point out however that while the industrial city only has 13,000 residents, its daytime population swells to nearly 80,000 people when you take into account the number of workers who flock to the city.

An additional 230,000 jobs are located in communities bordering the I-5 Freeway, including Downey, La Mirada, Montebello, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, Vernon in addition to Commerce.

“These jobs are all predicated on the use of freeways and yet [Metro] won’t be touching the I-5 for another 20 years,” complains Rifa.

Tonilas pointed out that not all major projects could be funded at once.

“Everything can’t happen in the first 10 years,” she told EGP. “The time sequence was based on when funds would be available.”

The Industrial Council surveyed businesses in the city and according to Tafoya, over 40 percent responded that traffic congestion is the leading reason they would consider moving out of L.A. County.

There’s no escaping that the high volume of goods traveling through the region leads to more truck traffic and congestion, said Tafoya, noting that “the I-5 is a parking lot.”

“This has a detrimental impact to the economy and quality of life,” he points out.

Tonilas says private-public partnerships would allow businesses to help fund and accelerate some projects.

Last week, the Commerce City Council approved $20,000 to support Gateway Cities’ public outreach efforts in the southeast region. Half of the money will be used to fund a local informational campaign.

“We think, as a region and community, [the plan is] short of being balanced,” Rifa told EGP. “The corridor has been shortchanged.”

Mayor Ivan Altamirano, who pushed for more funding for outreach, agrees. “I really think that’s very little to what we can potentially lose here,” he told EGP.

Before the vote, Councilman Hugo Argumedo noted that efforts to inform voters about what’s at stake locally would be an uphill battle.

“I’m sorry to say this guys, we can say $100,000, but guess what, we’re going to be outgunned,” he told the council, explaining the importance of mobilizing efforts in areas where there are the most votes.

Because city funds are being used, the materials distributed must walk a fine line of educating and not campaign against the measure.

The city, however, is no stranger to voicing its views on transportation projects and their local impacts.

Commerce has been front and center in talks about the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension Phase 2 project. The city was successful in convincing Metro to consider a route that would include a light rail stop within its borders.

Rifa told EGP the transit measure has been and will continue to be a regular fixture on the city’s agenda as city officials are frustrated with the totality of the plan connected to the new tax.

“The southeast was a huge supporter of Measure R, now we are being ignored,” he said. “The balance has been lost and we must protect our jobs.”

 

Coming Together at National Night Out

August 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Dozens of block parties were held across the Southland Tuesday night, drawing thousands of residents to join with local police officers, sheriff’s deputies and elected officials as part of the annual National Night Out crime-prevention event.

As many as 38 million people across the country were expected to take part in National Night Out activities, which annually takes place on the first Tuesday in August. Chief among its goals is to promote a partnership between the police and the community, which this year has been under greater strain due to some controversial police-involved-shootings and the ambush-style deadly assaults on police officers in recent weeks.

In Boyle Heights, the National Night observance included a peace march denouncing crime and violence.

LAPD National Night Out Santiago

(Office of Assemblymember Miguel Santiago)

Some cities, like Commerce, hosted BBQ-style block parties while other cities like Bell Gardens and Montebello held larger events at local parks that featured demonstrations from K-9 units, information booths and displays of public safety vehicles, to the delight of many children.

Started in 1984, National Night Out is billed as “America’s night out against crime.” It is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch and co-sponsored by local municipalities and law enforcement agencies nationwide.

(City of Bell Gardens)

(City of Bell Gardens)

The event initially began as a call for people to hold small public gatherings in a take-back-the-streets show of community pride.

Over the years, the event has grown to include block parties, parades, movie screenings and picnics.

(City of Commerce)

(City of Commerce)

During the event, residents are encouraged to lock their doors, turn on their front house lights and join with neighbors, law enforcement and Neighborhood Watch leaders at local neighborhood events. Activities vary by event but generally include free food, police and fire displays, live entertainment and a chance to interact with city officials and local police officers.

Information from City news Service used in this report.

 

FPPC Considering Deal to Lower Councilwoman’s Fines

July 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Despite facing the largest proposed penalty ever against a sitting local elected official, Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio could ultimately see her fine for campaign ethics violations reduced by nearly half under a tentative settlement agreement with the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Baca Del Rio is accused of illegally transferring $8,000 in campaign funds into her personal bank account, using campaign funds to pay for expenses related to a kitchen remodel and failing to file contributions and campaign statements in a timely manner.

Citing Baca Del Rio’s past history of similar violations and fines, the FPPC’s enforcement division proposed fining the councilwoman $104,000 for 24 violations of the Political Reform Act.

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.

News of the new allegations prompted calls for Baca Del Rio’s ouster at the July 19 Commerce City Council meeting, just two days before FPPC commissioners were scheduled to vote on the fine recommendation. The councilwoman was noticeably absent at the meeting, the first since the FPPC’s allegations were made public.

“Tina Baca Del Rio should resign from the city council immediately,” demanded Charlie Calderon during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Baca Del Rio was in Sacramento July 21, the same day FPPC commissioners were scheduled to vote on the proposed fine. Informed that the councilwoman was meeting with enforcement division officials and a settlement deal could be in the works, commissioners agreed to push back their decision until later in the meeting.

In a July 18 letter to the Commission, Baca Del Rio states she was scared when served with the FPPC’s accusations before a Commerce council meeting, She attributed her unresponsiveness to election regulators to not being able to find a qualified attorney to represent her that she could afford.

“I did not know what to do and did not understand all of the allegations,” Baca Del Rio writes in the letter. “Some of the allegations were true, but there were also a number of inaccuracies,” her letter claims.

Baca Del Rio denied she misappropriated campaign funds, claiming to have been paying herself back for campaign loans. FPPC investigators said they found no evidence to support her claim.

In the letter, Baca Del Rio also admits to not following the FPPC’s process for challenging or settling the charges, writing that she was unaware she was required to submit a Notice of Defense.

“I did not really read that document carefully,” she confesses.

An FPPC attorney informed commissioners they had reached a tentative agreement with Baca Del Rio under which she would admit to 12 of the 24 charges against her, and pay a significantly reduced fine of $55,000. Only one of the four charges for misuse of campaign funds would be dropped, said Virginia Castillo, senior attorney for the department. Castillo asked the Commission to hold off its decision until their next meeting on Aug. 18, giving staff more time to finalize a formal agreement.

“I was prepared to accept the default decision order based on the history of this case,” responded Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke, who pointed out that she and the other commissioners were not expecting a last minute settlement given the history of the case.

Commissioners expressed reluctance to allowing a settlement without assurances that the agreement was fully enforceable. In the past, officials in these types of cases would come with check in hand, noted Commissioner Gavin Wasserman.

“The settlement should be firm enough that there is no doubt to it,” emphasized Remke.

Without going into details of the tentative agreement, Enforcement Division Chief Galena West said the department encouraged the settlement because it took the burden off collections.

Commissioners agreed to take up the case again in 30 days, but not before reserving their right to reject the agreement if they conclude the penalties are not strong enough.

Back in Commerce, former city councilwoman Sylvia Munoz – a longtime political rival of Baca Del Rio — repeatedly asked the council and city staff whether Baca Del Rio was going to step down.

“The community would like to know what the attorney or city clerk are going to do about it,” she said.

The questioning prompted Councilwoman Lilia Leon to interrupt Munoz, reminding her that the council is not allowed to respond to public comments.

Councilman Hugo Argumedo’s campaign finances also came under attack during the meeting when former Commerce parks and recreation worker and Mayor Sam blog writer Scott Johnson, read for the record a letter he said was from the Leading Edge political consulting firm stating that Argumedo has never used or paid the firm for services as stated in his campaign disclosures. Argumedo responded to the allegations by assuring the gallery he personally knows the firm’s owner and would get to the bottom of the issue.

“I’m not sure who you called, who provided the information they gave you, but it seems to be inaccurate, it’s wrong,” he said.

Falsely reporting campaign donations or payments for services is a violation of election regulations.

Argumedo was first elected to the council in 1996 but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of signing a false statement during a civil lawsuit in 2010. He was barred from holding office for three years, and reelected in 2015 after his prohibition to holding office ended.

Baca Del Rio was first elected in 2005, recalled in 2008 and reelected a few months later in 2009 and again in 2013.

FPPC commissioners said last week that they expected Baca Del Rio to pay the $55,000 fine before they would agree to final approval of the reduced charges. Election regulations prohibits Baca Del Rio from using campaign funds to pay the portion of the penalties associated with the misappropriation charges; those funds have to be paid out of her own pocket.

Man Killed on 5 Freeway Identified

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Authorities today identified a man who was killed in a traffic crash on the northbound Santa Ana (5) Freeway in Commerce.

Ricardo Martinez-Reymundo, 62, was identified as the man who died at the scene of the crash early Wednesday, said acting Lt. B. Kim of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

The crash occurred about 4:30 a.m. north of Garfield Avenue, California Highway Patrol Officer Francisco Villalobos said. The crash shut down two lanes for about two-and-a-half hours.

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