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.

Exide Complaints Go On Record

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

For several years now, Joe Gonzalez of Boyle Heights has voiced his complaints to officials with the Department of Toxic Substances Control; repeating himself at nearly every Exide-related meeting he attended.

“They know me by now, they’ve heard it all before,” he told a City Terrace resident Monday outside the latest public meeting seeking input on the decontamination process for residential properties contaminated with lead by the now shuttered battery recycler.

On Monday, for the first time, his and the statements of others were recorded for the official public record on the cleanup process, something Gonzalez has urged DTSC officials to do for years.

“Regulars” like him have attended dozens of public hearings and meetings since air quality regulators forced the Vernon-based plant to suspend operations in March 2013 and to inform over 110,000 east and southeast Los Angeles County residents of their elevated cancer risks due to toxic emissions.

Gonzalez contends there would already be an accurate and transparent record of what residents have said during the closure process if their hundreds of hours of testimony and public comment had been videotaped or recorded for the official record.

As a result, “There is no oral history of what we’ve been through” for the public or elected officials to refer back to, adds Teresa Marquez of Boyle Heights.

That changed Monday, however, when residents and environmental activists spoke on the record, often repeating what they’ve said at past meet meetings about what DTSC should consider in preparing for what some environmental experts believe could be the largest toxic cleanup in state history.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), DTSC is required to consider and release its cleanup plan and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for public review, which is to be documented by a court-mandated recorder. The document will cover the potential effects of removing and transporting lead tainted soil during the cleanup of homes within 1.7 miles of the Exide plant. The same process took place when the state agency presented an

EIR outlining how Exide plans to clean the now permanently closed facility in Vernon.

“I’m glad, in this case, there is a formal record” of what we want state regulators to do, Marquez told EGP.

Unlike recent scoping meetings in Huntington Park and Commerce where attendance was light, well over 100 people attended Monday’s meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.

More than a hundred residents, from Boyle Heights to Maywood, attended the Exide EIR scoping meeting at Resurrection Church Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

More than a hundred residents, from Boyle Heights to Maywood, attended the Exide EIR scoping meeting at Resurrection Church Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“We have attended meeting after meeting,” observed Rev. Monsignor John Moretta. “Your presence is important,” Moretta emphasized.

Comments from all three scoping meetings focused on concerns that the residential cleanup itself is not being done efficiently and thoroughly. A large number of residents at the meetings have asked that the 1.7-mile radius be expanded to include more communities.

“Expand the scope,” demanded David Petit, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Lead doesn’t decide to follow one side of the street but not the other.”

Other residents asked that the state agency consider decontaminating the inside of homes and parkways, and that the cleanup be done block by block to avoid re-exposure.

“You can’t just clean one property here and there and expect the whole neighborhood to be cleaned,” said Gonzalez.

Drawing outrage from many was the protracted timeline for starting the cleanup, which cannot begin until the EIR process is completed in June 2017.

So far, 236 of the estimated 10,000 homes possibly contaminated with lead have been cleaned.

“We still have a long way to go,” noted Carlos Montes. “It took years for us to force them to close the plant down and it will take years for them to finish the cleanup.”

Terry Cano, a lifelong Boyle Heights resident, has repeatedly told DTSC officials her family has suffered many health issues over the years. Her block is home to residents suffering with various forms of cancers, she claims are the result of constant lead exposure.

“I have never seen any plan … [detailing what can be done to protect] the health of the community,” Cano told state regulators. “We need to know the cumulative effects of being exposed to toxins.”

Cano is also angry that the public cannot access the results of soil tests taken from area schools, a complaint made by many residents since the fallout from Exide’s lead and arsenic emissions became public.

“I have asked this specifically, that needs to be available now,” Cano demanded.

Gonzalez told EGP he would not be happy until minutes from all Exide related meetings are available to the public.
“There’s a court reporter now, [but] only because it is required under CEQA,” he pointed out.
Montes told EGP there may now be a paper trail of their concerns, but he’s not sure where it will lead.

“It’s great that we have a record of our concerns and complaints,” he said. “But we will have to wait to see if they do anything about it.”

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

Man Killed on Santa Ana Freeway in Commerce

July 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A man was killed Wednesday in a traffic crash on the northbound Santa Ana (5) Freeway in Commerce, authorities said.

The man, possibly in his 60s, died at the scene of his injury, which occurred about 4:30 a.m. north of Garfield Avenue, said California Highway Patrol Officer Francisco Villalobos. His name was withheld, pending family notification.

Two right lanes were blocked while an investigation was conducted into the circumstances of the crash, Villalobos said. One was reopened about 6:30 a.m. and the other was reopened a half hour later.

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

Few Attend Exide Meeting On Residential Cleanup Plan

June 30, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

East and southeast Los Angeles County residents had an opportunity Saturday to have a say in the process to decontaminate their homes and other properties tainted with lead from the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon, in what is expected to be California’s largest cleanup effort ever.

However, while more than 100,000 people may have been put at risk from the toxic exposure, only about a dozen people showed up to the first meeting where their comments on how to go about removing the contamination from their homes would actually be on the record.

Lea este artículo en Español: Pocos Residentes Asisten a Reunión de Limpieza Residencial de Exide

For some residents, Saturday’s meeting at Raul R. Perez Memorial Park in Huntington Park was the first Exide-related meeting they had ever attended. For others, it was the first time they would hear that their homes and families could possibly be in danger from exposure to cancer-causing arsenic and lead.

Lucia Kikunaga of Maywood told officials from the Department of Toxic Substance Control she was stunned when she received the mailer informing her of the meeting and that there could possibly be toxic chemicals in her home.

Kikunaga’s revelation was surprising given that there have been dozens of meetings and hearings over the last two years regarding the health hazard caused by the battery recycling plan in Vernon. Hundreds of hours of testimony and protests have taken place to date.

Of the handful of residents who spoke Saturday, a majority expressed concern over what they claim is a lack of outreach to their community.

“Public outreach is a key component in our efforts to keep the community informed about the Exide cleanup,” DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax told EGP, responding to the criticism. “We use a variety of methods to communicate in both English and Spanish.”

The state agency has sent out thousands of postcards, canvassed neighborhoods, set up drop-in information centers, a hotline and used social media to reach out to residents in the impacted areas, he added.

Yet, Kikunaga wasn’t the only person at the meeting to say they were unaware of the Exide catastrophe or efforts to clean up the aftermath.

An Exide scoping meeting was held in Huntington Park Saturday Very few residents were in attendance. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

An Exide scoping meeting was held in Huntington Park Saturday Very few residents were in attendance. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“I always knew there was major pollution in our communities because we live in an industrial area, but this is very serious,” longtime Maywood resident Zoila Flores said in disbelief.
DTSC plans to test the soil of 10,000 properties within 1.7-miles of the Exide plant and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead by July 2018. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), before cleanup can begin DTSC must prepare an environmental impact report that will disclose the potential effects of mitigation efforts such as soil removal and transporting tainted material away from properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon.

On Saturday, it was clear that residents like Leonor Casillas still need basic information before they can begin to give input into what the cleanup process should look like.

Casillas told DTSC staff she had no idea there could be lead in the backyard of her Maywood home. She’s worried there may be a correlation with her husband’s cancer.

“What are the health impacts? And what else is going on in our area,” she asked Saturday.
DTSC, the lead regulatory agency charged with the cleanup, has already tested more than 2,000 homes and cleaned up over 200 homes within the preliminary investigation area, according to the agency. Residents from surrounding areas have repeatedly asked that DTSC expand the area where they are testing properties for lead, claiming the danger is much wider spread.

A second meeting to gather input from the public will be held today, June 30 at 6:30p.m at Commerce City Hall.

The EIR process, which involves public review, meetings and hearings, is expected to be completed around July 2017, a timeline state officials call “aggressive.” EIRs tend to take at least a year and a half, says DTSC’s Kimberly Hudson.

“It is common to extend the public review period,” she added, meaning the process could go longer if community members feel more input is required.

In the meantime, Flores told DTSC they should not forget about impacted areas like Maywood, just because it’s home to a large Latino and undocumented population,

“With so much effort we have been paying for our homes,” she said about the struggle to buy a home. “When it comes to selling our homes, what is going to happen,” she asked, worried the contamination could cause her home value to drop.

“Some of us are scared because we don’t know what the cleanup process is and we don’t want our properties taken from us,” echoed Manuel Borjas, referring to the fear among some residents that the process could lead to them losing their homes through eminent domain or being forced to leave their homes for a long period.

DTSC officials, however, assured Borjas and others in the room that the cleanup process takes less than 5 days and homes would not be damaged or taken through eminent domain.

“Well I don’t see any of that in your packet,” responded Borjas. “That is very important information for the people in my community who are not here because they are scared,” he said.

Looking around the room and seeing so few residents present, Kikunaga told EGP that residents must to do their part to hold the state accountable.

“I know nuestra raza, I tried to encourage my neighbors to attend and some just don’t care.”

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