Two longtime Bell Gardens councilwoman who until recently were close friends, made it clear Monday there is “no turning back,” with each accusing the other of being unfit for office.
The tit-for-tat of accusations became public during the March 13 council meeting, when Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez accused Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores of not living in the city, a violation of election law. On Monday, Flores responded by calling for an investigation into the finances of a nonprofit group run by Rodriguez.
According to Flores, she has received multiple complaints from parents who participated in Heroes of Dreams accusing Rodriguez of collecting fees for trips and lessons that never happened.
She also accused Rodriguez of failing to include information related to the nonprofit’s finances in in her Statement of Economic Interest, a form required by the Fair Political Practices Commission that must be submitted annually and is used to determine potential conflicts of interests.
“Where is that money going,” asked Flores, estimating the group had collected thousands of dollars in fees.
“Investigate all that you want because there is nothing there,” Rodriguez shot back, challenging her accusers to come forward. “I swear, on my daughter, I did not make a penny,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the nonprofit status of Heroes of Dreams – started to teach young children to perform on stage – was only active for a few months. She later told EGP a lawyer is helping her complete documents she did not know needed to be filed.
Flores accused Rodriguez of violating conflicts of interest laws by using city facilities free of charge for her financial benefit. She later told EGP facility rental fees should not have been waived for Rodriguez because it implies her group’s activities are city sponsored.
According to city records, Rodriguez used the facility periodically over the last year free of charge, most recently in December of 2016.
Recreation and Community Services Director Chris Daste, told EGP it’s “not out of the ordinary” to allow city facilities to be used free of charge for activities that benefit local youth and are a good cause, as long as there is no requirement for city staff to be on site.
If the group is profiting from the activity, however, “that would certainty be an issue,” he said.
Rodriguez scoffs at Flores’ claims she pocketed money, saying many of the children were not charged a dime.
“If anything, I have forked money out of my own pocket,” she said.
Rodriguez told EGP funds collected were used to lease studio space in Bell; rent on the site is now past due.
She complained that other council members have used city facilities for free and it was never a problem until now.
The latest round of accusations come on the heels of the city filing a complaint in Superior Court that alleges Rodriguez “vacated” her office after missing 10 of the 20 council meetings held in 2016. Rodriguez maintains her absences were related to an ongoing illness, but has refused to submit proof fearing it will be used against her.
Rodriguez fired back against the effort to oust her by launching a barrage of accusations against Flores and Councilman Pedro Aceituno. She demanded staff look into the legality of Aceituno holding two elected offices at the same time: he was elected to the Central Basin Municipal Water District board last November.
In response to Rodriguez’ allegations about her residency, Flores Monday asked city staff to conduct an investigation and report back its findings at the next council meeting.
“Even if she lived there a few months, that’s still a violation of the law,” maintains Rodriguez.
According to Flores, she invested in property in Downey but never lived there.
On Monday, Flores listed properties Rodriguez owns outside Bell Gardens and accused her fellow councilwoman of using a property owned by Flores, without her consent, to enroll her child in a school outside Bell Gardens. Rodriguez previously pointed out that Flores’ children do not attend Bell Gardens schools.
Rodriguez laughed off claims about using Flores’ address. She defended her decision to send her son to a Downey high school, saying the political climate at the time made it necessary.
“I wanted to protect him,” she said, adding it was Flores’ idea to use her address.
Rodriguez told EGP she expected retaliation, in fact she expected more.
“It doesn’t faze me anymore,” she said. “A couple of months ago it would have, but not anymore.”
One thing she is certain, Rodriguez believes the rest of the council will point the finger at her just as others have in the past, noting, “history repeats itself.”
“They will say I started this drama …[and] Yes I did,” said Rodriguez. “And there’s still much more to say.”
Updated April 13 11:20 a.m. to correct date of council meeting.
Measure M is about two L.A.’s.
One is the invisible L.A., our L.A., the Southeast and South Bay parts of the county. The L.A. that is invisible to the people who wrote Measure M. The L.A. that would pay for Measure M right away, and would wait for decades to see results.
The other L.A. is wealthy L.A., downtown L.A., West L.A. – the L.A. that wrote Measure M, and that would benefit from it right from the start.
That’s why our L.A. needs to say no to Measure M.
Let’s talk details:
Measure M is the sales tax increase that MTA put on the November ballot. It raises the sales tax a half-cent – forever. For good measure, it makes the half-cent increase from the last transit tax, which was going to expire – it makes that permanent too.
That money, which pushes our sales tax up over 9.50 percent and in some cities like Commerce to 10 percent, goes to pay for a long list of transportation improvement projects. Projects are in just about every part of the county – new light rail lines, freeway improvements, more buses.
And in the San Fernando Valley, in the San Gabriel Valley, in West L.A. – Measure M might be a pretty good deal. Billions of dollars are set aside for the projects in those parts of the county, and if Measure M passes, those projects start almost right away.
But if you live in Commerce, or in Norwalk, or Carson, or Paramount, or Torrance, or Long Beach – if you are one of the millions of us in the Southeast and South Bay, this is what they tell us.
They tell us that improving traffic on the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass – that’s important to everyone, whether you live there or not. And they tell us that improving traffic on the 405 along the South Bay Curve – that can wait.
Building the Gold Line out from Azusa to Claremont – that’s important to everyone. So important in fact, that they call it the brain train”. And they tell us that building a light rail line from Artesia, up through the southeast to Union Station – that can wait. (We’re not on the “brain train” apparently.)
And when we say “wait”, we mean wait. The Measure M Plan has a 2041 completion date for Artesia.
If you have a daughter who started kindergarten this year, she will be 14 when they finish that Gold Line extension to Claremont. But your daughter will be taking her first ride on that line from Artesia to Union Station when she’s 31. If you’re 35 today, you’ll be 43 when work starts on the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. But you can take your grandchildren with you to see them start work on the 405 along the South Bay Curve, because you’ll be 64.
Want one more? If you’re retiring this year at 65, you’ll be 74 when they finish work on the LA River Bikepath. But eat right and stay healthy if you want to see work finished on the southern stretch of the I-5, because they’ll be wrapping that up for your 90th birthday.
You can see the pattern. Work in the wealthy parts of the county goes first. Work in our part of the county comes later, much later. The people in charge of MTA, the downtown L.A. power brokers – they wrote Measure M. They put our projects at the end – and they put the projects for the wealthy parts of the county up front.
They turn around and say, vote for Measure M. They say, start paying for Measure M right now. They say, wait, and wait, and wait, we’ll get to you.
Now, we are not saying put all of our projects ahead of everyone else’s projects. We are not saying projects in other parts of the county aren’t important also. We are just saying – don’t put us at the back of the bus. We are just saying that we live here too, and traveling back and forth, to work, to school, to family and friends – it isn’t easy for us either.
We all share the cost of Measure M – we should all share the work that Measure M pays for – in our lifetime.
None of this should have been a surprise downtown. We’ve been asking for help with our freeways, we’ve been asking for more bus service and new light rail service for years. If they’d treated us like Angelinos, just like the people who live in the Valley or in Westwood – this could have been different.
But they didn’t. They treated us, the Southeast, as if we were invisible. So the only way now we can make them see us, is to vote NO on Measure M – start over – and do it right.
Jon R. Reno is president of the Commerce Industrial Council Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Director. Eddie D. Tafoya is the Chamber’s CEO & Executive Director.
Concerned that the corruption scandals in some Southeast Los Angeles County areas might taint their own reputations, cities in the region have distanced themselves from one another and for the most part chosen to go it alone, strictly focusing on what goes on within their borders.
That changed last week when area leaders and residents came together to highlight their strengths and to begin to construct a new narrative for the region, one which they hope will lead to greater public and private investment to create more jobs, better schools and bring other resources.
“Regionalization allows our community to work together to leverage funds,” pointed out Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) during the discussion on communities located along the SR-710 Corridor.
“It allows us to be more influential,” Lara emphasized.
The Oct. 27 “Summit of Possibilities: People, Community and Progress” was hosted by the Pat Brown Institute and the California Community Foundation and focused on the regional potential of the southeast portion of Los Angeles County, including Commerce, Cudahy, Bell, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Downey, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Maywood, Paramount, South Gate and Vernon.
The cities are densely populated and home to a blue-collar workforce surrounded by industry, described opening speaker, Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics.
Of the 750,000 people who call the area home, nearly 90 percent are Hispanic, according to the data from Beacon Economics, which also showed that a large number of the residents are fairly young, low-income and have not completed high school.
For most in the room, the information came as no surprise.
“If you lived in the area you already knew this,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice.
A majority of the housing stock is still single-family homes, Thornberg said, suggesting that the cities should invest in building more multi-family housing units to accommodate the Southeast’s growing population.
“This place is ripe for high density, transportation-oriented communities,” Thornberg said. “Given the size of population…single family [housing] is not appropriate.”
It was a suggestion that did not sit well with some of the residents in the audience.
“How can you build when you don’t have space,” Mary Johnson of South Gate asked.
Another resident wanted to know if transforming the area into a technology hub is feasible?
Thornberg suggested cities would be better served by focusing their energies on ensuring existing businesses, especially the large number of manufacturing companies still operating in the region, succeed.
The region has some of the worst air pollution in the state but air quality could be improved and jobs created through better use of the Los Angeles River and pushing more of the goods movement on to the underutilized Alameda Corridor, the economist told Summit participants.
For Bell Gardens and Commerce, Thornberg said continued investment in the casinos in those cities is key to increasing revenue and jobs.
Cities must revisit their general plans, incentivize small builders and unite to compete for grants and businesses, Thornberg advised.
“If you get together you have clout,” he emphasized.
Every presenter acknowledged the event as a very important start to creating a new identify for the southeast region.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Maywood echoed that the southeast cities he represents are all densely populated, have high rates of poverty and lack resources such as community colleges, parks, courthouses and access to light rail transportation.
Still, he says he believes a “renaissance of the southeast” is on the horizon.
Many of the panelists said they recognize the answer to the region’s woes is greater investment in the next generation and incentivizing them to stay or return to their community.
“Our [communities] should not be places our folks have to leave,” said Lopez. “We need to look to the future, at retaining residents not displacing them.”
Access to high quality education is the key to retaining local talent, said Nadia Diaz Funn of Alliance for a Better Community.
She noted that 75 percent of the students from the 8 area high schools who attend Cal State LA are not proficient in math or English, and only 45 percent of those who attend graduate within 6 years.
“It has to begin at the schools that are serving our children,” Funn said.
Sen. Lara suggested it might take breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to make sure southeast area students aren’t neglected.
Currently, Cal State LA guarantees admission to students attending LA Unified schools in East Los Angeles who complete the Go East LA pathways program, Dunn pointed out, adding, “Where is the Southeast’s promise?”
It will take coordination, organizing and residents and elected officials demanding changes to make anything happen, panelists acknowledged.
Nonprofits and philanthropy must also be part of the conversation, panelists agreed.
“It was philanthropy that brought us together,” pointed out Dr. Juan Benitez of the Cal State Long Beach Center for Community Engagement.
“We have identified the southeast region as an area we want to focus on and provide resources,” responded Belen Vargas of the Weingart Foundation, which provides grants and other support to nonprofit groups.
Rendon, however, sharing his own experience in the nonprofit sector, expressed frustration that many companies believe the only way to help Latinos is to provide services in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
With part-time city council members and mayors, it’s often “overcompensated” city managers and administrators who act as the default policy makers, said Benitez. Ultimately, decisions are made through policies, she emphasized. The highly publicized corruption scandals that came out of Bell, Maywood and Vernon revolved around overpaid city administrators.
East Yard’s Lopez says the problem of political corruption needs to be part of the conversation. Holding elected officials accountable after the election is vital, but it will only happen with good community organizing and a clear vision, he said.
“We need baselines or else how will we know we achieved [anything],” Benitez said.
Speaker after speaker said the conversation at the Summit just touched the surface of the Southeast region’s needs, assets and potential power.
“We are all the southeast,” said Lara. “This cannot be the last time we meet, this has to be the new norm.”