A single vote goes a long way in Vernon, where a mere 41 residents can determine the outcome of an election.
That’s what happened last week during the city’s all mail-in election, when 41 of the city’s 86 registered voters blocked a measure to raise Vernon’s utility user tax and reelected a council woman to a five-year term.
While Vernon has 1,800 businesses that employ more than 50,000 people, only about 200 people actually call the city home. The decisions those voters make can have a huge impact on businesses whose bottom lines have long relied on the city being business friendly.
City Council Makes History
Voters reelected Melissa Ybarra, who ran unopposed in the April 11 election and received 32 of the 41 votes canvassed. Ybarra was first elected to office to serve out the remaining term of her father Michael A. Ybarra, who died September 2014. This will mark her first official five-year term.
On Tuesday, Ybarra made history when she was selected by her colleagues to serve as Vernon’s first woman mayor.
Yvette Woodruff-Perez will continue to serve as mayor pro tem, marking the first time both the mayor and mayor pro tem are women.
“Never before have you had a female majority or female leadership on the City Council, and I believe that this is more proof that the City of Vernon is breaking down barriers and becoming a model of change for the Southeast Los Angeles area,” Ybarra told EGP.
Measure Q Rejected
It took only 23 votes to defeat Measure Q – which would have raised the utility user tax from 1 percent to 6 percent for residents and businesses, generating an estimated $11 million to support city services.
It was an attempt by city officials to end the longstanding practice of using millions of dollars from Vernon’s profitable Gas & Electric Utility fund to subsidize the city’s budget shortfall. Although not illegal, the State discourages such transactions, viewing them as a hidden tax. The practice prompted credit rating company Moody’s Investor Service last year to downgrade the Vernon’s rating to a negative outlook.
Residents didn’t buy into the city’s claim that the impact to ratepayers would be minimal, and business owners previously questioned whether an offer of a 5 percent bill credit to cover the tax increase would be ongoing under the measure. Measure Q received only 14 yes votes.
The results are a sharp contrast to 2013 when voters approved a 1 percent utility user tax 34 to 7.
The election results were certified during Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Vernon will now have no choice but to continue its existing practice of transferring utility revenues to the general fund, City Administrator Carlos Fandino told EGP in an email.
Fandino had previously called Measure Q a way to fulfill one of the recommendations made to improve good governance practices in Vernon.
The results of last week’s election, however, do point to an evolution in voting patterns in a city state officials once sought to disincorporate because they believed the city had too few residents and that they were too closely tied to city officials to keep them honest. At the time, Vernon had 112 residents and nearly all of them lived in city-owned housing. Of the city’s 62 registered voters, 5 were councilmembers, 8 were related to a council member, 5 were city employees, and 7 were related to a city employee or contractor. Incumbents – who routinely and without question approved staff recommendations–usually ran unopposed; voters willingly passed measures put before them.
“The argument goes that this has led to self aggrandizement and favoritism to the elected and appointed city officials and their friends and relatives,” wrote the late John Van De Kamp in his first report as Vernon Independent Reform Monitor in 2011.
To avoid disincorporation, Vernon agreed to good governance reforms, including increasing the size of the city’s electorate. The Vernon Village apartment complex opened in 2014, doubling the number of residents and adding 29 new registered voters in the city.
Woodruff-Perez credits the doubling of the city’s housing stock and a new city council that is willing to go out and engage constituents, for giving both residents and businesses a voice.
“Looking forward, we have opportunities to build on this by increasing voter education and community engagement to become a leader not just in the Los Angeles area but the entire state,” Woodruff-Perez told EGP.
By 2015, a turnaround appeared to be taking hold, making incumbents less assured of reelection. Last year, a write-in candidate successfully replaced a longtime city official. Rejection of Measure Q further demonstrates the willingness of voters to oppose city leaders.
Fandino told EGP he is encouraged by the increased participation seen from the community.
“Along with the 170 reforms the city has made, this is another sign that the City of Vernon is a changed city.”
Vernon voters narrowly rejected a utility tax measure Tuesday, according to unofficial election results, but that could change once outstanding ballots are counted.
If approved, Measure Q would raise an estimated $11 million in general fund revenue, which would allow city officials to offset the millions of dollars currently transferred to the account from the Vernon Gas & Electricity Utility Enterprise fund. The measure received 12 votes in opposition and 10 votes in favor.
Voters also re-elected Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra, who ran unopposed and received 24 of the 26 votes canvassed. Ybarra was first elected to office to serve out the remaining term of her father Michael A. Ybarra, who died September 2014. This will mark her first official five-year term.
So far, 26 of the 43 ballots submitted during the all mail-in ballot election have been counted. The remaining ballots submitted at Vernon’s two polling locations Tuesday and postmarked by Election Day are scheduled to be canvassed Monday.
Vernon has 86 registered voters.
Local and state officials Wednesday mourned the death of John Van de Kamp, the former Los Angeles County district attorney and California attorney general.
Van de Kamp died at his home in Pasadena Tuesday after a brief illness, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was 81.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey called Van de Kamp “one of the most ethical and kind-hearted people I’ve ever met.”
“He was an admired public servant who dedicated his life to seeking justice,” Lacey said, noting that Van de Kamp established one of the nation’s first victim services programs during his tenure as district attorney.
“On a personal note, I am thankful for John’s wisdom and gentle guidance throughout my tenure,” Lacey said. “I frequently sought his advice and looked up to him as a stalwart of the justice system. Like many, I mourn his passing, and I will miss his wisdom, his wit and his kindness.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, who was also governor when Van de Kamp was district attorney, said “John was a wonderful public servant and had a real sense of justice.”
Said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger: “I am truly saddened by this news having just seen him recently. And while he’ll be remembered as an icon in county and state law and government and for his many years in public life, John Van de Kamp was also a great family man, and with his wife, Andrea, they were a powerhouse couple.”
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said he was “deeply saddened” by the death of his friend and mentor.
“An extraordinary leader of impeccable integrity, John never backed away from taking strong, principled stands on tough issues,” Feuer said.
“John was supremely effective at everything he did – always with a quiet confidence and devotion to public service that inspired generations of lawyers. My prayers are with Andrea and the Van de Kamp family at this difficult time.”
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Van de Kamp “lived for the values of justice and opportunity that define the state of California.
“I will forever be grateful for the confidence he showed in me from my earliest days of public service under his leadership at the California Department of Justice,” Becerra said. “Most recently, he was there for me again offering wise counsel, as I prepared to assume my role as attorney general of California.
“John understood the higher calling of public service. He performed for the people of California like few others.”
A graduate of Dartmouth College and Stanford Law School, Van de Kamp was a federal public defender before becoming the county’s top prosecutor.
Van de Kamp was Los Angeles County’s district attorney from 1975-1983.
During his tenure, his office handled many high-profile cases including the Hillside Strangler murders.
Van de Kamp was California’s attorney general from 1983-91. In 1990, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, losing to Dianne Feinstein, who lost the general election to Republican Pete Wilson.
Van de Kamp worked in private practice after leaving politics and remained active in environmental causes.
In 2011, he was retained to serve as Vernon’s independent ethics advisor as that city battled an effort by state lawmakers to dissolve it because of a corruption probe.
Van de Kamp’s role expanded and he was selected as the city’s independent special counsel in 2015, delivering his most recent biannual assessments of the city’s good governance practices on Jan. 31.
Vernon’s mayor and City Council members paid tribute to his service for the city Wednesday.
“It is with our deepest regard and respect that we mourn the passing of John Van de Kamp, a man who began as our trusted good governance advisor and, over time, became a dear friend to the people of Vernon and its vibrant business community,” Vernon Mayor William Davis said.
Citing Vernon’s ongoing budget deficit, debt obligation, pension contributions, unemployment rate, and property values, a recent report ranked Vernon as one of the state’s most distressed cities.
“While city utilities were profitable, they are heavily encumbered by debt,” Policy Analyst Marc Joffe writes in his report “California City And County Fiscal Strength Index – 2017 Update” published by the California Policy Center.
According to Joffe, the report’s findings are “based on empirical research that associates local government fiscal distress with weak revenue performance, high debt burdens and low or negative general fund balances.”
Using 2015 audits, the study assigned fiscal scores to every California city. The scores were based on the ratio of a city’s general fund balance to its expenditures, ratio of long-term obligations to government wide revenues, ratio of pension contributions to revenues, local unemployment rate and change in property values.
Of the 511 cities and counties analyzed, over 60 percent scored 90 or higher. Eight cities, including Vernon had scores below 50.
“If there’s another recession these cities are more vulnerable to bankruptcy than other cities,” Joffe told EGP.
Vernon reported revenues of $249 million in 2015, much of which is generated from the city-owned Vernon Gas and Electric utility. However, the city’s general fund was in the red by nearly $16 million, primarily = due to pension contributions and bond obligations.
Joffe compares a city’s general fund to a person’s checkbook, explaining a negative general fund balance is like an overdraft. He called such funding shortfalls a “prescription” for future problems that could lead to sudden cuts in services.
Vernon’s “debt is amazing considering how small the city is,” Joffe told EGP. “The key thing [for Vernon] is reducing debt and improving the general fund balance.”
Vernon’s City Administrator Carlos Fandino, however, says the report provides a “faulty assessment” of the city’s continued financial viability, business grown, employment strength and other key financial measurements.
“Vernon is far from being regarded as financially troubled, as our city’s annual audited financial statements will attest,” Fandino wrote in a statement to EGP.
But Joffe points to the $383 million in outstanding debts Vernon owed as of mid 2015, in addition to the over $5 million paid in pension contributions that year.
“The long-term obligation and pension contribution ratios provide insight into the government’s debt burden,” Joffe writes.
“The less debt relative to revenue, the better off you are,” he explained.
According to Fandino, Vernon faces the same fiscal challenges many other cities face with pension and retiree health obligations.
“Vernon has taken affirmative steps to address its responsibility to its retirees through the establishment of a trust,” he said.
Joffe suggested the city transfer more of its surplus monies from its enterprise accounts into its general fund, however, it was those types of transfers that led to Moody’s Investor Services last October downgrading Vernon’s bond rating to the lowest investment grade, citing the city’s reliance on general fund transfers.
Joffe tells EGP Vernon’s compensation classes are too high, and should not differ from other non-industrial municipalities.
Vernon has 271 city employees, but only an estimated 210 residents who call the city home. In another report, Joffe noted that employees are paid, on average, $107,838 per year, with several employees making more than $300,000 a year plus benefits.
“I’m not sure the services they provide to residents are any different than services provided in other cities,” Joffe told EGP. “A cop is a cop.”
On April 11, Vernon residents will vote on Measure Q, which if passed would increase the city’s utility users tax to generate more revenues to fund police, fire, and other public services,. The city says the tax will put an end to the city’s reliance on fund transfers.
“We know the passage of Measure Q will further improve Vernon’s standing with the State of California and better our city’s financial position on Wall Street,” Fandino argues in support of the measure.
Fandino noted that Vernon experienced $121.9 million in building activity in 2016, compared to $76 million in 2015.
“For a city the size of Vernon, that’s far from a picture of distress.”
Joffe told EGP the same study has been conducted nationwide in the country’s largest cities.
“We gather information and publish it,” he said. “The numbers don’t lie.”
When the public was presented the draft closure plan for the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant a year ago, dozens of residents, environmental activists and health experts took issue with some of the details, including safety protections for workers. They were also worried that the dismantling of the site could result in the recontamination of nearby communities.
Some of those concerns have been addressed in the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the closure approved and released Dec. 8 by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state regulatory agency handling the cleanup of the Vernon facility and surrounding communities.
DTSC has also just released the Draft Environmental Impact Report and Draft Remedial Action (Cleanup) Plan for the residential portion of the cleanup process, which is expected to undergo the same level of public scrutiny during the 45-day public comment period that ends at 5 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2017.
Smelting operations at the Exide plant – located on the 2700 block of South Indiana Street – were shut down by state regulators in March 2014, but not before exposing an estimated 110,000 eastside and southeast residents to cancer-causing and neurological damaging toxins. The facility was permanently closed the following year by federal regulators after racking up dozens of hazardous waste violations with near impunity.
Many of the recommendations submitted by the public are contained in the Final EIR for the plant closure, “resulting in a clearer analysis” and in several instances “modifications to the project and environmental mitigation,” according to DTSC.
The agency specifically responded to issues repeatedly raised during public meetings held at the beginning of this year and submitted in written form, related to concerns about worker health and safety, the removal of lead from on-site kettles, and the routes trucks transporting hazardous waste from the site will travel.
Over the last three years, at dozens of public meetings and hearings, those same groups have also demanded a safe and thorough cleanup of homes, parks, schools and other properties contaminated with lead and other toxic chemicals released by the Exide plant.
The just released draft EIR for that effort is a preliminary outline of the process DTSC plans to use to achieve that goal. As required by law, the 45-day public comment period for the draft cleanup plan and EIR gets underway today, with several public information sessions scheduled to take place in early January.
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP he is disappointed both documents were released during the holiday season, when residents tend to be busy and less likely to have the time needed to review such extensive reports.
“This is the worst betrayal of trust and transparency that has happened in a while,” Lopez said about the timing, noting he had not yet reviewed the draft EIR but wants to make sure it addresses problems he witnessed in the handling of the first stage of the residential cleanup involving 200 or so homes near the Exide plant.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee said she considered delaying the release of the document until after the holiday but ultimately decided against it.
“What we have consistently heard from community members is that getting the document out to be looked at, at the earliest time is the primary objective,” she said during a call with the press Wednesday.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who represents most of the neighborhoods impacted by Exide, said he was pleased that DTSC has finally released the documents for public review.
“This toxic and hazardous facility has been allowed to plague our community for far too long,” said Santiago. “I’m going to continue to demand that this clean-up happen in both a quick and quality manner and I’m prepared to engage legislatively with our community stakeholders to make sure that happens.”
Earlier this year, Lopez was among many who opposed reigniting the 100-ton kettles at the Exide plant as part of the lead removal strategy outlined in the draft closure plan. The concern being that the method could lead to recontamination.
“The kettle issue just didn’t seem to be headed in the right direction,” he told EGP Tuesday.
DTSC representatives could only document the comments made by the public during the review process, and not respond directly to his concerns until now. In the report released this month, the agency states it plans to reject the proposal to re-melt the lead in kettles after determining the method did not meet safety standards or protect the public, and points out there are alternatives to achieve the same goal.
DTSC also agreed that public comments concerning protections for workers were warranted. New conditions were added to the Final EIR, which require contractors to prepare a draft health and safety plan, comply with the most up-to-date standards for occupational lead exposure adopted by Cal/OSHA, even if they have not gone into effect, and to provide appropriate protection for workers operating in confined spaces.
Earlier this year, Dr. Jill Johnston, assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, suggested the agency adopt stricter rules to prevent any more workers from being poisoned by Exide.
Residents were also concerned that transporting lead from the Vernon facility through local neighborhoods for disposal could be dangerous, potentially again exposing residents and properties to a new round of cancer-causing toxins.
Formal comments included multiple requests for zero-emission trucks to be used in the transport and for greater oversight of the transportation routes.
According to DTSC’s report, however, “There are not enough zero-emission trucks available to provide the number required by the proposed project.” The agency went on to explain that the trucks used to transport hazardous waste removed from the plant will only contribute a small percentage of construction emissions.
“The use of zero-emission trucks would not substantially lessen air quality emissions and the impact would remain significant and unavoidable.”
The agency proposes implementing tougher engine standards, restrict idling of construction equipment to 5 minutes when not in use and using electric cranes when feasible among other mitigation measures.
Exide must submit its closure implementation plan and workers’ health and safety plan for review by DTSC, and obtain all the required permits before starting work on demolishing and removing structures at the site.
The closure process is expected to begin in Spring 2017 and is expected to take up to two years to complete.
The draft EIR is available for review at several local libraries and at http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/HazardousWaste/Projects/UpdteExideSuspension.cfm. Five public information sessions and three public meetings will be held between Jan. 10 and Jan. 28. For more information, see DTSC’s public notice on page 7 of this newspaper, or call toll free (844) 225-3887.
Vernon residents and businesses could soon see an increase in their utility bills under a proposed tax measure that could go before voters in April.
Business owners filled city hall chambers Tuesday to hear more about Measure Q, which if passed would increase the Utility User Tax (UUT) from 1 percent to 6 percent. The city council is expected to call for the measure to be placed on the April 11, 2017 election ballot during the January 10 council meeting.
“Business owners don’t have a vote but it’s important to educate them because they will be the ones affected by it,” explained City Administrator Carlos Fandino, quickly claiming the measure is not a revenue-generating measure but rather a good governance decision.
For years, Vernon has sought to shore up its budget deficits by transferring funds from the city’s profitable Gas and Electric Department to its general fund, an amount that reached $9 million in each of the last two years.
The practice recently prompted the credit rating company Moody’s Investor Service to downgrade the city’s rating to a negative outlook, Fandino said. The State of California discourages such transactions because it is viewed as a hidden tax.
To offset the increase, the city is prepared to offer electric utility customers a 5 percent bill credit equivalent to the utility tax increase, which would be covered by the elimination of the operating transfer.
All other utility customers, however, including water, gas, fiber optics and phone, will still see their bills go up by 6 percent.
Under the proposed rate increase, a moderate sized business should expect their water bills to go up $550. Residents on the other hand will see less than a $2 hike in fees.
If passed, Measure Q is expected to generate a net gain of $1 million, says Fandino, who says the city is simply “moving dollars from one bucket to the other.”
“It is still an increase,” says Peter Corselli, vice president of U.S. Growers Cold Storage, one of the city’s largest businesses.
“The cost of doing business in the city goes up,” added Henry Haskell, chief executive officer and president of Square-H Brands, Inc. “This is an increase on the backs of industry.”
Corselli told EGP his large business would see one of the highest jumps in the city, explaining that at $3 million a year, utility costs are his business’ second largest operating expense.
With just 300 residents in a city with over 1,800 businesses, Vernon prides itself for being business-friendly, often boasting that its utility rates are lower than those of neighboring utility companies.
The city has not raised gas prices since the city’s inception, according to Fandino.
Dave Gardena of Baker Commodities, however, told EGP rates have been going up for years and he does not understand why the city would increase electric rates only to credit it back.
“The revenue is still coming from utilities,” he said “It’s just a horse with a different color.”
When asked how long the 5 percent bill credit would be offered, Fandino said that answer would be determined by the results of the city’s yearly rate analysis.
Why does the city always look to increase utility rates when it needs to fill in the budget, one business owner asked? City Finance Director Bill Fox responded that Vernon is unique and its small population prevents it from generating revenue from other sources, such as taxes or local government returns that are calculated based on the size of a city’s residential population.
“When you have 300 residents you don’t get much of a share,” he said.
After the presentation, Haskell told EGP he’s now convinced that the increase is needed.
“I feel good about it,” he said. “I don’t see it as an increase; the reasons he talked about were reasonable.”
According to the city, business owners and residents will have the opportunity to file arguments for or against the measure next year, and a public examination period will be held before it goes before the voters.
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.”
The Board of Supervisors called Tuesday for studies of the long-term health effects of the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak and lead contamination from the now-shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich recommended the study related to the natural gas leak that began Oct. 23 at the Southern California Gas Co. storage facility and was shut down 16 weeks later, on Feb. 11.
Supervisor Hilda Solis asked that Antonovich’s motion be expanded to include a similar study for the neighborhoods surrounding the Exide plant in Vernon.
The board’s vote was unanimous in asking staffers to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to develop a study.
A SoCalGas spokesman said the utility has agreed to spend up to $400,000 to fund the Aliso Canyon study but is waiting for AQMD officials to propose a plan.
Thousands of residents were displaced from their Porter Ranch homes due to the gas leak. Once the well was sealed and residents returned, some continued to complain of headaches, respiratory and skin irritation.
County health officials reported surface dust in many homes contained “low levels of metal contaminants” consistent with those found in well-drilling fluid. They suggested that the contaminants could be the source of symptoms but said the metals did not pose long-term health risks.
The utility stepped in to clean roughly 1,700 homes of those metals.
Tuesday, some residents told the board they are still suffering and the interim director of the Department of Public Health reminded the supervisors that the “gas leak was unprecedented in the history of this country.”
In the case of the Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant, soils tests in surrounding communities have found significant levels of lead contamination.
State officials have set aside $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods within a 1.7-mile radius of the closed plant.
The facility permanently closed in March 2015 after years of failing to meet state standards for operating the plant.
After the board meeting, Solis hailed Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of Assembly Bill 2153, which charges a fee on lead-acid car batteries to help fund clean up contaminated areas.
“We celebrate a victory for communities surrounding the Exide and Quemetco facilities,” Solis said. “AB 2153 will provide much needed clean-up of lead-contaminated soil from thousands of homes surrounding these facilities.”
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, used a campaign debit card 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 using 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.
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 in a separate transaction using a campaign fund debit card to pay for a kitchen remodel. Baca Del Rio claimed the transferred funds were reimbursement for a loan she had made to her campaign committee.
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.
Updated: 10/04/16: Clarifies that Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio claimed the transfer of funds was repayment for a loan she made to her campaign, and to not to pay for a kitchen remodel as stated in an earlier version of this story. According to Baca Del Rio, it was she who brought her husband’s use of a campaign debit card to pay for services related to the personal kitchen remodel to the attention of the FPPC.
Businesses and residents of Vernon will begin to see an increase in their water bill now that the city has raised rates.
Staff estimates the new rates, which take effect today, will increase overall by 6.53 percent.
Derek Wieske, Vernon’s director of public works, water and development services, told EGP the increase was due in part to the increasing costs in materials, labor and pass through rate increases from the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.
“As a water enterprise fund we want to be able to recapture our costs, otherwise our fund will go into deficit,” explained Wieske.
Customers currently pay three separate charges based on the size of their meter, volume of water actually consumed and square footage of the property.
According to a city staff report, the rate structure was “designed to ensure that each customer is charged for only the cost of providing services to that customers.”
For a business with a 4-inch meter and a 50,000 square foot manufacturing operation using 5,500 hundred cubic feet (HCF) of water, the monthly rate would increase nearly $1,500 from $10,447 to $11,900. In another example, a customer with a 2-inch meter and 50,000 square foot manufacturing operation using 200 HCF of water, the monthly charge would increase from $609 to $649.
“It’s a little tricky because we’re in an industrial city so [water usage] depends on the type of business,” Wieske said.
“Our rates are tailored for business users,” he added.
Wieske assures that despite the increase, rates will still be among the lowest when compared to neighboring industrial cities.
Many water customers use a relatively small amount of water on site, but rely heavily on the constant availability of pressurized water for fire safety purposes. In those cases, the square footage charge reflects the cost of operating and maintaining the infrastructure to allow constant water availability to customers, according to the staff report. Some of the heaviest water users are food processors and textile dyeing businesses, while the water use by residents are a “drop in the bucket,” says Wieske.
“We have some businesses that use more water than all the residential properties combined,” he said.
The rate adjustment was also needed to pay for much-needed capital improvement projects, some of which are already included in the city’s budget. But funding is still needed for other projects, like the building of two water wells estimated to cost up to $3 million each.
To avoid going back to the city council every year, the new rate schedule also includes a stipulation that between now and January 2021, the city can adjust rates based on pass through from water districts. Central Basin approved a rate increase last month, while the Replenishment District increased rates last spring.
Wieske told EGP businesses are doing their part to conserve water, especially while the state is experiencing a drought. “We encourage conservation,” said Wieske.
“We’re not trying to generate profits, were just trying to recapture costs while maximizing services.”
Vernon’s city council approved the water rate adjustment Aug. 16 following a public hearing. The last time the city increased its water rate was in March 2015.