Despite residents demanding harsher penalties, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) today approved reduced fines against two Commerce officials accused of violating campaign-filing laws, among other charges.
The commission approved a $55,000 fine against Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio, who initially faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the FPPC over allegations she had illegally transferred campaign funds into her personal bank account to pay for a kitchen remodel and had failed to timely file and properly disclose contributions. Under the agreement, $15,000 of the fine must be paid out of her own pocket, the remainder can be paid by campaign funds and donations.
The commission also approved a $15,500 penalty against Mayor Ivan Altamirano. As EGP detailed in separate story published today, Altamirano is accused of violating conflict of interest and campaign filing laws, including failing to file and properly disclose financial activity on pre-election campaign statements, late filing of 24-hour contribution reports and for voting on a matter the FFPC concluded he had a financial interest in.
The mayor is accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to the city’s planning commission and to get approval for the installation of a stop sign within 150 feet of his rental property.
The penalty amounts approved by the Commission are the result of negotiations between FPPC Enforcement Division officials and the Commerce elected officials. The recommendation by enforcement officials did not sit well with Commerce residents who asked commissioners to reject the settlements.
“I’m asking that you be a lot more firm,” said Richard Hernandez, a Commerce resident who traveled to Sacramento for the hearing. “Make this case an example, not just for Commerce but all the other cities, show them that you’re not going to show any type of tolerance for their violations.”
Hernandez added that other elected officials are following her, citing Altamirano’s troubles as an example. He told the Commission that Commerce residents had been harmed and deserved justice.
FPPC enforcement staff initially proposed a $104,000 default judgment against Baca Del Rio for 24 different violations of the Political Reform Act. The Act regulates campaign finances, conflict of interests, lobbying and ethics laws.
In a 500-page complaint against Baca Del Rio, the councilwoman was accused of illegally transferring $8,000 in campaign funds to her personal bank account and using the money to pay for a kitchen remodel. Baca Del Rio claimed the funds were reimbursement for a loan she had made to her campaign committee.
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.
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.
A fire damaged ventilation ducting at a commercial building in Vernon Wednesday, but no one was hurt.
Firefighters sent to the 2400 block of East 25th Street about 6:15 a.m. determined that the fire had not affected the building and was limited to the ductwork, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported.
Hazardous materials teams from the LAFD and the Vernon Fire Department were sent to the scene as a precaution because of possible lead hazards.
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
Ground was broken Tuesday on a new regional training center where firefighters from Vernon and surrounding cities will receive specialized firefighting training when the facility opens.
The center, located next to Vernon Fire Station No. 1, will provide training in the handling of hazardous materials and urban search and rescue to firefighters from 31 fire agencies in the region.
The facility is being built in partnership with the Los Angeles Area Fire Chief’s Association.
“All of the cities and communities in Southeast L.A. County will benefit by having the best trained firefighters our cities can provide,” said Vernon Mayor William ‘Bill’ Davis.
The city of Vernon provided funds to build and equip the center, which will be managed by the Vernon Fire Department.
A recent fire in nearby Maywood, which involved hazardous materials, demonstrated how difficult fires are to combat, Vernon’s mayor said, noting the importance of the new training facility.
“Without a skilled team of trained HazMat firefighters, the Maywood incident might have gotten out of control, caused greater damage, and put nearby residents at greater risk.”
A 29-year-old man suspected of causing a fatal accident in Vernon and fleeing the scene was arrested in Alabama and sent back to California to face charges, authorities said Friday.
Guillermo Ortiz was arrested in Demopolis, Alabama, July 2 when police stopped him for an expired registration on his big rig, Vernon police Sgt. Brandon Gray said.
“During the course of their investigation, Demopolis Police Department officers learned of an outstanding arrest warrant for Ortiz as a result of his involvement in a fatal hit and run traffic collision in the City of Vernon,” Gray said.
Vernon police detectives brought Ortiz back to Southern California on July 8 and booked him into the Huntington Park jail, the sergeant said.
Ortiz was arraigned on July 12 and pled not guilty to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI, fleeing the scene of a fatal traffic collision and fleeing the scene of a non-injury traffic collision, Gray said.
Ortiz was being held on $235,000 bail in the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, with a return to a Norwalk court scheduled for July 26, according to inmate booking records.
Oritz is accused of running a red light while westbound on 37th Street on Saturday, April 30, and colliding with a pickup truck with two men inside that was northbound on Santa Fe Avenue, Gray said.
The Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck became lodged underneath the big rig’s trailer. Ortiz is accused of unhooking the trailer from his cab and driving away, Gray said.
The driver of the pickup suffered moderate injuries. The passenger, 28-year-old Armando Murillo, of Pacoima, was pronounced dead at the scene, Gray said.
The Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency Tuesday in the wake of last week’s explosive fire at a Maywood warehouse, saying hazardous levels of magnesium were found in the fire ash.
Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended the declaration and proposed reaching out to Gov. Jerry Brown to ask that he declare a state emergency. Both motions were unanimously approved.
“Over 300 residents were impacted,” Solis said. “Many were not able to go back to their homes” because of magnesium levels.
It took three days for the blaze, which broke out June 14, to be fully extinguished.
Families living on the south side of 52nd Street were cleared to go back into their homes last Wednesday evening, but those on the other side of the street, closer to the fire, sheltered at the local YMCA.
The Maywood YMCA doesn’t have air-conditioning, so when temperatures soared this weekend, county officials helped residents move into area hotels.
On Friday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced that samples from areas around the fire scene had been tested, and a preliminary analysis “showed ambient metal concentrations did not exceed short-term, health-based thresholds.
“The information … only pertains to the results from preliminary metals sampling near the incident,” the SCAQMD said in a statement.
“Additional laboratory analysis is still underway for other pollutants and from other sampling locations. Updates will be provided as results become available.”
The three-alarm fire — reported at 2:30 a.m. June 14 — in the 3500 block of Fruitland Avenue ripped through a pair of commercial buildings early the first morning, sparking a series of strong explosions and sending a thick plume of noxious smoke over the region.
Firefighters found flames shooting through the roofs of two structures, a warehouse serving Gemini Plastic Enterprises and a metal-recycling plant.
Crews began pouring water on the flames, but the oxygen from the water created a chemical reaction with the burning magnesium, one of the metals being stored at the facility and awaiting recycling, producing what one fire official described as “fireballs” and setting off strong explosions.
In addition to magnesium, other metals such as coppers, zinc and lead were present at the metal-recycling plant, along with chemicals and propane, according to County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
Crews were able to prevent the blaze from spreading from the two commercial structures that were destroyed to other businesses and nearby homes.
Da Xiong Pan, the owner of the recycling facility, was recently charged with multiple felonies for alleged improper storage and disposal of hazardous materials at the site, according to media reports, which also stated that Pan, who owns Panda International Trading Co. at 3570 Fruitland Ave., pleaded not guilty to five felony charges last month.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
When lunch hour hits in Vernon, the more than 50,000 men and women who report to work at one of the city’s 1,800 businesses have only about a dozen or so eateries to choose from, however, a new development under construction could soon broaden their options.
Located on the northwest border of Vernon, the 15,000-square-foot project on Alameda and 25th Street has already signed up Jersey Mike’s Subs as a tenant.
“We noticed there was a lack of high quality retail options in the industrial city and wanted to fill that void,” explained Jessica Pisula, director of marketing for the project’s developer, Dedeaux Properties.
The development is expected to open by Labor Day, Pisula told EGP, and could bring in 10 new retailers – nearly doubling the city’s current restaurant options.
The developer bought the property from the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority and in 2015 the city rezoned it for retail use.
Dedeaux Properties has a long history of developing projects within the city of Vernon and other industrial cities like neighboring Commerce and that experience led to their decision to develop a retail project in Vernon, Pisula said.
“When we meet our Vernon clients for lunch, we’re very limited” as to where to go, she said, adding she hopes the development will bring a variety of dining options.
With over 21,000 employees in a one-mile radius and over 280,000 employees within 3-miles, the location is appealing to potential tenants, according to Daniel Firtel, managing director of the commercial real estate firm Argent Retail Advisors, who added they are already in negotiations with several restaurants,
“There are a lot of workers but nowhere to eat,” he noted. “There is definitely a need.”
Founded as a city focused on industry rather than residential, there are not many lots in Vernon zoned for retail use. Instead, much of the land is used for large-scale industry like food processors, and manufacturers of fashion apparel, furniture and electronics, as wells as paper product producers and business logistic companies. Farmer John, BCBG Maxazria, Gaviña Gourmet Coffee and Tapatio Hot Sauce are just a few of the well-known companies that call Vernon home.
Mayor William “Bill” Davis told EGP that the new development is a prime example of Vernon’s ability to attract new industrial development, grow its retail presence and retain businesses.
“We have long argued that Vernon is an ideal location for diverse business interests,” Davis said.
The corner lot borders the city of Los Angeles and is highly visible to commuters. It is estimated that over 44,000 cars drive past the property everyday.
A California bill aimed at funding the cleanup of lead-contaminated communities like those surrounding the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant, could soon require consumers and manufactures to each pay a $1 fee for every lead-acid car battery sold in the state.
Under the Lead Acid Battery Recycling Act (AB 2153)—approved by the State Assembly last Friday—monies collected would be deposited into a fund to pay for cleanup efforts like those currently underway in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Maywood and Huntington Park, where as many as 10,000 homes may have been contaminated by the former lead smelter. Exposure to lead has been liked to cancer, birth defects and cognitive development issues in children, pregnant women and the elderly.
“The State Assembly is sending a clear message to residents in the affected communities that they do matter and we will no longer let them sit on poisoned soil,” the bill’s author Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia said.
For years, Exide Technologies recycled hundreds of lead-acid car batteries at its Vernon site, amassing dozens of hazardous waste violations in the process. One of just two such facilities west of the Rockies, Exide was found to have emitted emissions of arsenic and lead into the air and soil, exposing 110,000 east and southeast residents to cancer-causing toxins.
State officials estimate the cost to clean contaminated properties could be as high as $500 million, which Exide is responsible for paying for under an agreement with the .S. Attorney’s Office, but could take years to collect and in the end not cover the total cost.
If approved, Garcia estimates the new fee would raise up $70 million a year for the Lead-Acid Battery Cleanup Fund.
“It’s something we have been talking about for years,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “It is enough for all lead issues in California? No. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
David Scher, owner of Auto Supply in East Los Angeles, proudly sold Exide car batteries for years. Last year, after realizing the company “was not acting like a good corporate citizen,” Scher said he switched to a different vendor.
Scher told EGP he does not like the idea of customers paying upfront for the cleanup caused by corporate polluters.
“It shouldn’t have got to this point,” he said. “They are punishing the victims.”
Lead-acid car batteries range from $65 to $176 at the East L.A. business, but Scher does not believe the new fee will impact sales.
In an unprecedented move, Gov. Brown earlier this year approved a $176.6 million loan to help expedite and expand testing and cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks in the 1.7-mile radius surrounding the battery recycling plant.
The funds collected from the fee would be used to re-pay the multi-million dollar loan until funds are recovered from Exide or any other responsible parties.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, the bill’s co-author, explains the fund is a way for the state to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”
It creates a legal avenue for state dollars to be used to address environmental issues while the state goes after polluters.
“The Exide situation taught California that we were not prepared for something like this,” said Santiago, referring to what many believe is going to be the largest and most costly environmental cleanup in state history.
AB 2153 also requires battery manufacturers to incorporate a recycling symbol on the battery, informing consumers the product must be recycled properly. Those who don’t comply could be fined up to $1,000 per day’ those funds would also be deposited to the fund.
The senate version of the bill needs to be approved before it can move on to the governor, which state officials anticipate could happen by August. If signed by the governor, the new fee would take effect January 1, 2017.
“Exide continues to plague my backyard with the remnants of lead contamination,” Garcia said following the bill’s approval in the Assembly.
“This bill is extremely vital to ensure cleanup and bring relief to our communities.”
East and southeast Los Angeles County area residents could soon be trained to test for environmental damages like those in their own backyard.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control plans in coming months to roll out a job and development training program open to residents living in the areas impacted by lead contamination from the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
“This is truly a unique program and a first for DTSC,” says Ana Mascarenas, assistant director for environmental justice and tribal affairs for DTSC. For once, the “local community can benefit directly and be a part of restorative justice,” Mascarenas told EGP.
The $176.6 million Exide cleanup package signed by Gov. Brown last week includes $1.2 million to train local groups and residents in skills required to take part in the testing and cleanup process.
DTSC, the state regulatory agency overseeing the Exide cleanup, is currently consulting with experts in the job-training field to develop its program, and they will solicit input from the community during an Exide Advisory Committee meeting being held today.
Mascarenas told EGP that DTSC plans to model its program after the California Environmental Protection Agency’s, CalEPA, Brownfields Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, which has prepared local residents to clean up contaminated properties while at the same time preparing them for careers in environmental remediation.
“We want this program to prepare residents for green jobs that will help to immediately clean up the neighborhood, while providing a long term [positive] impact for the community’s economy,” Mascarenas said.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s 53rd District includes many of the communities polluted by Exide, and he is the author of the bill funding the Exide cleanup and training program. He told EGP that creating jobs in the state’s third poorest district was an important consideration.
“The least the state can do is offer jobs to the community it dumped on for decades,” he said.
“The community is in desperate need of jobs and must be cleaned up,” he said, explaining the dual benefit to communities like Boyle Heights and Vernon.
The idea to include a clause promoting the use of local businesses and to give local residents the skills needed to be part of the decontamination effort is the results of hours spent listening to constituents testify at Exide-related public hearings, explained Santiago.
“When money is expended, I want to make sure it is expended in the impacted district and used to provide local jobs,” he told EGP.
While details for the training program are still in the works, it’s likely those who sign up will have to commit 12 to 16 weeks to the program, which will include lead awareness classes, certifications and exposure to tools used for remediation.
“These certificates will not be exclusive to just Exide,” said Mascarenas, “they can apply these skills to DTSC cleanup sites across the state.”
Completing the training, however, is not a guarantee for employment, emphasized DTSC, although DTSC and state legislators will stress the importance of hiring those trained through the program to the contractors hired to cleanup residential properties, clarified Mascarenas.
Mark Lopez, executive director for East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP the community wants reassurance local hiring is not just promoted but required.
East Yards, together with other community activists, have drafted language detailing their ideal local hire and workforce development program, including a demand that at least 50 percent of all jobs created directly or indirectly by the cleanup effort be performed by local hires, with 20 percent specifically set aside for low-income residents.
Training will vary by position. Some groups will simply be trained to do outreach, something DTSC has been doing for months.
Members of East Yards, for example, have already been going door to door in the communities surrounding the Exide plant to get the access agreements needed to test for lead.
“We want to understand the intimate details involved with the clean up so that we can communicate that to the community,” explained Lopez explained.
Lopez told EGP he would like to see students from the YouthBuild Charter Schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles benefit from the program. As a dropout recovery school, students at YouthBuild often suffer from learning disabilities, circumstances surrounding violence and issues that can be correlated to exposure to lead, he pointed out DTSC expects to have cleaned up 250 homes by June, using funds previously obtained from Exide and the state. The agency is waiting on the results of a still to be conducted environmental impact report before it continues with the cleanup of 2,500 additional homes, hopefully beginning sometime next spring.
Over 40 eastside residents have already been trained and certified to operate the XRF devices being used to sample soil on properties near Exide.
DTSC says it wants to have hundreds of local residents trained and ready to start when remediation, which could take at last two years, gets underway. Soil testing will continue in the meantime, Mascarenas said.
The Exide plant was permanently closed March 2015 after operating for decades on a temporary permit, even after repeatedly being found to have exposed more than 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals and collecting dozens of hazardous waste violations.
“In many ways, this will help to remediate the damage done to the community,” acknowledges Lopez.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation today providing $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods surrounding the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon.
“Children should be able to play in yards free from toxics,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re doubling down on efforts to protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”
State officials said the funding would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.
There was no immediate word on when the effort would begin or how long it would take. The cleanup effort is subject to an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Assembly Majority Whip Miguel Santiago applauded Gov. Brown for signing the Exide Clean-Up Package comprised of Assembly Bill 118 and Senate Bill 93.
“The Exide Technologies facility has been able to pollute my community unabated for more than 33 years, which is entirely inexcusable,” said Santiago, author of AB 118.
“Today’s action is an historic step toward fully resolving this appalling situation; but make no mistake – our work is not done here.”
The Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.
As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, called for a fast start to the state’s cleanup efforts.
“We’ve heard the distressing news recently that children living near the closed Exide plant had elevated blood lead levels so there’s no time to waste,” he said. “… I will continue working closely with state and local partners so that the testing and cleanup of homes moves forward expeditiously
and above all, in partnership with the families impacted by the lead contamination. We shouldn’t lose focus of what’s at stake here – restoring a clean and safe environment for our families.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti released a Spanish-language public service announcement, also featuring actress Angelica Vale, urging residents near the plant to have their property tested, and to undergo blood-lead level testing.
“My office will do everything possible to help the (Department of Toxic Substances Control) expedite the cleanup,” Garcetti said. “Identifying the areas and the people affected by lead contamination is a critical first step.”
The city of Commerce, in conjunction with the County health department, will be conducting free confidential lead blood testing at Rosewood Park from 9a.m. to 3p.m. during the annual Kids Are Cute Baby Show. The park is located at 5600 Harbor St. Commerce 90040. For more information, call (323) 722-4805.
EGP staff writers contributed to this report.