COMMERCE – Some familiar faces and novice candidates are challenging three City of Commerce council members up for reelection on June 6. Saying they hope to bring change to the city, last week four of nine council contenders went head to head with Mayor Ivan Altamirano, Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio and Councilwoman Lilia Leon, who have each had their share of controversy while in office.
The face off took place during a candidate forum May 4 at City Hall hosted by the League of Women Voters. Much of the night’s discussion revolved around reducing crime and beautifying the city as a means to attract more business and generate more revenue for city services.
Commerce Means Business
While Commerce may not be strapped for cash like some of its neighbors, large lots along the city’s busiest corridor have remained vacant for years, curtailing economic development, according to candidates who accused the council of not doing enough to attract new business to the city.
Drive a mile and you will see dozens of “for lease” signs, said challenger John Soria, a law enforcement technician and second-time candidate for city council.
The city’s 1 percent vacancy rate can mostly be attributed to a single owner, one of Commerce’s founding families, responded Altamirano, who added he is meeting with the owners to discuss the issue.
“I’m not going to wait until an election to attract businesses back into our community,” Soria retorted, accusing Altamirano of “waiting too long.”
Former councilwoman and nonprofit advisory board member Denise Robles echoed the accusation, saying it’s apparent there “hasn’t been a whole lot of economic development” since she lost her reelection bid two years ago. Robles accused the incumbents of not focusing on city cleanliness, which she said is important when trying to attract business.
“It has not been due to a lack of funds, but a lack of priorities,” Robles said.
Baca De Rio fended off the criticism saying the current council has worked hard to change the city’s aesthetic, which she admitted many potential businesses previously found to be too “industrial looking.”
“This didn’t just happen in a handful of months, this took years” of working hand-in-hand with the business community to bring change, Baca Del Rio said, adding, “We didn’t have that relationship” before.
This council has put Commerce on the map, said Leon, citing as an example a city-sponsored shuttle service to the Citadel Outlets that attracts 17 million visitors annually.
When the city was strapped for cash, during the recession and following the loss of its redevelopment agency, it was she and her colleagues who kept the city afloat, said Leon, who has served several terms, though not consecutively, since 1998.
“I brought in donations [from businesses]to make sure services were not taken away,” Leon told the audience.
By thinking outside the box, this council kept a lot of people from being laid off, said Altamirano, who was appointed in 2012 and won re-election in 2013.
Quality of Life Issues
Highly industrial, Commerce has long struggled to balance its need for revenue to pay for city services and the environmental impact businesses have on city residents.
Pollution and contamination caused by industry, rail yards, and the never-ending flow of diesel trucks, has left many residents concerned about their health and quality of life.
The city should defer to what residents want when it comes to new businesses moving to Commerce, said Robles, referring to a failed venture to bring a Walmart to the city that caused protests from residents.
Other candidates said the city council should be making sure that existing businesses are complying with the city’s green zone initiative, and should be required to erect improved signage informing the public of any emissions or impacts to the environment.
“I’m in favor of working with businesses that will create jobs and create a balance with environmental issues,” said Johncito “John” Peraza, a 20–year-old loan analyst and city commissioner.
Leonard Mendoza, a school district painter and member of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, argued that public health and safety should come before business. “It doesn’t matter what projects we’re working on if our people are dying,” he said. “Let’s stop the crime and let’s clean up the air.”
Soria said industry is not the only culprit when it comes to environmental issues, attacking incumbents for failing to expedite the lead clean up underway at Veterans Park, which has been closed to the public for months and may require a complete renovation. He stressed that parks are a deterrent to crime and provide a safe place for children to spend their free time.
Each of the challengers said the council has not done enough to reduce crime and he or she would do a better job if elected.
But according to Altamirano, public safety has been his top priority. He said he has been working to open a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s substation in the city, which he believes will help reduce the spike in crime by making law enforcement more visible.
Lacking any real detail on the proposal, most of the candidates said they are reserving judgment until the substation project is officially presented to the city council on May 16.
Soria called it “very premature” for individuals to “flaunt” the merits of such a proposal.
Robles says it is more important to improve the city’s current patrol system before building a station.
Question of Ethics
For Peraza, “restoring integrity and honesty in our government” is his top priority.
He was referring to the controversies surrounding the incumbents, who in the past have each been targeted for recall and in the cases of Baca Del Rio and Altimarano’s, have also been fined by the Fair Political Practice Commission for ethics violations.
Last year, Baca Del Rio, who has been on the council since 2005, was accused of 24 violations of the Political Reform Act and faced a $104,000 fine, one of the largest in state history before it was later reduced. The councilwoman was accused of illegally transferring campaign funds into her personal bank account to pay for personal expenses related to a kitchen remodel and failing to file contributions and campaign statements in a timely manner.
Baca Del Rio denied she misappropriated campaign funds and claimed she paid herself back for campaign loans, something FPPC investigators said they found no evidence of.
The FPPC ultimately reached an agreement with Baca Del Rio, who admitted to 12 of the charges and agreed to a reduced fine of $55,000.
Less than two months later, Altamirano agreed to pay a $15,500 penalty for violating five counts of the Political Reform Act, when he failed to timely file and properly disclose financial activity on a pre-election campaign statement and for voting on a matter the FPPC concluded he had a financial interest in. He was accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to a city commission, which comes with a stipend.
But it is not just the incumbents who have been the center of controversy in recent years: Former councilwoman Robles was also at one point targeted for recall and was accused of using a city-owned vehicle to commute to school, personal business which is not allowed.
Soria unsuccessfully ran for office two years ago, but it is his failed campaign to oust Councilmember Hugo Argumedo from office that may ultimately wind up costing Commerce money if Argumedo were to prevail in a lawsuit against the city for its role in that effort.
“I believe our government officials need to be held to the highest ethical standards and treat people with common courtesy and respect,” says Peraza in his campaign statement.
Businessman Charles Calderon, former councilwoman Sylvia Muñoz, truck driver Randy “Sax” Romero, and Jaime Valencia, an accountant, are also on the ballot, but were not at the forum.