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Brenda Esqueda is now Mayor, Antonio Lopez is Mayor Pro-Tem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia, Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 22 March 2012 03:00

Water and Sewer Hikes Tabled and Decision Postponed Until New Analysis

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

New San Fernando Mayor Brenda Esqueda receives the CIty gavel from Mario Hernandez, who stepped down as mayor during Monday's city council meeting. Esqueda was replaced as Mayor Pro Tem by Councilmember Antonio Lopez.

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

City residents continued voice their desire that Esqueda, Hernandez and Maribel De La Torre remove themselves from the council. There is recall movement trying to force the trio from office.

Civility seemed to return to the San Fernando City Council meeting, which this week was devoid of scandalous revelations or comments, fights among members or residents and the usual drama that has come to accompany the sessions, including a walk out during a special meeting last week when the city council selected an interim police chief.

Aside from a group that protested and carried signs against Mario Hernandez, Maribel De La Torre and Brenda Esqueda before and during the meeting, there were few uproars in the session, where the council tabled and sent back the water and sewer hikes for more analysis before a decision is made and Esqueda was elected Mayor, on a proposal by Hernandez, and Antonio Lopez is now Mayor Pro-Tem.

This puts an end to the Hernandez' time as mayor, which has been marked by the revelations of his relationship with De La Torre, lawsuits against the city by a former San Fernando Police explorer who revealed an amorous affair with former police chief Anthony "Tony" Ruelas and other situations that have led residents to start a recall against the pair and Esqueda, who has also been having an affair with Sgt. Alvaro Castellon.

However, in his final statements as Mayor, Hernandez said "that contrary to popular belief, I have done some good things here in the city," noting that no one has been laid off or furlough despite the financial crisis hitting the country and the city.

He also expressed "full confidence" in new interim police chief Gil Carrillo and "welcomed him to the family."

Last Thursday, led by Ballin and Lopez, who criticized the other three council members for not including them in the selection of Carrillo as interim police chief and instructing the City Administrator to keep them in the dark, residents walked out of that meeting, emptying the chambers.

Carrillo is a former Los Angeles Sheriff Department detective and his designation was met with criticism from residents, who had been assured previously they would be included in the selection process.

On assuming her new role as Mayor, Esqueda noted that it's "not easy sitting in this seat" (as Mayor) and vowed to "give my all and my heart to bring city back to where it should be." She also said she hopes to make a big difference and help the city heal.

"Our priority is the community. We all want the best for the city. We all have our hearts in the right place. I'm looking forward to a positive, positive outcome here in the city," said Esqueda, who has also come under criticism for voting on police affairs despite her conflict of interest. Sgt. Alvaro Castellon admitted the affair, but Esqueda has refused to comment.

"Actions speak louder than words. I'm willing to work with you," said councilman Lopez as he was elected mayor pro-tem.

But many residents in the city aren't willing to trust Esqueda, Hernandez or De La Torre and simply want them out.

"It's only a matter of time before the community sees that she is incapable of carrying out her duties," said Linda Campanella Jauron, member of the Recall Committee. "She has a public personal relationship with a member of the police department and she votes on issues dealing with the police department, which is a clear conflict of interest and as mayor that conflict of interest will be even more pronounced and obvious."

Patty Lopez, another outspoken critic of Hernandez, De La Torre and Esqueda, echoed those sentiments.

"I don't think she's ready for that position. She's not a positive or impartial person," said Lopez, who in the past has chastised Esqueda for "making fun of my English."

"Because my English is not that good, she sometimes starts laughing. I don't think she has much education towards the residents," Lopez said.

She also said Esqueda's relationship with a member of the SFPD puts her impartiality into question.

"I think they should put their business and personal issues separately," said Lopez. "You should never mix one with the other."

Protests

Residents held signs outside the council chambers and held them up during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"We don't want them any more. They use the money for things that are not helping. We want new people," said Noemi Hernandez, another protester.

Robert Ortega later expressed the same opinion during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"Are you listening to the people? Do you care about us? You shouldn't be in office," he told them.

But perhaps the most poignant criticism came from Lopez, who, as she has done before, asked them to step down.

"You should be ashamed Maribel", she told the council-member, who in a previous meeting claimed she and Hernandez started their relationship after he had been separated from his wife for several months, dismissing claims of an "affair."

"No matter how you ignore the people, how many times we have to come, you still have to be accountable to the residents," said Lopez, who as she continued her criticism was told by Hernandez that some of her words were "slander."

But Lopez, clearly upset at the interruption, responded sharply in Spanish, "toda la gente sabe que no tienes pantalones" (Everyone knows you don't have the pants), which caused people in the audience to laugh and hoot.

Water and sewer hikes

Most of the meeting was devoted to the controversial water and sewer hikes, which residents and business owners spoke against, claiming they were too high, unfair and disadvantageous at this moment. The City first attempted to push the rate increase through, but after mistakes were found on their mailings they were forced to slow down the process and pay for another mailing. Residents complained that the City had not properly informed them when the City attempted to hold a hastily called town hall meeting.

City staff said water rates increases would vary depending on water use and would cover for a much needed nitrate removal system to get rid of the toxic chemical that has appeared in the City's water system, protect against line breaks and stoppage, and water and sewer line replacements. The sewer rate was a flat hike of $13.50 per household bimonthly.

However, one of the most contentious facts that came out during the hike proposal is that the City devotes $2.3 million in salary and benefits for 18 water and sewer employees, something that surprised even Esqueda, who said she didn't know about this.

"I don't feel comfortable doing this to our residents," said Esqueda, who in previous meetings didn't speak out against the increase.

"If they get a salary decrease, [The City] we would find a solution," said resident Sonia Diaz to the applause of the residents.

The city only received 843 water and 763 sewer protest letters against the hike. There needed to be at least 2,459 letters in order to stop the council from going ahead with the hikes.

But they were not needed, as the protests from residents piled on and the political landscape and agendas shifted. The council voted to table both matters and sent them back to city staff for more analysis.Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin also proposed to approve smaller hikes for two years and revisit the matter then. All the other councilmembers approved postponing the decision of the hikes, except De La Torre, who emphasized "we really need to take care of our infrastructure" and noted that the raises were "difficult for all of us," but asked the council to reconsider their vote. Public Works Director Ron Ruiz warned that the City would soon be in the red without the increase. Ruiz has been at the helm, pushing for the increase.

After the meeting, Emiliano Hill, a resident who had been critical of the fee hikes, said the public's opposition to the proposal seemed to have its effect.

"The bigger question is how they justify $2.3 million for 18 people," said Hill. "I think if we need to pay more for water I can understand that, if we pay less than other cities. But we need to be assured that funds aren't being wasted on overpaying salaries, for not being careful how they operate the system."

Is Council's change of demeanor a strategy?

For Campanella Jauron, the postponement on the water and sewer hike is only a strategy to derail the recall movement, something that she said won't work.

"It's too little too late. Their motives are obvious. They want to try to show community that they've changed their style, but they are really just totally unaware of the anger in the community.

They've lost our respect because they never respected us. We've lost all trust in their ability to lead.

Their continued erratic behavior just underscores for us that they are unfit for duty." Patty Lopez seconded that.

"They're just using it to appease the people," she said. "Because they know that we are categorizing them (as the council majority), they're now dividing their votes. They're not all voting the same way."

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Last Updated on Friday, 23 March 2012 00:12