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After Hernandez' Resignation, More Calls for Esqueda and De La Torre to Step Down PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia and Diana Martinez   
Thursday, 12 July 2012 05:50

Council Minority, Ballin and Lopez Have had Enough. They Call for an Investigation

One down, two more to go.

That was the sentiment expressed by several attendees at a news conference held right before the July 10 San Fernando City Council meeting after one of the three controversial council members, Mario Hernandez, resigned.

A former mayor for the city, Councilmember Mario Hernandez stepped down amidst yet another swell of media scrutiny, caused again, by his own hand.

The first storm of coverage upon this small town came when he announced his affair with fellow council member Maribel De La Torre last November. And another round of news trucks and cameras arrived this week after the pair filed restraining orders against each other. The restraining orders followed a police report of domestic violence on June 28 at Mario Hernandez' residence.

As outlined in the restraining orders, the pair agreed domestic violence had occurred but don't agree on much more. Both claim the other as the aggressor.

"I think it's finally time for city council members who are facing a recall to step down and save the city $60,000 in a recall election," said Councilmember Sylvia Ballin, during a press conference outside the council chambers before the meeting.

Because of a "decorum" policy that was imposed on residents by Mario Hernandez, De La Torre and current Mayor Brenda Esqueda, and executed by the new city attorney that they hired, residents knew they would not be allowed to speak freely even during public comments once the council meeting began. The policy requires them to speak only on the items placed on the council agenda.

Knowing this, residents, members of the San Fernando Recall Committee with business leaders, and council members Sylvia Ballin and Antonio Lopez spoke their minds freely at the news conference outside of the council chambers.

Ballin, who was flanked by Mayor Pro Tem Lopez, also called for an investigation into what's been happening in the city, and the roles that Mario Hernandez, De La Torre and Esqueda have played.

"Something is not right," said Ballin, speaking before numerous media microphones and cameras that had gathered for much of the afternoon waiting for the special meeting to take place. "Why are they holding onto these positions? I just don't get it.

"I'm pleading with the other council members in the recall to resign and give us a chance. We want to move forward," Ballin said.

"Enough is enough," added Lopez, taking the microphone after Ballin. "We have to get our city in order. It's time for them to go and let us continue with our business. Our residents have spoken clearly."

Neither of them, however, expressed confidence that Esqueda and De La Torre would resign before the recall election takes place, sometime in October or November.

"I don't believe she will resign," said Ballin, when asked if she thought De La Torre would step down.

Inside the Council Meeting

That apparently is not the intention of either woman, as both De La Torre and Esqueda entered the council chambers.

Many said they didn't expect De La Torre, who is accused by Hernandez of physically assaulting him , to come to the meeting. It even took City Administrator Al Hernandez by surprise. "I really didn't think she would show up," he said. "I have to say, that I was surprised."

But for those who have been closely following this council and witnessed what residents have described as "a need to control, and a controlling attitude," from De La Torre, they knew she would show up.

She had seethed at a previous council meeting at the suggestion that she should step down, and proclaimed emphatically, "Maribel isn't going down without a fight," recalled Julian Ruelas, chair of the Recall Committee.

As she walked into the chambers, with several cameras focused on her, De La Torre was deliberate in appearing nonchalant. She was well prepared for her close-up shots and all the media attention, carefully coiffed with her hair straightened and full makeup, wearing a simple black dress. She was measured and on her best behavior.

The city attorney, Maribel Medina of Myers/Nava, also appeared to get the memo to dress for success. The city's newly hired attorney had also given much more attention to her appearance; her hair was done, she wore pearls and bright red lipstick, matching her dress.

Mayor Esqueda, always noted for her extreme look and heavy eye makeup, seemed unmoved by this latest installment of drama and scandal. She even joked with the speakers at the podium a few times.

At times, during the meeting, De La Torre appeared to enjoy the media attention, even bringing along a pair of dark over sized sunglasses that she dramatically used as she exited from the council dais.

During the meeting, as she had so many times before, she heard calls for her resignation. But now, with numerous news cameras fixed on her, she quietly endured the comments. This was in stark contrast to so many previous council meetings where she had interrupted and shot back terse remarks at residents. Residents pointed out that there was a double standard, and the decorum ordinance that the council majority had imposed on them, didn't apply to the council.

The calls for resignation only stopped temporarily when, one after another, several residents, business owners and community leaders pleaded with the council not to fire the City Cultural Arts Director Virginia Diediker. They were under the impression her job is one of several city officials are considering to eliminate as they try to plug an ever expanding budget deficit.

"I just don't understand why you would want to eliminate a position that brings so much to the city and empowers youth and gives them something to do," said 17-year-old Kathleen Calderon, who has been playing basketball and dancing folklorico since the age of eight.

But, unknown to residents, Diediker's position had already been saved, during a closed door session last week. At the same time, in a suprise twist, Police Chief Gil Carrillo was unexpectedly released from his six month contract.

With television cameras lining the council chambers, the city attorney was much more lax in allowing residents to speak. At previous meetings they had been warned that fines could be imposed if they didn't abide by the decorum ordinance. Residents spoke on the official agenda items but wove in comments calling for Esqueda and De La Torre to step down.

"I do urge the resignation of the remaining two council members who are facing a recall," said Julian Ruelas, head of the Recall Committee.

"You need to leave para siempre (forever)," Renato Lira shouted at De La Torre.

Irwin Rosenberg, head of the Police Officers Association, also called for Esqueda's and De La Torre's resignation. "I'm just glad there no longer is a council majority trying to damage and hurt the police department across the street," Rosenberg said.

Former Councilmember Jose Hernandez, who along with Councilmember Julie Ruelas was removed during a recall election in 2009, said he was not surprised to see the current crisis in the city.

"They were so immature, so inexperienced," Jose Hernandez said. "I just feel sorry for the city. It makes me sick. It has taken so many people to build the community and to see this is very discouraging, and it hurts.

"I'm not surprised. When they did (his) recall, some people said give them two years and they'll be there. It took three years, but it happened," he said. Hernandez, now feeling vindicated, has suggested that he might run again.

"Let's not start putting a halo over his head and rewrite history," a resident who asked not to be identified offered. "That council also didn't allow for other's opinions and created their own negative voting block. They also had lost their way causing their own brand of harm to the city."

Meanwhile, Elvira Orozco, Julie Ruelas' mother and a former San Fernando City Treasurer who served with Jose Hernandez, also expressed disappointment in the city's latest saga.

"It's terrible. The city is getting such a bad reputation," she lamented. "We used to be so proud. But all we're doing now is getting bad publicity. I just wish those two (Esqueda and De La Torre) would resign and save us some money.

"These people recalled my daughter. But I knew this would happen. I knew what kind of people they were. I'm not surprised. It's just sad," Orozco said.

Patty Lopez, another outspoken resident, also called for resignations.

"For once, listen to the community, the people," Lopez said. "We're not here to bring shame to the city. We want the best city. Please resign, resign with dignity and don't bring any more shame to the city. Do the right thing."

Plague of Scandals

Mario Hernandez' resignation comes after months of ongoing public pressure following his revelation he was in a relationship with De La Torre during a council meeting last November while his wife sat in the front row of the council chambers.

The announcement made national and international headlines, often shining a negative light on the city.

San Fernando residents began asking for Mario Hernandez, De La Torre and Esqueda - who has also been having a relationship with Sgt. Alvaro Castellon, a married San Fernando police officer - to resign from their council seats.

Last week, the County of Los Angeles verified the 2,029 required signatures the Recall Committee gathered in favor of holding a recall election.

The city came to the attention of the media once again last week, when the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol reported the council had fired interim police chief Gil Carrillo, who had held the job since March.

Carrillo was replacing former interim chief Jeff Eley, who was placed on administrative leave after a video surfaced on YouTube that alleged Eley had "fixed" a traffic ticket issued in the City of San Fernando to Fred Flores, a local congressional aide.

Eley, in turn, had replaced former chief Anthony "Tony" Ruelas, who was at the center of a scandal after former police cadet Maria Barajas revealed she and the then chief, who is married, had a sexual affair and she supplied detailed emails that served as a road map documenting the affair in a lawsuit filed against the city .

But all of this paled in comparison to the latest revelations that both Mario Hernandez and De La Torre had obtained restraining orders against each other after an incident of domestic violence.

Hernandez' laptop and framed artwork were smashed, with the pair both claiming they were assaulted.

In Hernandez' account, he said De La Torre choked him and told him that she was "going to f____n' kill him."

In De La Torre's account, she said that Hernandez had slammed her on the hardwood floor of his bedroom and actually knocked her unconscious. She is claiming that Hernandez had also physically assaulted her in December of last year.

A judge must determine who is at fault during a hearing on July 24 in a San Fernando courthouse.

Not Stepping Down

The renewed media scrutiny may have finally been too much for Mario Hernandez. But Esqueda and De La Torre appear unfazed by the media frenzy and have ignored the residents' demands calling for their resignations.

At the end of the meeting, De La Torre wearing her dark sunglasses, left the council chambers without saying a word, ignoring several reporters as they shouted questions asking her if she would step down.

Esqueda made some comments and offered a glib reply when asked by reporters if she would step down.

"I will continue to do the work for the residents of San Fernando," she repeated several times.

When asked about Mario Hernandez' resignation, Esqueda said, "I'm sure that was a hard decision for him. I can't speak on his behalf but we are humans, we have feelings. Unfortunately, people don't always treat us that way."

She took the opportunity to take swipes at the Recall Committee alleging that they have "misled" members of the community.

"They (residents) were told I was trying to raise property taxes and water bills so that I could get a raise, which is not true," she said. "When you come with half-truths, it's not fair.

"I don't have the financial backing that the Recall group does, with the police association and businesses behind them, but I will continue fighting."

Members of the Recall Committee said Esqueda is attempting to turn the tables, and is now "grasping at straws" by making false allegations against their group of residents.

Over many months the San Fernando Recall Committee members have spoken out at council meetings against the council majority for violating the Brown Act, and conflict of interest votes by Esqueda who has interfered in police affairs to protect her boyfriend Sgt. Castellon. They've pointed to the legal costs of the council's bad decision-making and backroom deals, and the improper love affairs that have directly and adversely impacted the city.

Council members Sylvia Ballin and Mayor Pro Tem Lopez are supporting the efforts of the recall committee, so much so, that in an act of protest, at a previous council meeting they actually walked off the council dais and out of the council chambers and joined residents in protest.

When asked by reporters about her affair [and conflict of interest] with Castellon, Esqueda neither acknowledged nor denied it. "I have a personal life and that's separate from my work," is all she would say.

She also did not want to weigh in on whether De La Torre should resign.

"I support all my colleagues," Esqueda said. "I'm not going to judge anybody and throw stones at anybody."

"They still don't take responsibility for anything that they've done," Ballin concluded.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 14 July 2012 10:57