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New Council Takes Over in San Fernando PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia   
Thursday, 06 December 2012 02:58

Antonio Lopez Elected Mayor, Sylvia Ballin Mayor Pro-Tem

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

Here They Are -- Current San Fernando council members Sylvia Ballin (second left) and Antonio Lopez (middle) are joined (left to right) newly elected council members Jesse Avila, Robert Gonzales and Joel Fajardo. Avila, Gonzales and Fajardo all took their seats at the council meeting on Monday, Dec. 3.

A packed San Fernando City Council Chamber welcomed three new members: Jesse Avila, Joe Fajardo and Robert Gonzales, who were sworn in to their posts after being elected in a special recall election on Nov. 6.

The mood of residents in the council chambers was jubilant, much different than the anger that had permeated the council meetings most intensely over the last year, as a series of scandals rocked the city.

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

Recalled from Council -- Brenda Esqueda and Maribel De La Torre(right) embrace as they prepare to walk off the dais. Both were removed from office in the Nov. 6 recall election.

Many problems at city hall had been known for years, but simmered under the radar, until November 2011, when then mayor Mario Hernandez publicly announced in the chambers he was having an extramarital affair with fellow Councilmember Maribel De La Torre. His announcement attracted national media attention, and spurred the outrage of residents who had already been disappointed with their representation and questioned the back room governance that had become typical at city hall.

Former mayor Brenda Esqueda was criticized for improperly using her position on the council and voting on police matters, despite having what she referred to as an "emotional relationship" with San Fernando Police Department Sgt. Alvaro Castellon, creating a conflict of interest. Castellon who faced an investigation for numerous complaints, including threatening a police cadet, dodged disciplinary action as he was protected by Esqueda. He later admitted his affair with Esqueda. Most recently, Castellon has been placed on administrative leave.

Then came news of a physical fight between Hernandez and De La Torre at the end of June, which brought a flood of more media attention and added negative attention to the city. Both obtained restraining orders against each other, which they later withdrew, but De La Torre is still facing criminal charges of battery and vandalism as a result of that domestic altercation. Her next court appearance is Monday, Dec. 10, and De La Torre has raised more eyebrows by starting a defense fund for herself with claims that the San Fernando police department had fabricated charges against her.

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

Voted In -- Newly elected council members (left to right) Jesse Avila, Robert Gonzales and Joel Fajardo are given the oath of office at the Dec. 3 council meeting.

As media trucks rolled into San Fernando to cover a town they frequently referred to as a “telenovela,” this and a long list of many other issues, including the city' s questionable financial standing and lack of transparency at city hall, prompted support for the Recall Committee. The group collected hundreds of signatures and forced city officials to hold a special election, where voters overwhelmingly supported getting rid of the what was the council majority. Hernandez resigned after public reports of the physical violence between he and De La Torre but his name still appeared on the ballot, and was formally voted out of office.

Serenading Ousted Council Members

"You brought us together and we voted you out," said Robert Ortega, who was escorted out of the chambers twice this year as he criticized the ousted trio several times.

This time, however, he wasn't removed from the chambers. He sang from the podium, "Happy Days are here again," while many other residents who packed council chambers joined in a chorus of "Na, na, na, na ... Hey, hey, hey ... Goodbye."

"It's a new day; it's a day to celebrate," said Irwin Rosenberg, president of the San Fernando Police Officers Association (POA), who noted in his public comments that he would soon be able to call all of the council members "honorable" with the new members taking over, and bringing "leadership and statesmanship needed in the city" and acting with "honor and civility in all dealings." City hall sources told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that Esqueda had attempted to demote Rosenberg and had a hit list of others that she wanted to lay off before she was forced to leave office.

Esqueda preceded Rosenberg's comments with a "he can't help himself."

De La Torre and Esqueda had supporters in the chamber as well. Among them was Margie Carranza, who referred to the recent fumigation at city hall by saying that a few "rats" were left behind. Carranza said she would like to see the new council members "wave their magic wand and put money in the bank," in reference to the reported one million dollar deficit. City hall sources told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol however, that figure cited by City Administrator Al Hernandez could be much higher.

Grandstanding To The End

Before leaving their posts, De La Torre and Esqueda took 20 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively, to recount their "achievements" and criticize those who had spoken against them, despite repeated groans, laughs and calls from the audience to stop talking.

"I think the recall is wrong because it was all about personal attacks on people's personal lives," said De La Torre, who had served on the council for 12 years. "My heart has always been in the City of San Fernando and that has not changed," Esqueda said.

During her remarks, Esqueda also admitted following and filming Avila as he campaigned, something she had denied in the past.

Both reiterated their accusations of corruption in the police department, without giving specifics but didn't address the issues that had placed them on the recall ballot, including violations of the Brown Act. During the recall campaign, Esqueda continuously said that she would reveal evidence of police corruption, but never produced it. Similarly, De La Torre blames the San Fernando police department for her woes, claiming they fabricated information in the reported altercation she had with Hernandez.

Hernandez was also heard, via an email that was sent as part of the public comment and read by City Clerk Elena Chavez. "The events that led to tonight are tragic because SFPOA, their supporters and the (San Fernando Valley Sun) publishers, the Aszkenazys', grossly misused their power to destroy lives," Chavez read. "Additionally, I exercised poor judgment and a bad choice of words during my council comments a year ago.

"They used my comments to destroy and ruin the reputation of council members De La Torre, persecute Mayor Esqueda and cause harm to our families. I apologize to my children, to council members De La Torre and her sons, and Mayor Esqueda and her family for the embarrassment and harassment they've had to endure this past year."

It was noted by those in the council chambers that Hernandez did not apologize to his wife in the letter he requested to be publicly read. Beyond the affair with De La Torre that he had made public, residents had been critical of Hernandez who personally filed bankruptcy and shut down his business, yet headed up the city's finance committee. Residents guffawed with Hernandez' claim in his letter to have delivered a balanced budget for the city.

New Council

Then, after Esqueda and De La Torre finally exited the chambers, to applause, the new council members took their oath of office, voted on their first action as a council: the reorganization of the legislative body with Lopez as mayor and Ballin as mayor pro-tem. They also voted to limit the medical benefits of elected city officials, namely the city council to be on par with those of average city employees. The previous council while receiving a modest monthly stipend had received top PPO medical benefits.

"Our handshake is a signal that we stand united as a city council and work for a united cause," said Lopez, after shaking the hands of every new member in the dais. "I ask for patience," Ballin said. Then, subtly referencing the departure speech by De La Torre of her 12 years on the council, Ballin continued, "It took 12 years to get where we are today and it will take time to stabilize the city and move on."

"I felt like I was holding my breath for so long," she said. "I'm so happy. I feel like I can exhale." She would later joke about the long speeches by Esqueda and De La Torre."Those speeches they made really made it clear what a long road it was." Ballin said. "We have much to celebrate now and it's not just because of this recall. Students from our Mariachi program, MMAP recently won an unbelievable national award and played at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama, and now we have San Fernando High winning their [football] championship.

It's time for a shift and it's our young people who are taking us there." Ballin said they will be honoring those achievements at an upcoming council meeting and wanted the council chambers to be aired out first. "We didn't want to do it at this meeting," she said. "It wouldn't have been fair to them, those kids deserve better," The new members of the council thanked the residents for voting them into office.

"I thank you for listening and believing in us," said Avila, who added that the first order of business is to "find out what we need to know what we have."

He pledged that everyone, regardless if they agree with their decisions or not, will be included and those decisions will be transparent. One new order of business Avila said he intends to tackle is whether to keep or remove City Administrator Al Hernandez. "That's a discussion we need to have," Avila said.

Fajardo, who had spoken about this same issue as a candidate, said he, too, was open to replacing him.

"In my campaign, I spoke about considering bringing in a new city administrator and I stand by that," Fajardo said. There has also been discussion about replacing City Attorney Maribel Medina, who has been perceived as a hire made to due the bidding of De La Torre, Esqueda and Hernandez.

Asked about what they would like to see in the city a year from now, Avila responded that he would like to see new projects. Fajardo mentioned he envisions bringing in new businesses, having a balanced budget and providing high quality city services. And Gonzales said he wants to see more community events like 5K runs, and the city's birthday celebration.

For those residents who had long worked to bring this change for San Fernando, this was a moment to savor.

"The job's done, but we'll still be vigilant," pledged Julian Ruelas, Recall Committee chairman. "We still have to monitor (the council) but they want to be monitored, they want that discourse. It's night and day compared to what we had."

"I feel happy. Things take time, but they come to be," said community activist Patty Lopez.

"We're about to start a new year and this feels right, clean. I think the residents have learned their lesson and we're now going to be more involved in being part of the solution."

Editor Diana Martinez also contributed to this story.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 06 December 2012 22:50