NORWALK — While much of Southern California was celebrating Cinco de Mayo last weekend, the streets here were free of mariachis, though the city is 40% Latino.
The city's 5-year-old Cinco de Mayo parade and fiesta had to be canceled because the sponsors had no liability insurance for the event.
Such insurance for outside organizations using city offices and property formerly was provided at a minimal cost through the city. But when the city's insurance carrier canceled that liability policy, the city told the parade organizers that they would have to insure the event themselves for up to $1 million.
The sponsors of the parade, a residents committee and a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said that they found such a policy would cost between $500 and $2,000. When the sponsors couldn't raise the money, they canceled the celebration and charged that they had been the victim of discrimination.
'Treated Very Shabbily'
"We were treated very shabbily by the City Council," claimed Lalo Rojas, parade chairman. He said city officials often donate money to community organizations and that officials could have paid for the insurance policy for the parade. The event would have commemorated the May 5, 1862, Mexican defeat of an invading French army led by Napoleon III.
Rojas singled out Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez for criticism, saying, "I helped him (Rodriguez) into office, and now he's turned his back on his own people."
Rodriguez, who is of Mexican descent, denied the charge, saying that the city typically donates money only to philanthropic organizations.
"They (parade sponsors) weren't using the money for philanthropic purposes. They were just promoting a parade and a fiesta," he said.
Of Rojas he added, "I think he has found a soapbox and an audience."
This year, the city originally had planned to charge the parade sponsors $47 for liability insurance under the former policy for special events, city officials said, which would have provided more than $1 million of coverage.
But the city was informed last month by its insurance administrators, the Southern California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, that the special events policy was canceled, officials said. They said no explanation for the cancellation was given.
The insurance authority, an organization of 45 cities with a combined population of more than 1 million, was formed to administer cities' self-insurance programs, officials said.
George Anast, insurance authority manager, said the policy was canceled by one of the authority's private insurance carriers because of "turmoil in the insurance business." He said that because of a general increase in claims and lawsuits, many companies are now reassessing what types of policies are profitable to underwrite. He said he did not know if the liability insurance had become unprofitable for the carrier.
Anast said his organization, which includes the cities of Cerritos and Pico Rivera, was unable to obtain another liability policy for special events from other carriers.
OK Contingent on Policy
When the City Council last month approved the parade committee's request to use Ramona Park and adjoining streets for the half-mile parade and annual festivities, the council made the approval contingent on the committee obtaining its own liability insurance policy. The insurance for outside organizations using city facilities is required under a 6-month-old city policy approved by the council, officials said.
"We felt we weren't able or willing to take on the liability ourselves for that event," said City Administrator Ray Gibbs.
The sponsors of the Cinco de Mayo parade were among the first to be affected by the cancellation of the city's special events insurance policy, officials said. The city also has asked the city's Civil War Assn., which uses city offices for meetings, to obtain its own liability policy, and other organizations will be asked to pay for their own insurance, officials said.
The city policy requiring liability insurance for organizations using city facilities was passed after last year's Cinco de Mayo celebration. A month after the celebration, the city was asked by officials from its sister city of Hermosillo, Mexico, to pay $3,900 to cover the medical bills of a 14-year-old Hermosillo boy, Gabriel Gastelum, who was injured while attending the Norwalk event.
The boy was walking along Firestone Boulevard when he was struck by a car, city officials said. His injuries were treated at Downey Community Hospital and Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach. The city declined to pay for the boy's injuries, saying he was not attending an official city event. The parade sponsors had no insurance policy that would have covered the boy's injuries.
Mayor Pro Tem Lou Banas said the council's decision not to pay for insurance for the Cinco de Mayo celebration was based on "who you trust with public funds."
Of the parade sponsors, he said, "It's a group that doesn't seem that well organized. I don't think they're a bona fide community group at this time like the Little League. They just get together from time to time to do things."
What particularly irks the sponsors of the Cinco de Mayo parade is that this Saturday, the city is sponsoring an International Heritage Fair, an ethnic festival featuring food, events and arts and crafts representing many cultures. Because the city is sponsoring the fair, the event is insured under the city's general liability policy for all buildings and property, which cost $25,388 during the current fiscal year.
Grace Napolitano, LULAC president who said she plans to run for City Council next year, said parade sponsors were not looking for preferential treatment, but said that Latinos are "such a large segment in this community that somebody should start paying attention to us."