As she was leaving for work recently, a woman noticed that the walls of her Azusa apartment were rattling and the ceiling was cracking. To her surprise, workers were converting her apartment back into a garage.
She had to move, the landlord told her, because the property was being sold. And she says he warned her not to complain to anyone at City Hall because no one would listen.
But the woman knew exactly who might help--City Clerk Adolph Solis.
During her visit to Solis, he calmed the distraught woman and referred her to a legal aid group.
For many residents, the white-bearded Solis, 57, has become a kind of town elder who serves as an advocate, marriage counselor, translator, teacher and multipurpose adviser. Several times a day, residents ask him to untangle bureaucratic blunders, help fill out forms, lecture landlords, find lost friends, or solve a number of other problems.
Although Solis does not advertise his services, word of mouth keeps residents coming to his basement office at City Hall.
The Azusa native explained simply, "When you live in a place so long, everybody knows you."
Said City Councilman Bruce Latta: "It's a bonus, an added service. He's kind of the hidden ombudsman for people in the community."
As city clerk, Solis' main duty is to maintain city records. He said he has no special authority as an elected official to help those who seek him out. "Who the heck thinks that the city clerk has any weight?" he said.
Solis lives by a philosophy summed up in an expression he heard as a child--"The life that doesn't serve is useless."
His attitude is shaped somewhat by multiple sclerosis, an affliction that started weakening his body almost 20 years ago. The disease weakens his legs, hurts his body and numbs his fingers.
"I talk from the perspective that at best what I have is an incurable illness," said the soft-spoken Solis. "Eventually, I'll be paralyzed, at best. At worst, I'll be terminal."
So he keeps working, helping people like Francisca Sierra.
Sierra told Solis she bought a truck for $1,000 and later found out that $3,000 in back registration fees were due.
Solis called the Department of Motor Vehicles and was told the fees had to be paid before the truck could be registered. He suggested that Sierra try to collect the fees from the previous owners in Small Claims Court.
Some people, including Maria R. Santamaria have sought Solis' help in filling out forms or translating documents from English to Spanish. Santamaria said she went to Solis because he tells her what's right and wrong without deluding her.
Born and raised in Azusa, Solis served in the Navy and saw duty in Korea in the 1950s. After returning to Azusa and graduating from Cal State L.A., he taught adult education and at a church school for several years before being elected city clerk in 1974. He still lives in Azusa with his wife, Ofelia.
Solis usually stays out of politics and never makes endorsements, although candidates have asked him to, Councilman Latta said.
However, amid sign vandalism, personal attacks and rumors preceding a City Council election earlier this year, Solis called a special meeting and urged the candidates to run clean campaigns.
Acts as Intermediary
Solis refers people to churches, attorneys and government agencies, often continuing his work at home by telephone. Sometimes he solves problems just by acting as an intermediary.
A husband in a common-law marriage wanted to leave his wife without giving her any financial support. When Solis called and told the man that his wife was being represented by a legal aid group, the husband agreed to split ownership of some property.
"There are too many people who tell people what their rights are," Solis said. "But no one is telling them what their responsibilities are."
People in search of food and shelter have also come to Solis' office. Sometimes he refers them to the nearby St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church. Father David Grenadino, assistant pastor, said he has great respect for Solis' effort in helping people.
"He doesn't have to do that," Grenadino said. "It's not his job."
But when Solis calls the church, "we jump to help," Grenadino added.
A group of 30 workers looked to Solis for help of another kind after giving $7,000 to a Western Union agent to send to relatives in Mexico. The agent fled with the money and Western Union said it would not give them a refund.
Solis contacted several government and company officials on behalf of the workers. Finally, Western Union refunded all the money to the workers.
Solis does not expect to be rewarded for his work because, he said, he is comfortable with his $2,300-a-month salary.
"He's a prince," Deputy City Clerk Connie Lara said, "that's what people call him, a prince."