BELL GARDENS — In the five years that he has been a city councilman, Ronald Bird said he has received maybe 15 calls from residents who have a problem they want to bring to his attention.
During the same period, he and his fellow council members have watched attendance at once-popular community events--such as health fairs, earthquake preparedness fairs, school plays and cultural festivals--dwindle until no more than a handful of people appear.
City leaders, concerned that City Hall is losing touch with the community, have hired a community and governmental affairs firm to undertake a $12,000 study of community services and recommend ways to strengthen them.
"When hardly anyone shows up any more, that's a message that something has got to change," Bird said.
City leaders and residents cannot pinpoint one specific reason for the lack of participation and apparent lack of interest in city programs.
Part of the reason could be that many Bell Gardens residents earn poverty-level incomes and are more concerned with getting food on the table than civic participation, city officials said.
Poor communication, caused in part by a language barrier and in part by the bureaucracy at City Hall, also plays a role, both city officials and residents said. Some residents also blame city leaders for failing to adapt to changes in the community.
In the last two decades, Bell Gardens, like many cities in Southeast Los Angeles County, has undergone dramatic change. What was once a quiet suburban community populated by Midwesterners who lived on large lots and tended small farms is now a teeming city of Latinos, many of whom speak limited English, live in crowded conditions and earn about $5,000 a year. According to city officials, 30% of the population is transient, most residents do not own their own homes and more than half are younger than 18.
"The change has caught everyone off guard," Bird said. "We've just now discovered that we must serve different ethnic groups differently."
Although the city has undergone a drastic transformation in the last 20 years, Bell Gardens City Manager Claude Booker said many city programs have not changed since the city was incorporated 30 years ago.
For example, Booker said, the Bell Gardens High School drama department has performed "South Pacific" for years--Councilman Bird remembers his daughter's performance 14 years ago before a packed auditorium--but at this year's performance, the auditorium was nearly empty.
"It's time for a real step back to look at the city and see how we can do better," Booker said.
According to representatives of the Latino community, city officials have a lot of work ahead of them. The all-white City Council has been roundly criticized--especially during the last several elections--for not being receptive to the community. There have been complaints that the city does not make an attempt to inform Latino residents about issues of concern and has made little effort to seek participation of residents in community affairs.
Rosa Hernandez, a 13-year resident of Bell Gardens who made an unsuccessful bid for a City Council seat in April, said she does not believe that the city is sincere in trying to strengthen communication with the community.
"They are just trying to save their jobs," she said. "It's not going to help any. What the people here need and want and are screaming for is just to be heard. If the city is really concerned about answering our needs, they just have to come to us. They don't need to spend thousands of dollars on a consultant."
When asked about the study, Hernandez and a few Bell Gardens residents said that if the city really wanted to strengthen communication with the community, it had a perfect opportunity at a recent Planning Commission meeting.
The meeting, which was continued, was to discuss rezoning a residential area for industrial use. Hernandez said residents of the targeted area were angry because they said they had not been adequately notified that the city was considering the change.
City officials placed notices in a local newspaper and sent written notice to those who requested it, but Hernandez and others said the city did not make enough effort to make sure everyone knew and understood what the zone change will mean.
"That whole thing just proved to me that the city doesn't really want to open the doors of City Hall to us," Hernandez said.
Though city leaders acknowledge that change in the city has been slow, they said they have tried to make themselves accessible to residents. Among other services, there are bilingual tours of City Hall, more bilingual staff, and a monthly publication mailed to all residents with information on City Council actions, Booker said.
"I think cities have an obligation to reach out to people and say, 'You're not telling us what you think, so we are going to come to you,' " Booker said.