BELL GARDENS — Councilman Ronald Bird resigned this week, opening the door for the expected appointment of this city's first Latino council member.
Rosa Hernandez, a 39-year-old businesswoman who came to the United States from Mexico 23 years ago, is expected to be selected by the four remaining council members as Bird's replacement. If appointed, she will become the first non-Anglo council member in the 30-year history of this city, where 85% of the residents are Latino.
Neither Hernandez nor City Council members would confirm the expected appointment. Tradition here has held, however, that when a council member resigns before his term has expired, the person who received the next highest number of votes in the last election is appointed.
Hernandez, who works with her husband in an upholstery business, ran for one of two seats in the 1990 City Council election, and was the third highest vote-getter after Bird and Long Beach Naval Hospital employee Douglas O'Leary. Some council members said only that it was logical that Hernandez be appointed to serve out the remaining three years of Bird's term.
The council must make an appointment to the council within 30 days or a special election will be held.
Bird leaves the city after more than five years on the council to accept a position as funeral director in Beaver, Utah. He said he decided to move to Utah, where he was born and raised, because his mother is sick. Bird moved to Bell Gardens in 1964 to take a job with Lockheed Electronics in Commerce. He later became a funeral director for Allen's Funeral Service.
His resignation, which was announced Monday at a packed City Council meeting, was met with applause and calls for Bird's colleagues to leave also.
"I think all of you should follow suit," said Alfredo Martinez. "Resign and go." During the meeting, Bird, his voice choked with emotion, thanked those who have supported him.
"I can honestly say that in the time I've been on the council, I've done everything I can to try to make this a better community . . . not only for myself and my family, but for every family in this area.
"I'm proud of that record, and I don't have anything to be ashamed of," he said.
His speech was interrupted by some residents who shouted that he was leaving because he had "finally seen the light," because if he didn't leave now, he would be kicked out.
Friends of Bird say that he and his family are deeply troubled by the increasingly aggressive methods used by some Latinos in the community to be heard by city leaders. Bird and his fellow council members have been harangued at meetings by a group of discontented residents, and Bird's family reportedly has received threatening phone calls.
Rumors that Bird would resign had circulated around the city for several weeks, with some Bell Gardens residents excitedly discussing who might replace him. It is widely believed that the council will appoint a Latino.
"There definitely has to be a change . . . there has to be a Hispanic," Planning Commissioner Maria Elena Alvarez said this week. "You cannot continue with this kind of representation and say you are serving the people."
Hernandez's appointment could assuage the growing discontent among the city's Latino majority, but it also could raise a furor among some who have accused her of selling out, because she has criticized some Latino leaders for their combative style.
Hernandez was once allied with several of the council's most vocal critics. For most of the last year she and her April, 1990, running mate, Josefina Macias, and a growing group of Bell Gardens residents have accused the council of ignoring Latino residents.
The lack of Latino representation became the city's No. 1 issue when the City Council approved a zoning law designed to control population density by reducing the number of homes that can be built on a lot.
Many Bell Gardens residents say that the zoning change will reduce the number of homes, thus driving up housing prices and forcing low-income residents to move. Critics said that if a Latino had been on the council, the people would have had more to say about the proposal to change the zoning.
Opponents of the zone change have gathered enough signatures to force the council to submit the change to a vote of the people.
They have also filed suit against the city contesting the zone change and will try to recall the remaining council members. In the meantime, critics, most of whom are Latino, have been attending council meetings by the dozens, waving signs against the rezoning plan, chanting and interrupting meetings.
Earlier this year, Hernandez criticized her former allies for their tactics, accusing them of deliberately misleading people. In turn, Macias and others accused Hernandez of joining the council.
Macias said this week that she does not care what ethnicity the new council member is so long as he or she is "willing to work for the community."