In a climate of political hostility marked by an effort to recall all but one City Council member, city officials are undertaking a sweeping program to improve their relationship with the community.
In a key part of the program, Chicago-based experts in cross-cultural communication will give council members and city employees training in the cultural differences between Anglos and Latinos. Almost 90% of Bell Gardens residents are Latino, and a largely Latino group is now seeking the recall of the four Anglo council members, whom they have accused of being rude and insensitive.
The sensitivity training in cultural differences is one of about a dozen recommendations made last year after a study by a governmental affairs firm. The firm was hired by the city to help officials regain touch with the rapidly changing community.
City officials will also begin a series of Town Hall meetings and meetings with local religious leaders during the next nine months. Other changes include:
* Foot or bicycle patrols by police officers and police patrols of parks.
* The expansion of existing park programs and senior citizens' activities.
* The creation of a community housing committee to examine ways to improve housing in the city.
* The establishment of several gang prevention programs.
The city has already hired a Spanish interpreter for council meetings, begun Spanish translation of articles in the monthly City Hall newsletter, and has established a special committee to plan community events--all of which were recommended in the $12,000 study conducted last September by Fullerton-based Calderon, Bacon and Associates. City Manager Claude Booker said the City Council has budgeted about $100,000 to pay for the new programs. The two-day seminar by Kochman Communication Consultants Ltd., scheduled for Sept. 9 and 10, will cost $21,000, he said.
"We just want to make this a more united community," Councilwoman Letha Viles said. "I wish it would prompt people to come forward with their ideas, which is what we have been looking for all along."
Viles, who was elected to the council almost five yers ago, faces recall along with Councilmen Allen Shelby, Robert Cunningham and Douglas O'Leary. Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez, who was appointed to the council four months ago, has been threatened with a recall by the No-Rezoning committee, but so far no action has been taken.
Mary Ann Barron and Josefina Macias, both longtime Bell Gardens residents and members of the No-Rezoning committee, which is sponsoring the recall, said that it is too late for the council to try to reach the community.
"I think the plans sound great," Macias said. "But I think they are trying to pacify the community, and we can't be fooled any longer. Who knows what they will do down the road."
The friction between the council and the No-Rezoning committee started late last year, when the council approved a plan to reduce housing density by limiting the number of homes that can be built on a lot in certain neighborhoods.
The council said such a plan was necessary to keep growth under control and prevent city services from being overwhelmed. No-Rezoning committee members say such widespread rezoning is unneccessary and will eventually drive poor residents from the city.
Tensions escalated when the No-Rezoning committee began a recall drive about two months ago. Committee members accused council members of ignoring the needs of the community. Three of the targeted council members retaliated by sending out mailers that labeled committee members "slumlords and convicted criminals." The committee filed its recall petition signatures last month, and is waiting for the Los Angeles county registrar to validate them so a date for the recall election can be scheduled.
"We don't trust them; we don't want them in office," Barron said. "That seminar to teach them about Hispanics is a good idea. It will be nice for the next council."
Cunningham, O'Leary, and Viles said that they did not expect to sway their critics.
"I think if we came out and said we were for motherhood, our critics would disagree with us," O'Leary said. "They are so anti-council, nothing we do will convince them we want to make changes."
One of the most vocal critics of last year's council study was Hernandez. Before she was appointed to the council in April, Hernandez condemned the study as a waste of money and a ploy by council members who feared that they would be voted out of office. In an interview Thursday, she said she still does not believe that the study was necessary or that by implementing its recommendations the friction between the community and council will end. But she said she now believes that the council wants to better communicate with its constituents.
"Even if they are doing this just to save their jobs, I know for a fact that they want to change," Hernandez said. "To me, it doesn't matter why they are doing it, as long as it gets done. They are trying, and that's all I want."
Father Henry Gomez, pastor of St. Gertrude's Catholic Church, echoed Hernandez's sentiments: "Anything that would break down this barrier between the council and the community would be great. I don't like to see this confrontation, and it's time for it to end."
The Program Here are highlights of the Bell Gardens City Council's plan to improve community relations: "Sensitivity" training in cultural differences.
Town Hall meetings and meetings with religious leaders during the next nine months.
A Police Department park patrol.
Police foot or bicycle patrols.
Expansion of existing park programs and senior citizen activities.
Community housing committee to examine ways to improve housing.
Establish gang prevention programs.