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Ousted City Manager Gives Council an Earful : Politics: In a role reversal, Claude Booker accuses them of favoritism, fraud and breaking campaign promises.

March 26, 1992|JILL GOTTESMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELL GARDENS — Former City Manager Claude Booker, who was ousted a day after the new City Council took office last week, showed up at a council meeting this week to turn the tables on his longtime tormentors.

Surrounded by his wife, daughter and several supporters, a confident, jovial Booker heckled the council members from his seat in the crowd. He also delivered two strongly worded speeches in which he accused council members of such sins as lying, hiring new employees to pay off political debts and breaking campaign promises.

"It was a great honor to be fired by you," he said Monday, speaking loudly over the boos and hisses that filled the room from supporters of the new council. "I always played fairly and honestly, but now I realize that this has no place in your kind of government. I know I couldn't have worked for you, and I'm proud of that."

One member of the audience called for Booker to be put out with the trash. Screams of "Liar!" filled the council chambers. But Booker continued his verbal assault.

"Your deceit and your dishonesty, your lies and your fraud is all going to come out," he said, shaking a finger derisively at the council. "You can run, but you cannot hide. "

It was a complete reversal of roles.

Booker, who stoically had endured taunts and jeers of council and administration critics for years, had become the attacker, the heckler.

New Mayor Josefina (Josie) Macias and council members George T. Deitch, Rodolfo (Rudy) Garcia and Frank B. Duran, some of whom had heckled and berated Booker and former council members over the years, now found themselves absorbing the attack in stony silence.

At one point, Booker directed his attack at Deitch. The new council member plaintively looked toward interim City Attorney Alan Gross, who quietly shook his head.

The ousted city manager has described the appointment of Gross and two other hires as "political pay-backs" for help during the successful campaign in December to recall four council members and the special election earlier this month to replace them. Macias, Deitch, Garcia and Duran, who helped lead the recall effort, won the special election. Gross served as an attorney for the council members during the last campaign.

Booker also questioned the council's decision to hire Lawrence Salazar as interim assistant city manager and attorney Henry S. Barbosa as special counsel. Booker described both as "pay-backs" for work during the campaign. Salazar replaced Robert Dickey, who was named interim city manager after Booker was fired. Gross and Barbosa each will be paid $160 an hour, according to city documents.

Salazar, who has twice lost bids for a City Council seat in Montebello, ran the direct-mail campaign for the new council members during this month's special election. He could not be reached for comment. Barbosa, who is the city attorney in Montebello, would not comment on his relationship with the new council members, but said it is not unusual for a city to appoint a special counsel when there is a lot legal work to be done. Booker made a second trip to the microphone Monday after the council rejected a rent-control proposal that he had drafted before he was fired. Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez, the only council member not recalled in December, proposed the ordinance, which would have rolled back rents to September, 1991, rates and limited average rent increases to between 3% and 4% a year, but no one else would support it. Mayor Macias then asked the staff to "look into rent control."

Booker pointed out that the new council members had said they favored rent control during their recent campaign. "Congratulations on your continued misrepresentation" Booker lectured. "It will be interesting to see how you continue to lie to the people in the upcoming election."

Deitch, Garcia and Duran are running again in the regular April 14 municipal election.

Booker, whose ouster by the new council had been expected, is still negotiating the terms of his severance. He has two years left on his $112,000-a-year contract, and has said he expects the city to honor the agreement. In a closed session with the council last week, Booker said, he rejected a six-month severance offer made by the city.

The ousted city manager said he won't sit quietly on the political sidelines. He said he will continue to speak out at council meetings and work against the current members' bids for reelection.

He has formed the Committee to Fight Fraud, in which he currently is the only member, and said he is going door-to-door hoping to uncover alleged ballot irregularities in the March 10 special election. In that election, Macias, Deitch, Garcia and Duran won office with an unprecedented number of absentee ballots.

"I will devote all my time to tracking down residents who say they were intimidated," said Booker from his new office, a space rented from Bell Gardens businessman Bazil Sugden.

Booker said he and suspended City Clerk Leanna Keltner have collected 20 sworn statements from Bell Gardens residents alleging they were intimidated during the voting earlier this month. The statements have been sent to the district attorney's office, which has started an investigation.

"I just want to make sure that the next election is a fair one," Booker said.

The winners in the March 10 election have vehemently denied the allegations of Booker and Keltner. Macias described the charges as "sour grapes."

The new council this week also directed staff to draw up an ordinance that would overturn a recent move by the departed council majority to guarantee up to six months of severance pay to some high-level city administrators.

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