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City Council Locked in a Controversy Over Keys : Pico Rivera: New councilwoman says locks to City Hall were changed because colleagues suspect her of snooping. She has moved out in protest.

August 04, 1994|PSYCHE PASCUAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Helen O'Hara didn't expect a key to the city after her shocking election to the Pico Rivera City Council four months ago. After all, she admits, she was a political outsider with no friends in city government.

But now, she contends, she doesn't even have a key to City Hall.

A fuming O'Hara accused her colleagues of changing the locks because they suspected her of snooping around desks on evenings and weekends, a charge she heatedly denies. O'Hara and her council colleagues have been given new keys that allow them to use their council offices, but make other city offices off-limits after-hours.

O'Hara now has moved out of the building in protest.

"There was no reason to change the locks," she said. "Supposedly, we're the bosses."

Mayor Beatrice Proo said she ordered the change in locks after cleaning crews reported O'Hara lingering around city employees' desks after-hours.

"Janitors were concerned that she was going through desks at night," Proo said. "I thought the best thing to do was to restrict access to the whole City Council."

When Proo asked the council members to turn in their old keys for new ones giving them access only to their council offices, O'Hara refused. O'Hara said she now works on city business out of her home.

The key flap is just the latest sign that things haven't changed much for O'Hara, a longtime council critic who lobbied tirelessly--and generally futilely--for a variety of causes before she was elected four months ago. She stunned politicians and even some of her own supporters by topping a field of 11 candidates vying for three council seats.

O'Hara never had a honeymoon with fellow council members. Shortly after her election, she antagonized the council by supporting an unsuccessful legal challenge to Councilman Gil De La Rosa's election.

After that, O'Hara's pet proposals to expand homeless services and create more committees were soundly rejected by council members, who said her ideas were unworkable. The council also turned down her proposal to televise council meetings.

Then at the last meeting, she voted against the other council members on nearly every item, giving little explanation.

"We're fed up," De La Rosa said. "She doesn't want to work with any of us."

City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said he often finds O'Hara suspicious of city staff and uncooperative.

"We have been nothing but professional and polite," he said. "I've been in the business for 30 years, and I've never encountered this situation before. It's been bizarre."

Even O'Hara's supporters admit her political style can be counterproductive.

"I used to call her a 'bull in a china shop,' " said Adriane Jepson, a longtime friend. "She can do a lot of damage if she doesn't think. She has a lot of heart, but she's not polished."

O'Hara was considered a long shot in the April council election.

The 33-year-old businesswoman and mother of two had never run for political office. She decided to run after she, her husband and two sons were evicted last year from a mobile home park in Pico Rivera and forced to spend three months living in a van.

Ruth Garcia, manager of the Westland Estates mobile home park, said O'Hara was evicted because she failed to pay $5,000 in back rent and frequently feuded with neighbors. Garcia said one neighbor accused O'Hara of throwing a can of dog food through her front window during a dispute--a charge that O'Hara denies.

O'Hara ran a low-budget campaign that emphasized her long history of challenging the city. Two years ago, for example, she participated in unsuccessful recall efforts against Councilmen John G. Chavez and Garth Gardner after they voted for an unpopular utility tax.

When the ballots were counted in April, O'Hara led with 1,949 votes, 324 more than second-place finisher Chavez. De La Rosa, a former council member who had lost four years earlier, captured the third seat.

O'Hara said she won't change her style. After the dispute over office keys, she fired off letters to local newspapers accusing fellow council members of "mindless leadership."

"I've been called a 'gadfly' and 'rabble-rouser,' " she said. "I still wear those names like badges of honor."

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