A recent La Puente City Council meeting ran in dignified fashion--if you compare it with a food fight fueled by eighth- graders armed with mashed potatoes.
As the council discussed such issues as extending elected officials' terms and regulating home businesses, novice Councilwoman Sally Holguin-Fallon continually interrupted. "But Mr. Mayor," she would say, often speaking out of turn and ignoring the rules of procedure. Soon, councilmen were rolling their eyes or cutting her off before she could go further.
When the issue was whether to move to a new item, Fallon asked to stay on the same item; when it was a proposal to take a break, Fallon wasn't ready for one. In the midst of a discussion over raising the cost of residential building permits, Fallon opposed any raise, as usual finding herself a one-woman minority. Mayor Joe V. Alderete exploded.
"Every item that comes up here, Mrs. Fallon, you knock down," Alderete snapped. "You know, I'm up to here (holding his hand over his head) with knocking things down."
Fallon tried to interrupt--again--but the mayor would have none of it, finally concluding, "We have to pay whether we like it or not; and if we don't like it, move out."
Shocked members of the audience murmured as Fallon, clad in the trademark hat she says she wears for courage, called out "Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor." Alderete ignored her and directed the council to vote.
The onstage bickering continued, eventually infecting the audience.
When Alderete let Joyce Lingor, president of the senior citizens club, make an impromptu speech thanking him for reopening the club's center, resident Robert Mandering shouted Lingor off the floor, pointing out that her comments were as out of order as anything Fallon had said. Lingor grabbed her sweater and papers and stormed out, pausing just long enough to smack Mandering on the back.
"Tonight was actually pretty calm," Fallon said after the five-hour meeting.
Sally Holguin-Fallon, a former piano teacher who unseated incumbent Manuel Garcia in April, made history when she became La Puente's first female council member. Meetings have not been the same since.
Fallon fought her way onto the council with dreams of changing city government into a more feeling, innovative body that would bring people together, beautify the city and start a community theater. Instead, the councilmen isolate her, often ignore her and routinely kill off her proposals, saying that's not what city government is for.
Fallon contributes to the rift by following her own style of city politics. Unschooled in the culture of council deliberations, she enthusiastically and naively plops her ideas onto the council agendas without setting up the support of her colleagues.
"I'd never put something on the agenda if I knew I couldn't get it across," said Councilman Louis R. Perez, who has been on the council for four years.
The results have frustrated and angered a council with its own way of doing things. Meetings that once marched along swiftly, smoothly, and dispensed with routine city business seemingly without dissent now last past midnight. Fallon may not get her ideas off the ground, but she is getting a community stage of her own to get them heard.
Fallon says her council colleagues suffer from a case of male chauvinism. They argue that Fallon has a big mouth, with neither the experience nor knowledge to back it up.
"She's got to understand that we all have to get together in the way we act and vote. She's got her own little agenda," Alderete said. "It'll be a matter of time, and then she'll be a good girl."
There is a noticeable difference in agendas here. The councilmen talk about raising fees to balance the budget of the 38-year-old city. Fallon talks about having the city help residents swap services with each other, developing a community theater group and planting flowers at the entrances to the city, hoping it might lure business to the working-class town in which nearly three-fourths of the residents are Latino. All of her ideas have sunk so far.
At one council meeting, 18 proposals from Fallon were tabled indefinitely.
"She just doesn't understand the correct way of doing things," said Charles H. Storing, who has served 29 years on the council. "I can't recall any new council member who was as aggressive and challenging as she is."
Storing, whose thin frame shakes with frustration when discussing Fallon, sees those traits as obtrusive and embarrassing, but Fallon sees them as weapons with which to fight the status quo.
"I didn't want my kids growing up believing they couldn't be effective in our world," Fallon said of her role on the council. "They said, 'You can't fight City Hall, you're only one person.' I wanted to show them one person could do a lot."
That's exactly the problem, said Alderete, who has been a council member since 1988 and mayor since April. "She's trying to do too much," he said. "She starts shoving and pushing. She's got to understand: You can't change City Hall in one day."