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Bell Gardens Lays Off 13 Staffers in Cost-Cutting Move : Jobs: Assistant city manager is among victims. Action comes amid a recall effort against two council members.

June 18, 1995|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bell Gardens last week laid off 13 full-time city employees, including the assistant city manager, as the City Council struggled to close a $4-million funding gap and fend off a recall effort against two council members.

The layoffs come three months after the council dismissed the city manager--the third city manager fired in as many years--for allegedly mishandling relations with the Bicycle Card Club, a casino that pays taxes amounting to 60% of the city's operating expenses. With a steady decrease in the card club's revenues, council members had no choice but to lay off some employees to cut costs, City Atty. Arnoldo Beltran said.

Since 1991, revenues from the casino have dropped from $10.8 million to a projected $9 million this year. Meanwhile, 38 positions were created that cost the city $2 million a year. Casino officials attributed the revenue drop to poor past management and competition from nearby card clubs.

The last pink slips were delivered to the laid-off employees Monday morning. And just hours later, critics of Mayor Maria S. Chacon and Councilman Ramiro Morales came to the council meeting to serve a letter of intent to recall the two council members.

Chacon and Morales both won by landslides in last year's council election and now form part of a Latino majority on the five-member council. But the letter of intent accused both council members of breaking campaign promises and reverse discrimination.

They "promised no more political deals, no more power grabbing, and wise management of our peoples' tax dollars," said Hugo Escalera, reading aloud from the letter. Escalera, a council candidate last year, is leading the recall campaign.

"This is not about revenge," Escalera said afterward. "People started calling me because of the problems that started when [Chacon and Morales] took over office. They hire people from outside of the city when they promised to hire from within."

Both council members have defended the city's hiring practices, and in a statement released last week, Chacon also defended the city's budget proposal. "Not one single community service has been eliminated or reduced by this budget," Chacon's statement said. "Instead, this budget makes Bell Gardens more efficient and challenges each of us to be more responsive to the community's needs."

Ironically, Chacon and Morales were the leaders in a nationally publicized 1991 recall of four white council members who were accused by activists of racism, an effort that Escalera and other organizers of the current campaign also backed.

Laird Halverson and Frank Vasquez, free-lance political consultants who are helping Escalera collect the 1,600 signatures necessary to force a recall election, said Chacon and the City Council discriminate against white employees, a charge also made by ex-City Manager Charles Gomez, who was fired by the council in February. Four of the 13 laid-off employees were white and the remainder were Latino, city officials said.

"The three council members that vote together [Mayor Pro Tem Rudy Garcia, Chacon and Morales] cut loose the people they had a vendetta against," said Halverson, adding that at least one of the layoffs was racially motivated.

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"There's a mentality that if you are not brown or [do not] speak Spanish, you don't belong in Bell Gardens government," Vasquez said.

The mayor dismissed the allegations and said she is being attacked for taking swift action to straighten out the city's finances.

In front of a council chamber packed with residents both for and against the current administration, Chacon defended her efforts Monday with some of the populist rhetoric that she used in last spring's campaign.

"When we came in here, we lifted the lid of the pot and found that the beans were already burned," Chacon said. "We didn't make this mess, we are cleaning it."

Likewise, Morales defended himself by asking members of the audience to lay blame not on this City Council but on past council members and city administrators.

The city's 1995-96 budget proposal of $19.4 million would close the $4-million deficit by cutting staff, emergency relief funds, capital improvement projects and administrative expenses. Five currently vacant jobs would not be filled and, in addition to the 13 full-time staffers cut Monday from the 180-employee work force, two part-time employees were let go. The layoffs and unfilled positions will save $1 million, officials said.

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Capital improvement projects will be cut by $1 million, and cuts to both emergency-relief funds and a proposed gaming enforcement department will save another $1 million. An additional $1 million will be trimmed from administrative costs through all city departments.

Employees who were laid off, including Ralph Aranda, the city's director of parks and human services, emotionally defended their positions at the meeting, but council members said the city's spending was out of line with its population of 47,000.

Nevertheless Sally Ramirez, an employees' union representative, was critical of the layoffs.

Speaking on behalf of the laid-off employees, Ramirez said department heads had submitted a plan to the council to cut costs without layoffs.

But the council rejected the department heads' proposal, contending it would have hurt the level of city services.

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