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Monterey Park Council Feud Escalates in Suit Over Bus Contract

January 09, 2002|RICHARD WINTON and LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There is nothing quite like a political family feud Monterey Park-style.

The City Council is being sued by one of its own, who is seeking to void a $1.5-million bus contract because he alleges that another councilman works for that company's owner.

Councilman Benjamin "Frank" Venti has filed a lawsuit against the city asking a Pasadena Superior Court judge to issue an injunction voiding a bus contract awarded to Parking Concepts Inc. in October by council members.

Venti contends that the contract violates state law because Councilman Fred Balderrama has a financial interest in it because he is employed by a firm owned by Parking Concepts' owner, Gill Barnett.

While Balderrama did not vote to approve the contract, the suit filed Friday alleges that he did influence the process with staff and colleagues. The suit contends that violates a state statute designed to prohibit the appearance of impropriety.

The suit also seeks to remove Balderrama, an 11-year incumbent, from office and forbid him to hold any elected position in the state.

"What Fred and the city did here just doesn't sit right with me," Venti said. "I felt so uncomfortable with it I had to go to court. I gave them several opportunities to rectify it."

Balderrama would not comment on the suit, which names him, the city and the company as defendants. But prior to its filing, Balderrama had said accusations over the contract were unfounded and politically motivated. "Everybody has known me for all these years. They know that I've always abstained from everything that could be a conflict," he said in a November interview.

Balderrama did not participate in the 2-1 vote last Oct. 3 to approve the contract with Parking Concepts. City lawyers informed Balderrama that he should not participate in the vote as it would warrant a conflict of interest under the Political Reform Act.

Barnett had hired Balderrama in October 2000 and in August 2001 Barnett started a new company, PCI Fleet Maintenance, which is managed by the councilman.

Monterey Park City Atty. Anthony Canzoneri said that since Balderrama worked for PCI, and not Parking Concepts, he did not have a financial interest in the contract approved in October.

But Venti's suit argues that Balderrama was still an employee of Barnett and stood to gain from the awarding of the bus contract.

Venti's lawyers add that Balderrama last June also addressed the West Covina City Council on behalf of Parking Concepts. The suit contends that the councilman's move to PCI Fleet Maintenance was part of a conspiracy to cover up his financial interest. Barnett did not return telephone calls Tuesday seeking comment.

The recommendation for Monterey Park to hire Parking Concepts came in September 2001 from Amy Ho, a city transportation manager. The company had submitted the lowest bid.

Ho, in an interview, said Balderrama had given her a Parking Concepts business card sometime in 2000 identifying him as a vice president.

Canzoneri said there was nothing unusual in the councilman giving a staffer his business card and it occurred months before any bids were submitted.

But City Treasurer Mitchell Ing said Balderrama's connections raise concerns. "There is a motive to everything he does, and that is personal gain," Ing said of Balderrama.

The councilman in turn characterizes the treasurer as trying to use the issue as platform for a council bid. Venti and Ing are longtime political foes of Balderrama.

The council approved Ho's recommendation in October on a 2-1 vote. Balderrama recused himself and one of the five council seats was vacant at the time.

The suit contends that vote violated a law that requires a majority of the five-member body to approve all expenditures. Canzoneri said that majority is only needed to pay out on contracts, not to agree to them.

But Venti's attorney, Gregory Moser, said that by signing a contract, a city is agreeing to pay.

"I just want a court to decide," Venti said.

Judge Coleman Swart is scheduled to hear the case July 3.

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