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South Gate: Where City Hall's a Mix of Soap Opera and Bad Joke

Government: Officials are looking into suspected corruption. Council-watchers enjoy 'the meow lady.'

September 08, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Latinos took control of South Gate City Hall in 1994, Latinos inside and outside the city celebrated it as a sign that local governments were starting to mirror their communities.

But ethnic pride has turned to disappointment. For many, experiencing South Gate these days is like entering a dark side of Latino politics.

In the past two years, members of the City Council have tripled their salaries, awarded contracts to a long list of cronies and authorized new staff members with resumes that read like rap sheets.

The city's trial specialist, Cristeta Paguirigan, is a disbarred attorney caught embezzling thousands from clients. Raul Pardo, convicted in 1995 for punching out a newspaper photographer, heads the new community outreach department.

Treasurer Albert Robles is awaiting trial for allegedly making death threats against two state legislators. Acting Police Chief Rick Lopez's first hire was a cop once fired for tipping off suspects of a federal drug investigation.

South Gate's plight is more than a story about civic leaders eroding the public trust. The city in southeast Los Angeles County is one of the state's largest Latino-controlled communities and has become a bellwether of local Latino politics.

Concerned Latino leaders inside and outside the city responded by backing unusual reform legislation and supporting an extraordinary anti-corruption effort by local and federal authorities.

More than 150 district attorney's investigators raided leaders' homes and offices in May. The FBI has subpoenaed City Hall. And Secretary of State Bill Jones says that, compared with South Gate, elections are more lawful in Nicaragua.

But though the scrutiny might prompt other cities to clean house--or at least put an official on leave--in South Gate, leaders continue fast-tracking controversial measures and sweetening the contracts of those under investigation.

Robles, for example, was promoted to the $111,000-per-year post of deputy city manager after his arrest.

Although numerous cities have transitioned to all-Latino city councils in recent years, "South Gate has become symbolic in terms of what Latino power can be, unfortunately," said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

But Guerra and others say the city distorts the picture statewide. "In reality," he said, "19 other cities [in Los Angeles County] have Latino majorities, and they have become stable.... South Gate is not representative of Latino politics."

So how did South Gate degenerate to this point? Some call it the growing pains of a city in transition. To others, it's a modern twist on Tammany Hall-style politics.

Whatever the case, South Gate's civic divide is as wide and impenetrable as the truck-clogged Long Beach Freeway that slices through this working-class city.

"We have a dictatorship here," said Alan Treen, a 40-year resident. "If the state of California, or some responsible agency, would take over, it would be a huge improvement.... It would be a pretty radical move, but clearly due process has been suspended here."

To city leaders, however, the forces scrutinizing their actions represent an egregious case of outsider interference.

"This is a political persecution that brings to mind the Gestapo," said Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba of the raid in May.

South Gate, a onetime union town turned immigrant gateway, is in many ways a model community, a Latino version of idealized suburbia, with mid-century houses lovingly tended by families who have lived there for generations.

Unlike neighboring Watts and Lynwood, crime has never swamped this city of 96,000 residents. The parks and streets are clean.

But the political landscape is messier.

"This is the Twilight Zone of politics," says Joe Ruiz, a businessman and activist whose fleet of plumbing vans was firebombed last year in what authorities suspect was a political attack.

"People don't believe what goes on here--you have to tell them step by step, and they're still like, 'No, no, it couldn't be.' "

It is.

The city launched into another political dimension in December 2000, when voters elected a shy hairdresser named Maria Benavides to the council.

Benavides' oath at the swearing-in ceremony was the last time she addressed the public. But her votes--cast in a quiet, cat-like voice that earned her the nickname "the meow lady"--shook the city.

Along with Ruvalcaba and Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, she formed a bloc aligned with Robles, the city's elected treasurer and perceived political boss.

Ruvalcaba, Benavides, who is her cousin, and Moriel voted to boost their salaries and stripped the elected clerk of most of her duties. They also awarded contracts to former Robles associates.

Those and other moves have met with strong opposition from Latino councilmen Hector De La Torre and Henry Gonzalez. Both have helped lead a groundswell of opposition forces that include recent Latino immigrants, off-duty cops and white senior citizens.

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