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South Gate Clerk Gets a Tough Lesson in Politics

Ex-teacher Carmen Avalos was stripped of duties after cooperating in corruption probe.

January 20, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

She is the go-to person in South Gate for investigators seeking paper trails of political corruption. Carmen Avalos, the no-nonsense city clerk, provides all documents, answers all questions, returns all phone calls.

Yet she is the one who some say is being treated like a criminal.

The political powers of this working-class city in recent weeks have stepped up a yearlong campaign that has stripped away almost all of Avalos' duties, including her right to oversee the city's crucial voter recall election next week.

She is barred from staff meetings. She was unable to give her children Christmas presents after the City Council slashed her $76,000 annual salary to $600 a month. Her three-member staff was taken away.

Meanwhile, the council continues awarding pay raises and lucrative contracts to ex-convicts and people under investigation over allegations of corruption. Some of them roam City Hall freely; Avalos needs an appointment to visit the administrative offices.

"I knew this wasn't going to be Disneyland when I took this job," said Avalos, a 33-year-old former high school biology teacher, "but I didn't expect the twilight zone."

Encouraged by her high school students to run for office, Avalos admits she was a political neophyte when she took to the streets in her 2001 campaign. Two years into her four-year term, she is battle-weary and bruised, but she still says she will stand up to a political machine that has steamrolled almost all its other City Hall enemies.

Her strange plight captures South Gate's upside-down political world at its most extreme. Though clerk-city council power struggles are nothing new in municipalities, Avalos' situation is unusual in its intensity and in the response from authorities. Then-Secretary of State Bill Jones, after reviewing Avalos' complaints, declared the city's elections the most corrupt in the state.

Avalos earns praise from the district attorney's office and state officials for her cooperation in several corruption probes. One of the few elected officials in the city who has not been under investigation, Avalos in March was honored by the state Legislature during Women's History Month. The award celebrates the contributions to society of honorees from each of the state's legislative districts.

"She is a classic example of a teacher wanting to get involved in civic service," said state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), who nominated Avalos for the award. "I chose her especially because she has been able to maintain her integrity and honor. She has held her head high, doing her job to protect the voters of South Gate."

Shortly after receiving the honor, a crowd of council supporters cornered Avalos in a hallway and called her Malinche, referring to the Aztec mistress of Hernan Cortes, whom many Mexicans consider a traitor.

Avalos' critics call her a biased clerk who has taken sides in the city's volatile politics. City Manager Jesus Marez says Avalos is a disruptive presence who was banned from meetings because she was verbally abusive.

"She doesn't get along with anybody and she wants to smear everybody with accusations," said Treasurer Albert Robles, the city's most powerful politician, who is targeted in the recall election, along with his three City Council allies.

But Avalos says she is a victim of political retaliation for refusing to bend to Robles' demands. She says Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, also a recall target, has never forgiven her for defeating Ruvalcaba's younger sister during the election.

And the bias claims have no merit, Avalos said, noting that a judge dismissed a council-approved lawsuit that alleged she favored the recall effort.

"It's a hostile takeover of an independent elected position. Carmen is under assault by these people," said Councilman Hector De La Torre, a critic of the council majority. "She has legal standing, which they're just trampling on."

For Avalos, it's ironic to be sidelined as the election date nears. Her desire to clean up the city's notoriously vicious campaigns -- candidates have been falsely called child molesters and deadbeat dads -- was the reason she entered politics.

When she ran in 2001, her high school students had playfully, but sternly, dared her to turn her anger into action.

Avalos knew little about local politics and was strapped for cash, but she and about 30 students canvassed door to door, up and down tree-lined streets. Campaign "hit piece" mailers falsely called her a carpetbagger and a boozer, but she won the election by 400 votes.

Two days later, her welcome to South Gate politics arrived: She found a mangled teddy bear on her front lawn, its throat slashed and its arms torn off.

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