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The Real Power for Latinos May Lie Behind City Hall Thrones

March 02, 2003|Frank del Olmo

Latino power is usually equated only with getting more Latinos elected to public office. But what we may need are fewer politicians and more qualified and independent Latino bureaucrats. That is a conclusion one can reasonably reach after studying the civic crisis in several predominantly Latino cities southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The most notorious example is South Gate, a poor but proud town that unwittingly became a symbol of nasty politics and possible corruption. Three City Council members and treasurer and political boss Albert Robles were recalled in January and may yet face legal charges for having brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

South Gate's problems would be a black eye for Latino activists even if the turmoil had been limited to one city. But the contagion bred there may have infected neighboring cities.

Consider Bell Gardens, a city of 44,000 just east of South Gate. There, political controversy swirls around Maria Chacon, a former apartment house manager who 12 years ago led a recall campaign that ousted four Anglo council members and replaced them with a Latino majority. At the time, some declared the recall the start of a revolution. But the "revolution" long ago degenerated into political infighting, new recall attempts and, most recently, the indictment of Chacon on charges she illegally orchestrated her appointment as city manager, a job that pays $80,000 per year.

An appeals court is weighing the validity of the indictment. Chacon's lawyers have argued she was unaware that taking part in giving herself a well-paid city job might be illegal because state law barred her, as a City Council member, from voting on measures that could financially benefit her. Chacon says Bell Gardens' city attorney assured her the appointment was lawful.

Chacon concedes that she does not have the training and college degrees normally associated with managing even a small city. But she insists her knowledge of Bell Gardens and concern for its people qualified her for the position.

"I learn on the job," she told me. "Universities can't teach you to be dedicated to a community." Perhaps not. But it strains credulity to suggest that Chacon's fellow council members could not find a qualified public administrator, as she claims.

Just ask Henry Taboada, who recently retired after serving 3 1/2 years as city manager of Long Beach, the culmination of 25 years working for that city. He has also been active in the Hispanic Network of the International City Managers Assn. The network was established to help Latinos advance in public management careers.

Taboada says there are hundreds of Latinos who would be interested in working for small cities like Bell Gardens and South Gate. Start in Texas and look at any city in the Southwest with a large Latino population, he suggests. "You'll find lots of Latino department heads -- your next generation of city managers, trained and ready to go."

Taboada believes that at least some elected officials don't dip into this pool of Latino talent because they really aren't interested in good public administrators. Smart civil servants tend to be of independent mind, after all.

"What happened in South Gate, Bell Gardens, [and some other southeast cities] were power plays," he says. "New council members got elected and thought they would run things. Then they realized the city manager had the real power. So they fire him and look for someone new to do their bidding."

Taboada may be on to something. The overwhelming majority of California's 466 cities, including giants like San Diego and San Jose, have city managers. Only Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland have strong, elected mayors.

So it probably would be a good idea for eager Latino activists to think less about running for mayor and more about studying to become city managers. It surely beats the roundabout, possibly illegal, way Chacon did it.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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