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Lynwood Cancels Credit Cards

October 23, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

The Lynwood City Council voted unanimously late Tuesday night to cancel the city-issued credit cards that several members had used for travel to beach resorts, expensive restaurants and other questionable purchases.

The move comes after the district attorney's office began investigating possible misuse of public funds and after a Los Angeles Times report detailed many unreimbursed purchases since 1998.

"This will definitely stop a lot of the misuse," said Councilman Ramon Rodriguez, who had limited his use of credit cards.

"In years past, there was no accountability for the credit cards. They could use them for anything."

The credit card controversy has became a major issue in this working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County, where council members are among the highest paid part-time politicians in the state. Though the cards were meant to be used only for city-authorized travel, the rules appear to have been followed loosely over the years.

Former Councilman Paul Richards was recalled from office last month, in part, some say, because of the use of his card for first-class airline travel, theater tickets and trips to Puerto Rico and other destinations.

Though all five council members voted to discontinue the credit cards, Councilman Louis Byrd said revoking the cards was a "stupid" idea driven by politics.

"It wasn't a big issue with me. I didn't care one way or another," said Byrd, who had rung up $75,000 in purchases since 1998.

Byrd and Richards had long supported the use of credit cards as a matter of convenience. They said the city-issued plastic made it easier to make hotel and airline reservations for conferences.

The only reason the council voted to discontinue the credit cards, Byrd said, was that other members, unlike him, believed they didn't possess the self control to use the cards responsibly.

"If they can't trust themselves to do the right thing, how can they expect the people to trust them?" he said.

But Councilwoman Maria Santillan, who joined the council last month and proposed the measure, said Byrd and Richards were among those who couldn't control their spending.

"Some council members have not shown they were responsible, and that's the reason we had to get rid of the cards," Santillan said. Many cities do not issue credit cards to elected officials, but in Lynwood, each council member had two cards.

Byrd used his for extensive travel, gasoline and online purchases. Councilman Arturo Reyes bought airline tickets to Brazil for his wife. Mayor Fernando Pedroza used his once to pay for a samba show in Rio de Janeiro.

Some council members, including Pedroza and Reyes, reimbursed some of their expenses. Byrd said his travel expenses were justified because he had attended conferences. But many other questionable purchases remain unexplained.

In April, the district attorney's office opened an investigation. And last month, investigators requested from the city the same credit card statements used for the Times report.

At Tuesday's meeting, Pedroza cut his cards up with scissors. But some considered his action hollow.

They said Pedroza could have discontinued the use of credit cards sooner but was acting now only because of community pressure.

"It was just a show," said Miguel Figueroa, a resident who first made public the questionable credit card use by taking the city to court to obtain credit card statements.

Pedroza was not available for comment Wednesday.

The move to discontinue credit card use was viewed by some as the first step in scaling back perks and compensation for the officials.

Though their positions are part-time, some members have made more than $100,000 a year by attending five-minute meetings that pay $900 and racking up thousands of dollars in per diem payments.

In coming weeks, Rodriguez said, the council will focus on putting Lynwood's compensation in line with that in other cities. He said it would eliminate the "greed" factor that motivates many to seek council seats.

"You would have a better quality of people running for office," Rodriguez said.

Thirteen candidates are seeking two open seats in November's election.

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