Los Angeles City Council members, environmentalists and community members expressed sadness and outrage Wednesday over Mayor James K. Hahn's decision last month to oust a Public Works commissioner who is close to mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.
Hahn removed Cynthia Ruiz from the $100,000-a-year job, replacing her with San Fernando Valley activist Yolanda Fuentes.
Mayoral spokeswoman Sahar Moridani said Hahn was pleased with Ruiz but made the move because "from time to time he likes to give other people an opportunity to serve the city."
"This has nothing to do with politics," she added.
But some council members, including some supporters of the mayor, questioned that explanation, saying they were concerned that Ruiz's dismissal was tied to the increasingly bitter mayoral contest.
"This was done for political reasons," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who has endorsed Hahn's reelection bid.
Councilman Ed Reyes, another Hahn backer, said he was "bothered" by the move. He praised Ruiz's "passion" for her job and said that people in his district were "very upset" she was leaving.
Councilman Villaraigosa was more forceful. "There was unanimity on the council that the decision to remove Cynthia was not about public service but politics of the worst kind," he said.
Fuentes, who replaced Ruiz, has ties to Councilmen Tony Cardenas and Alex Padilla. The two councilmen, who represent heavily Latino San Fernando Valley districts, have not yet made endorsements in the mayoral race.
Environmentalists and other Ruiz supporters flooded into council chambers Wednesday to watch as the council gave Ruiz a proclamation. She was also praised for her dedication and work in building trust between the community and the city bureaucracy. Ruiz, who lives in El Sereno, was the only one of the five Public Works commissioners from the city's Eastside.
Public Works commissioners are the city's only full-time policy commissioners and the only ones paid a substantial salary. The commissioners oversee the city's Public Works department and its 5,400 employees.
A former rehabilitation counselor, Ruiz was in charge of a number of areas, including street lighting. She also oversaw spending of the city's park and zoo bonds.
Ruiz, who said she has not publicly endorsed anyone in the mayor's race, declined to comment on Hahn's decision to remove her, except to say it had come as a surprise.
"I wasn't given a reason," she said. "I gave the job 100%."
Ruiz was appointed in October 2003 and reappointed for five years in the summer.
When she was first appointed, the mayor praised her as "an outstanding addition to the commission" who "will work as part of the team that ensures the city provides quality and efficient delivery of key services such as tree-trimming, street repair and trash pickup."