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Historic Site Suffers Monumental Ills

A scathing audit of the city agency that runs Olvera Street was just the start of the bad news.

June 13, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Out in the sun, carefree tourists swirl happily through the bright Mexican shops and restaurants of Olvera Street, the narrow brick lane that's celebrated as the birthplace of Los Angeles.

But inside the colorful historic buildings, things are in soap-operatic chaos.

Management of the tiny city Department of El Pueblo, which runs Olvera Street, has been so poor that City Controller Laura Chick described it in a recent audit as "on the brink of financial disaster." The audit found that most tenants had no leases, the department was behind on paying its bills, and cash was left unsecured in the agency's office.

After the audit, employees were discovered shredding documents in the office. One employee was terminated and another placed on leave, and a new general manager has taken over the ailing $3.1-million operation.

The troubles on Olvera Street are so deep-rooted that merchants say their beloved alleyway is at risk, not only of financial ruin, but physical decay. Olvera Street is falling apart. Its famous monuments and stores are threatened by crumbling roofs, cracking plaster and foul plumbing problems.

"It's like a runaway train that nobody is doing anything about," said Mike Mariscal, whose family, like most who work on Olvera Street, has been there since the 1930s.

The 76 merchants whose families have cooked enchiladas and sold guayabera shirts have been divided into bitter camps for years. More recently, the nine citizen commissioners appointed by the mayor to oversee the department have also been split.

Only recently have city officials waded in to regain control and, even then, only after Chick briefly seized control of the agency. Now, the mayor has said he is "very committed" to preserving El Pueblo.

Among the problems cited by the audit and officials:

* Of the street's 76 tenants, at least 60 did not have signed lease agreements. Others weren't paying their bills at all: One tenant owed $130,000 to the city.

* The department went without an accountant for months, and a clerk-typist had handled the ledgers.

* The five Olvera Street parking lots, which bring in more than half of the department's revenue, were poorly monitored. In a city that pioneered the art of sophisticated -- and lucrative -- parking operations, many of the lots at El Pueblo didn't even have a cash register, not to mention an automatic ticket dispenser. And no one reviewed the books to make sure the money that did come in was being properly recorded and not disappearing into someone's pocket.

* Several of the department's more than 50 employees were being paid salaries higher than those allowed by city labor contracts, or receiving unauthorized bonuses. In violation of generally accepted accounting practices, the employee entering payroll data into the computer was also overseeing and authorizing the transactions.

* More than 100 bills totaling more than $300,000 were past due.

* Employees were spending money without authorization and submitting receipts for things they could not prove the department had actually bought or needed. In at least one case, an employee had multiple credit cards with bills paid by the city.

* When it came to special events, such as the city's Cinco de Mayo festival or its celebration of Mexican Independence Day, the department appears to have ignored city rules for competitively bid contracts.

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who took office 11 months ago and whose district includes El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, said he was "shocked and quite frankly outraged that the management and oversight of El Pueblo was in such terrible shape."

In late May, the department's general manager, Ed Navarro, resigned. Two other employees were fired or placed on leave in the same week that employees were caught shredding documents. The city attorney's office and others are investigating, but officials would not comment on their inquiries.

*

'Unconscionable'

Former City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represented the area in the 1990s, called the situation "unconscionable." But he said he knew from experience that the department was incredibly difficult to manage. Even before the current troubles came to light, it had had five general managers in the last eight years. "It's a lion's den, and most people don't want to do it," he said.

According to city legend, Olvera Street is the oldest byway in Los Angeles, marking the spot where a ragtag group of settlers from the present-day Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa founded Los Angeles in 1781. (In truth, the city actually sprang up a few blocks away but moved near Olvera Street after a disastrous flood.)

Throughout the 19th century, the street flourished under Spanish colonial rule and then as part of Mexico. But by the early 20th century it had become a haven for the city's poor and dispossessed.

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