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Maywood council can't duck the blame or shame

The council is laying off all its City Hall employees and disbanding its Police Department because the city can't get insurance. Members say it's the last council's fault. Wrong, this one's on you and your incompetence.

June 25, 2010|Hector Tobar

The city of Maywood can't be trusted to hire a school crossing guard.

That's the verdict of assorted insurance companies. And after spending several hours this week at Maywood City Hall, watching in stunned silence as the City Council laid off just about every employee who works there, I have to agree.

"This is what we had to do," said Mayor Ana Rosa Rizo as Monday's emergency council meeting came to a close. The city's insurance had been canceled, she explained, and that meant it couldn't keep its workers.

Mayor Rizo and the rest of the City Council didn't apologize at the meeting to the more than 100 city workers getting pink slips. They should have. Because it wasn't a budgetary crisis that did in Maywood. It was their own incompetence.

In the back of the meeting room, the council's supporters cheered. They see the layoffs, which included the dismantling of the Police Department, as the purge they've long been waiting for.

"Let them all go," said Juan Ayala, an L.A. County employee and a Maywood resident since the 1960s. And then he added in Spanish: "Es una limpieza de casa," a housecleaning. He used another Spanish word to describe the city's employees: una cochinada, a herd of swine.

I've covered a lot of strange government meetings in my day. In Florida, in South America and even in nearby Bell Gardens. But nothing quite as pathetic as what I saw Monday in Maywood, a city of about 30,000 just south of downtown.

The people running Maywood came to office in 2007 promising a government friendlier to the large immigrant population. They're backed by a handful of community groups with Spanish names.

They said they were going to remake City Hall, but instead they're dismantling it. And it's the people who keep Maywood streets paved and parks clean who are paying the price. The school crossing guards were the last group of employees added to the official layoff list on Monday night, almost as an afterthought. They didn't get an apology either.

Now employees from neighboring Bell will perform most city functions, under contract. The Sheriff's Department will take the place of the Maywood police. It's the darkest chapter in the history of a city founded in 1924 by Midwesterners and other optimistic transplants to California.

The members of Maywood's current council say the crisis isn't their fault. They blame the previous council for leaving behind too many lawsuits to be settled, most linked to the 48-member police force.

"This city has been in a bad situation for a long time," Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Veronica Guardado told me after the meeting was over. "I inherited these problems."

But the public record says otherwise. Most damning is a memorandum on Maywood issued on May 26 by the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, a government entity formed by more than 120 cities and other public agencies to share insurance costs.

In its 32-year history, the JPIA has never terminated a member's coverage. Until now.

Last July, the insurance authority issued Maywood a warning, telling the city it had to end a long pattern of "passive administration."

The City Council agreed to a JPIA plan that basically required it to make an effort to govern the city. Under that plan, it was to hire a permanent city manager and finance director and negotiate a new agreement with the city of Cudahy to share police services.

Jonathan Shull, the authority's chief executive, told me that a critical moment in the crisis came in January, when Maywood declined what seemed a fair offer from Cudahy on the police contract. "If that had happened," he said of a contract between the cities, "many of the later difficulties would not have come to pass."

After a while Maywood even failed to send the JPIA periodic reports. And the council never hired a city manager. Finally the JPIA had enough. Saying Maywood had demonstrated "a consistent pattern" of missing deadlines and not fulfilling its obligations, it canceled the city's insurance.

I asked Vice Mayor Guardado how the council had managed to keep from filling the city manager position for an entire year. After all, the recession has created legions of applicants for every other job in local government.

Guardado blamed the council's political opponents, a small group whose most vocal leader is Sandra Orozco, a City Hall gadfly who uses a walker and will proudly tell you about her bigger battle — with multiple sclerosis. Her group "scared off" the council's preferred candidate for the city manager job, Guardado said.

That's a pretty pathetic excuse, if you ask me.

The Maywood City Council needs to accept a painful truth of American politics: Once you get elected, all the problems that came before you become your problems. You own them and all their stink.

You can't spend three years blaming your predecessors and then throw up your hands as the city collapses around you. But that's precisely what the council majority in Maywood has done.

"All I've seen during three years is pointing fingers," City Treasurer Lizeth Sandoval said at Monday's meeting.

Now the council's opponents are proposing another recall election — a previous one failed two years ago.

Their petition promises to "defend our city once again" and "carry out the democratic process of removing you from office."

Personally, I don't think a recall is a good idea.

Maywood doesn't need more upheaval. If the current council members are allowed to serve out their terms, one of two things will eventually happen: They'll startdoing the hard work to right the city's sinking ship or they'll run out of excuses for being unable to govern and be out of their jobs anyway.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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