Los Angeles' public housing agency moved to evict nine tenants last week after they protested at the Rancho Cucamonga home of the agency's top executive.
The action so outraged members of the City Council that on Wednesday they ordered the Housing Authority to immediately halt the action. They accused agency head Rudolf Montiel, who receives nearly $450,000 in salary and benefits, of being "childlike" and of acting like "Big Brother."
Council members voted unanimously to ask the state attorney general to investigate Montiel's actions, prompting cheers from a crowd of angry tenants who had packed the chamber to tell their stories.
Montiel did not appear at the meeting, despite being summoned by council members. In an interview later he said it was not safe for him to be in the council chamber. Because the tenants filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing him of violating their 1st Amendment rights, his lawyers had advised him not to talk, he said.
"I would say the premises weren't safe," he said.
A spokesman for council President Eric Garcetti dismissed the notion that City Hall was not secure.
"We have full confidence in the metal detectors, cameras and two police departments securing our chambers, and Mr. Montiel should too," the spokesman said.
Montiel denied that his agency had retaliated against the tenants, who were protesting over proposed changes to how rental subsidies are classified, saying that those who went to his residence Sept. 26 violated the rules of living in public housing.
"We have a duty to consistently apply our policies, and that applies to the person who is being evicted because their child was tagging a wall in South L.A. … or the person who threatens a Housing Authority employee," he said.
A lawyer for the authority said that 20 sheriff's deputies were called to the scene, where 50 protesters had gathered. During the demonstration, Montiel, his wife and son were trapped by "this screaming and shouting mob," attorney Joseph Stark told the council.
"For over an hour, the Montiel family was held captive in their own home, afraid that at any moment this unruly crowd, being exhorted on by people with bullhorns and loudspeakers, would crash through the front doors or windows … and attack them," Stark said.
Council members were not persuaded.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn said enduring protests is "part of what comes with the territory" of being a public official.
"The fact that Rudy and his family were imprisoned in their million-dollar home.... I don't know why that is so terrible, to be imprisoned in your own home. It's not like they had him held captive somewhere else," she said.
Tenants denied threatening Montiel.
"I am not a threat. He is a threat to Housing Authority tenants," said Victoria Mendoza, a 38-year-old mother of three who lives in the Rancho San Pedro project. With tears running down her cheeks, Mendoza said she had received a 30-day notice to vacate her apartment and fears that she and her children will become homeless.
Wednesday's clash was the culmination of growing tensions between tenants, council members and the Housing Authority over a plan to convert some of the city's 6,800 units of public housing into units that require federal rental subsidy vouchers.
Because the vouchers have a different formula, the change could leave tenants paying higher rents, said community organizer Bill Przylucki.
Montiel said that under the plan, which is being pushed by the federal government, tenants would not see increases.
Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, called the changes "the biggest and most permanent housing policy decision [the agency] has made in decades."
Agency officials thwarted efforts to weigh in on those changes and refused to meet with advocacy groups, activists said, a charge Montiel denied, saying that more than 20 public meetings were held.
In frustration, organizers said they chartered school buses on a Sunday afternoon to take protesters to Montiel's home. Using photographs taken by Montiel and his neighbors, Housing Authority officials identified nine tenants for eviction.
Councilman Richard Alarcon said he met with Montiel three days after the protest to discuss the department's long-term plans. During that conversation, Montiel pulled out photographs and asked the councilman if he recognized anyone in the crowd, Alarcon said.
Council members also expressed outrage at Montiel's City Hall absence, and demanded that he show up at a future meeting.
"I'm in shock. Where's Rudy? Where is he?" asked Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "If in fact, Rudy took pictures of people [exercising] their 1st Amendment rights, and that was then sent and they were evicted, he should be fired."