David Bermudez, second from left, browses at a yard sale in La Puente, a city… (Christina House, For the…)
During City Council meetings, the insults fly. City Hall has been a revolving door as administrators depart, often not on good terms. Sexual harassment claims have been filed; council members all but stage coups to serve as mayor.
But La Puente hit a new low this summer when the economically pressed town of 40,000 was warned that it has until the end of next year to clean up its act or risk losing its insurance, without which it cannot operate. The only other California city to face a similar fate is Maywood, which ended up laying off virtually all its employees and disbanding its Police Department.
The government agency that oversees municipal insurance coverage has ordered the city to meet a series of conditions by specific dates, including hiring a permanent city manager, giving notice of any harassment or retaliation complaints, and mandatory etiquette classes for council members aimed at teaching them how to get along.
If La Puente fails to meet the conditions, the city's coverage could be dropped or modified or the city could be required to find alternative insurance or to self-insure, both difficult options.
"We're looking at this as an early intervention," said Bob May, a risk consultant for the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, an insurance pool providing coverage to more than 120 cities and public agencies.
"This is kind of the sign of bigger symptoms going on," May added. "Like when the doctor says you have a cough, that means you need to stop smoking."
The La Puente government's inability to complete the most basic workplace functions — hire permanent administrators, behave civilly — led to the intervention.
Over the last five years, La Puente has gone through six interim or permanent city managers, one a former city clerk and another who started as a part-time City Hall volunteer.
One former interim city manager, Al Holliman, described the council as driven by "specialized interests and who their buddies are."
In his January resignation letter, Holliman said, "Frankly, the environment here is of a toxic and litigious nature that just poses too much risk.... Unless behaviors are changed very soon, this city will not be able to retain and hold onto a qualified city manager. Furthermore, investigations, litigation and poor staff morale will continue as well."
The behavior of public officials in La Puente has given way to disgust among some citizens.
"The council can't play in the sandbox together," said Robert Simons, 63, a retired service manager for a ceiling fan company who has lived in La Puente for three decades. "They just can't agree on something for the good of the people, can't be team players."
"And they go through city managers like they're changing their socks," he added.
Once filled with fruit and walnut groves and packing houses, La Puente is now a landscape of tired strip malls dotted with family-owned businesses that cater to the mostly Latino population. Its lone landmark is the kitschy drive-through Donut Hole.
Like many San Gabriel Valley cities, it is an immigrant community with little civic engagement, and many residents seem unaware of the turmoil at City Hall.
Its problems date to 2006, when the then-city manager quit and the city clerk took over running the town. When she retired the next year, an interim city manager was brought on until the council hired Josefina Kenline, who'd been a part-time volunteer at the city until taking over as the top administrator.
But Kenline resigned after a year riddled with several performance reviews.
In April, Kenline filed a claim against the city alleging that she had been sexually harassed by Councilman John Solis. She also said she was wrongfully terminated after refusing to write off a parking ticket for Councilman David Argudo. A building official later filed a civil suit against the city, stating that he was sexually harassed by Kenline before being wrongfully terminated.
More recently, the city's human resources manager lost her job after being told her position would no longer be funded. Two months later, the city clerk was put on administrative leave. Both had overseen the staff reorganization plan during which more than a dozen people lost their jobs. At least eight La Puente employees have since settled with the city after filing labor relations claims.
The insurance agency began looking closely at the city after noting its staffing and leadership issues and the conflicts among council members. The inability to retain — or even find — a city manager is also a classic sign of a city in trouble, May said.
Argudo believes the Joint Powers Insurance Authority is simply being cautious after having dealt with the meltdown in Maywood. "We're not going to disband anything, we're not going to shut down any services. We're far from that," he said.
La Puente fulfilled its most critical directive when it hired a permanent city manager, though it appeared to have all the signs of earlier shotgun decisions.