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South Gate: Where City Hall's a Mix of Soap Opera and Bad Joke

by TIMES STAFF WRITER Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2002 at 11:19 AM

Government: Officials are looking into suspected corruption. Council-watchers enjoy 'the meow lady.'

When Latinos took control of South Gate City Hall in 1994, Latinos inside and outside the city celebrated it as a sign that local governments were starting to mirror their communities.

But ethnic pride has turned to disappointment. For many, experiencing South Gate these days is like entering a dark side of Latino politics.

In the past two years, members of the City Council have tripled their salaries, awarded contracts to a long list of cronies and authorized new staff members with resumes that read like rap sheets.

The city's trial specialist, Cristeta Paguirigan, is a disbarred attorney caught embezzling thousands from clients. Raul Pardo, convicted in 1995 for punching out a newspaper photographer, heads the new community outreach department.

Treasurer Albert Robles is awaiting trial for allegedly making death threats against two state legislators. Acting Police Chief Rick Lopez's first hire was a cop once fired for tipping off suspects of a federal drug investigation.

South Gate's plight is more than a story about civic leaders eroding the public trust. The city in southeast Los Angeles County is one of the state's largest Latino-controlled communities and has become a bellwether of local Latino politics.

Concerned Latino leaders inside and outside the city responded by backing unusual reform legislation and supporting an extraordinary anti-corruption effort by local and federal authorities.

More than 150 district attorney's investigators raided leaders' homes and offices in May. The FBI has subpoenaed City Hall. And Secretary of State Bill Jones says that, compared with South Gate, elections are more lawful in Nicaragua.

But though the scrutiny might prompt other cities to clean house--or at least put an official on leave--in South Gate, leaders continue fast-tracking controversial measures and sweetening the contracts of those under investigation.

Robles, for example, was promoted to the 1,000-per-year post of deputy city manager after his arrest.

Although numerous cities have transitioned to all-Latino city councils in recent years, "South Gate has become symbolic in terms of what Latino power can be, unfortunately," said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

But Guerra and others say the city distorts the picture statewide. "In reality," he said, "19 other cities [in Los Angeles County] have Latino majorities, and they have become stable.... South Gate is not representative of Latino politics."

So how did South Gate degenerate to this point? Some call it the growing pains of a city in transition. To others, it's a modern twist on Tammany Hall-style politics.

Whatever the case, South Gate's civic divide is as wide and impenetrable as the truck-clogged Long Beach Freeway that slices through this working-class city.

"We have a dictatorship here," said Alan Treen, a 40-year resident. "If the state of California, or some responsible agency, would take over, it would be a huge improvement.... It would be a pretty radical move, but clearly due process has been suspended here."

To city leaders, however, the forces scrutinizing their actions represent an egregious case of outsider interference.

"This is a political persecution that brings to mind the Gestapo," said Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba of the raid in May.

South Gate, a onetime union town turned immigrant gateway, is in many ways a model community, a Latino version of idealized suburbia, with mid-century houses lovingly tended by families who have lived there for generations.

Unlike neighboring Watts and Lynwood, crime has never swamped this city of 96,000 residents. The parks and streets are clean.

But the political landscape is messier.

"This is the Twilight Zone of politics," says Joe Ruiz, a businessman and activist whose fleet of plumbing vans was firebombed last year in what authorities suspect was a political attack.

"People don't believe what goes on here--you have to tell them step by step, and they're still like, 'No, no, it couldn't be.' "

It is.

The city launched into another political dimension in December 2000, when voters elected a shy hairdresser named Maria Benavides to the council.

Benavides' oath at the swearing-in ceremony was the last time she addressed the public. But her votes--cast in a quiet, cat-like voice that earned her the nickname "the meow lady"--shook the city.

Along with Ruvalcaba and Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, she formed a bloc aligned with Robles, the city's elected treasurer and perceived political boss.

Ruvalcaba, Benavides, who is her cousin, and Moriel voted to boost their salaries and stripped the elected clerk of most of her duties. They also awarded contracts to former Robles associates.

Those and other moves have met with strong opposition from Latino councilmen Hector De La Torre and Henry Gonzalez. Both have helped lead a groundswell of opposition forces that include recent Latino immigrants, off-duty cops and white senior citizens.

Their complaints of corruption were heard far outside the city. The district attorney's office pounced first, gaining convictions in the past year against three Robles political allies on electoral fraud charges. The office continues to investigate the alleged misuse of public funds.

Then, in April, Robles was arrested outside his townhouse and charged with threatening to kill two state lawmakers and a South Gate police lieutenant.

Overnight, Robles' photographed image--head bowed, hands cuffed--appeared on fliers and T-shirts across town. "One down, three to go," read one, referring to Robles' council allies, called "los tres stooges" by critics.

But one month later, Robles , already city treasurer, was named deputy city manager. Now, even if convicted, he stands to collect 0,000 in severance pay.

Robles, an intelligent and volatile politician, says he is a modernizer who supports long-needed changes to the city's infrastructure.

But critics suspect Robles is intent on enriching himself at public expense and destroying the city's two police unions. Robles denies the accusations.

Whatever his motives, Robles' tenure has been tumultuous. A brief sampling:

* In May, a waste hauling firm executive said Robles demanded that his firm contribute ,000 for a political campaign. After the official refused, Robles allegedly said, "You're out of town."

The firm subsequently lost its contract renewal. Robles denies the accusation.

* Paguirigan, the city's trial specialist, is a convicted forger as well as embezzler. When leaders learned of her background, Ruvalcaba called the forgery an "innocent mistake," and she and her allies voted to give Paguirigan's firm more work.

* In February, the council majority awarded a former Robles business associate a lease on a 15-acre parcel of city-owned land for far below market value. The deal allows the businessman to lease the land to others for as long as 55 years.

South Gate is now a city paralyzed by civic mistrust. Public meetings have become boisterous bouts of civil disobedience, creating a pattern of one-upmanship that has bordered on the bizarre.

When the council majority banned clapping and booing, residents clapped and booed louder. When residents mocked Benavides' soft voice by meowing, the council banned that too.

The city has hired an intern to film some heated meetings. But he doesn't record the council. He trains the camera on the audience.

Residents responded by videotaping the council. Sometimes, half a dozen people wielding cameras line the aisles.

The seesaw battle reached a strange milestone this spring when workers installed a thick set of double doors in a City Hall hallway. Ruvalcaba said the doors were for security, saying she had been assaulted by two elderly ladies wielding a stack of papers.

For critics, the doors are a metaphor. "They want to isolate themselves," Gonzalez said. "I don't think they like to face their accusers. What are they fearful of?"

If anyone has reason to be careful, it is Gonzalez. In 1999, the councilman was shot in the head outside his home after a bitter campaign. He suffered minor injuries; the crime is unsolved.

Also unsolved is the firebombing of the plumbing vans of Ruiz, a supporter of a voter recall drive against Robles and his council allies. The effort stalled after Ruvalcaba, Moriel and Benavides replaced the city clerk.

When Jones, citing alleged electoral fraud and voter intimidation, ordered leaders to cede electoral control to the county, they refused.

"This type of activity is not something you would expect in Los Angeles County in the 21st century," Jones said.

The South Gate saga reached the state Capitol this summer when legislators unanimously approved unusual legislation forcing the city to hand over control of its special elections. Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill last month.

The legislation was spearheaded by Jones and three Latino lawmakers: Sens. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Assemblyman Marco A. Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles).

Political observers say Latino power brokers have taken high-profile roles in part to reverse the city's course, but also to ease concerns that South Gate represents the future of Latino politics.

"It's smart politics," said Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "Latino leaders are distancing themselves from the powers that be in South Gate, and are trying to put in good government reform measures."

But even with such outside pressure, the investigations and increased media attention--one local newspaper ran an editorial headlined, "Throw the bums out"--some critics hold little hope of stopping the council majority's lock-step march.

And attention inevitably shifts to Benavides, the beautician turned councilwoman and swing vote on the council.

Supporters say the quiet 29-year-old mother of two has been silenced by intimidation. Her critics call Benavides a puppet who parrots Moriel and Ruvalcaba.

Benavides has indeed seemed confused at times when she doesn't follow her allies in roll call votes. Once, when asked to vote first on a redevelopment issue, she froze.

"I'm not sure yet, hold on," she said, sparking howls of laughter from the crowd. After Benavides heard her allies vote, she voted "yes."

At another meeting, Ruvalcaba made sure her cousin wouldn't be confused with her vote.

"Maria," said the mayor. "Nay."

"Nay," echoed Benavides.

Such behavior leaves residents shaking their heads.

"This would make one hell of a movie," said Sherman Miner, a 40-year resident, on the steps of City Hall one night.

"Nah," replied Ted Chandler, a former Chamber of Commerce president. "No one would believe it."

"Yeah," said Miner. "You're probably right."

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LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 20 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
TITLE AUTHOR DATE
What the hell?!?! FA Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2002 at 11:42 AM
Speaking of corruption, CACAzoid!!! huitzilopochtli Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2002 at 6:46 PM
Ahahahahaha!!!!! FA Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2002 at 7:23 PM
Emperor Hirohito Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003 at 1:53 AM
What an idiot! US Citizen Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003 at 8:22 PM
Emporer Hirohito Thursday, Jan. 30, 2003 at 12:06 PM
Emporer Hirohito Thursday, Jan. 30, 2003 at 12:09 PM
Xochilt your ass is going to Jail SGchivo Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2003 at 10:50 AM
The IRS is gonna do a budget audit SGchivo Thursday, Feb. 06, 2003 at 8:58 AM
The IRS is gonna do a budget audit SGchivo Thursday, Feb. 06, 2003 at 8:58 AM
bitch cd Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2003 at 12:42 AM
Elizabeth Ave B. Santos Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2003 at 3:35 PM
Fuck Gonzalez, Robles, Tait, Ramirez, mendez, and the rest of them sluts your dad Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2003 at 3:42 PM
Funy shit Neva Wednesday, Apr. 30, 2003 at 9:32 AM
South Gate "City of Mystery" Big Bad Daddy Monday, Jun. 23, 2003 at 8:33 PM
stupid beaners beaner hater Thursday, Aug. 07, 2003 at 9:57 AM
Kauffman Ave NBrito Friday, Sep. 19, 2003 at 8:09 AM

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