Justice & Fair Play Prevails in San Fernando

A proud community takes pride in a proud moment as three officials are recalled

By Diana Martine, Editor, San Fernando Sun
Published on LatinoLA: November 8, 2012

Justice & Fair Play Prevails in San Fernando

Originally published at the San Fernando Sun

Through tears of joy that replaced tears of frustration, "It's a New Day in San Fernando!" was the repeated mantra at the victory party held by the recall committee at Casa Torres in San Fernando, California on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

While final election returns were slow to come in, it was still clear to the very happy crowd that Mayor Brenda Esqueda, former Councilmember Mario Hernandez and Councilmember Maribel De La Torre had been recalled from office. Hernandez had resigned from the council in July, but his name was still on the ballot.

(LatinoLA Editor's Note: About 85 percent of voters supported recall petitions against Mayor Brenda Esqueda and Councilwoman Maribel De La Torre. A similar percentage voted to recall Mario Hernandez, though he resigned from the City Council in July - 11.7.12)

Replacing them in those council seats will be Jesse H. Avila, Robert C. Gonzales, and Joel Fajardo.

Residents said they could "finally breathe in some fresh air," after suffering from a long list of city council "abuses" that included what they considered "backroom deals to put in an administration that would do their bidding," a decorum ordinance passed to silence public outcry, violations of the Brown Act, conflict of interest voting, and the fallout and scandal following then Mayor Hernandez' public announcement from the dais of his extramarital affair with De La Torre.

At the same time, Mayor Esqueda's extramarital affair with local police Sgt Alvaro Castellon was already very public. Residents complained for months that Esqueda used her council position to protect Castellon from disciplinary action, and ignored conflict of interest rules to still vote on police matters, all the while, "as the city turned" and dipped lower into red ink. "I think at the next council meeting, I'll go up to the public podium singing, 'Happy Days Are Here Again,'" said resident Robert Ortega, after hearing the announcement the recall passed.

Ortega said he has been escorted out of the council chambers five times because he had refused to abide by the arbitrary "decorum ordinance" imposed on residents, which wouldn't allow them to raise issues outside of the council's agenda if it was contrary to Esqueda's personal agenda.

"What's the police going to do now when they don't have me to escort out of the chambers?" Ortega joked. "Seriously, people deserve a better council. We are now going to start new."

Having a strong police presence in the council chambers was a regular request by the San Fernando council, as disgruntled residents packed the meetings to call for the trio's resignation.

At the same time, members of the San Fernando Police Officers Association (POA) enthusiastically backed residents in their effort to recall the council members, after De La Torre, Esqueda and Hernandez ÔÇô before he resigned ÔÇô refused their urging to "quietly step down."

"Maribel De La Torre always said she wouldn't go down without a fight, so the next time I see her, I'm going to ask her what it feels like to be General Custer," Ortega asked.

"Custer cost hundreds of lives, and De La Torre cost us much; she took our town down."

Residents like Ortega remembered that after the previous recall election held in 2010, De La Torre bragged SHE controlled the council. She was often viewed as the "shotcaller," putting Esqueda and Hernandez out front while she was behind the scenes providing the strategy for the three votes, making it nearly impossible for other council members Sylvia Ballin and Antonio Lopez to penetrate.

The final straw for Ballin came when the council trio hired City Attorney Maribel Medina, who Ballin often described as "the least qualified, and the most expensive." Then as a first order of business, Medina, Ballin and others believed, was involved in paving a way for the council trio to pass a "decorum ordinance" that limited what residents could say during the public comment period that were contrary to Esqueda's , De La Torre's, and Hernandez's agenda, or exposed an ugly truth against them.

Outraged, both Ballin and Lopez walked off the dais at one meeting, joining residents who vacated the council chambers in a show of protest. They emptied the room, giving the council trio no audience.

POA President Irwin Rosenberg said it took 18 months of community organizing to recall Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez. "There's a lot of pride in this community, and tonight we are restoring integrity in San Fernando," he said.

"This has been a long time coming," Rosenberg continued. "When they [Esqueda, De La Torre, Hernandez] talked about corruption, I can tell you, it wasn't at the police department. I believe it was at city hall."

Rosenberg said that the council trio's punitive actions impacted people's lives and careers. "There are some whose retirement has been adversely affected."

"A whole lot of people were tired by what was going on," said Julian Ruelas, recall committee chairman described. "It [the recall] wasn't done by a few people, it was done by the community."

At times it was difficult to keep the recall's momentum going, as nearly a year passed since the most public scandal hit with Hernandez' confession. Many residents had hoped to vote last June, but with the city's financial condition, the committee acquiesced to piggyback with the Presidential race.

The recall committee secured outside political support that included Alex Padilla, Felipe Fuentes, Howard Berman and Michael Antonovich. Still, Ruelas said it was "too bad" the recall committee had to spend the amount of money and manpower it did on the recall."

"San Fernando now needs to go forward in a functional way. We all choose to live here, and with integrity going forward we will give ourselves a quality of life, bringing in new businesses including restaurants," Ruelas said.

"Voters have said, 'Brenda we don't want you in San Fernando' or 'Maribel and Mario, we'll have a bus waiting for you to get out of San Fernando,'" Rosenberg candidly expressed to gathered supporters. "The nine candidates took the risk to run even amid all the embarrassment that was brought upon the city."

Ruelas acknowledged that Tuesday's vote won't mean an immediate end to twists and turns. San Fernando City Clerk Elena Chavez said the final election results still need certification by the Registrar-Recorder County Clerk on Nov. 30, allowing the recalled council members to stay in their chairs for an additional month.

In addition, while Fajardo and Gonzalez have won, they will have to run again in March of next year to hold on to their seats. Avila's term isn't up until March, 2015.

Meanwhile, there are still scenes that have yet to play out in the city's drama. De La Torre has a court date in Dec. 10 to face charges of battery and vandalism after having a physical fight with Mario Hernandez on June 28.

Residents are concerned that they could still be disruptive during their remaining time in those council chairs. They asked Councilmember Lopez if city staff still has to "take their orders." Lopez said that matter has yet to be resolved, but he supports De La Torre and Esqueda exiting sooner rather than later.

Ruelas also acknowledged that the committee would be considering taking action against unethical campaigning leading up to the recall.

"We will still be looking into the matter of those illegal slanderous flyers," Ruelas said. But, he said, for now, "San Fernando needs to go forward in a functional way. "The recall wasn't accomplished by a few people, it was done by the community. A whole lot of people were tired by what was going on." "We want people who will restore integrity," said Rosenberg. "People who will work and make decisions in the city council chambers, not in the bed chambers."

Lopez said he was in contact with Ballin, who was on vacation. "When I told her the recall won, she cried with joy." "This city is a historic city, and it is historical for what they [the recall committee] did," said L.A. Fire Department Commissioner Alan Skobin. "This is a new beginning for San Fernando. The voters have removed the tarnish so the city can shine again."

"The best thing that came out of this," Avila concluded. " was we all got to know each other in this process, and we talked to our neighbors. We have set the bar higher."

Calls requesting comment from Brenda Esqueda, Maribel De La Torre were not returned....hmmm...wonder why?

...and the sun continues to rise in the fair City of San Fernando...thanks for your support!

About Diana Martine, Editor, San Fernando Sun:
The San Fernando Sun continues to represent the voice, heart and soul of the good people of San Fernando
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