Author: Joe Brizzolara / March 7, 2018
The Maywood City Council chambers were heavily attended this past Wednesday, February 28th. Along with the numerous residents, the back wall was lined with Sheriff’s Deputies. There were calls for resignation and recall of Mayor Ramon Medina, along with a few rebukes from his supporters. Shouting matches erupted.
A little over 2 weeks before, on February 9th, City Hall was being searched by investigators with the Los Angeles County District Attorney. While residents spoke about the shame being brought to Maywood and openly accused the Mayor and other councilmembers of corruption, an activist dressed as a clown lumbered through the room from time to time, occasionally speaking out of turn. More on him later.
This is the city of Maywood as it is enveloped in an imbroglio involving accusations of pay to play contracts and bribery of city leadership, claims of high level nepotism, and a city government which is in debt by over $15 million—two times what its yearly spending is.
On February 9th, D.A. investigators searched the residences of Maywood Mayor Ramon Medina, former Councilmember Sergio Caldaron, 13 businesses and City Hall itself seizing boxes of documents and computers.
The LA times obtained the search warrant. In it, 4 current and former council members are listed, along with current and former city administrators, 13 companies, and local political activist Edwin T. Snell. Along with the Medina and Calderon, other officials under investigation include Vice Mayor Ricardo Villarreal, City Attorney Michael Montgomery, Building, and Planning Director David Mango, former Councilmember Thomas Martin, and Interim City Manager Reuben Martinez, who is currently on a leave of absence.
The hiring of Mr. Martinez was itself the subject of criticism as Mr. Martinez has no government experience and was found to be a personal relation of Mayor Medina.
One of the mayor’s neighbors saw the raid took place early that morning. She reports seeing members of the household brought in the front yard with their “hands up”, while investigators removed “paperwork.”
When asked about allegations of corruption, she seemed unfazed. “This city’s [been] freaking crazy since I remember.”
The 2016 Audit
In 2016, the California State Auditor released a report that labeled Maywood a “High Risk” city due to substantial problems with its finances and operations. The city reported a general fund deficit for six straight years leading up to the report, which had totaled over 15 million as of June 2015. Financial statements by the city omitted critical information.
The report cites a lack of transparency in regards to hiring of administrators and awarding city contracts. The city repeatedly violated the Brown Act, which requires local legislative bodies to hold open meetings with posted agendas when deliberating on issues that dramatically affect government operations. This would include the hiring of a city manager. Between December 2015 and May 2016, State Auditors documented 6 violations of the Brown Act, 3 of which involved hiring.
At last Wednesday’s City Council meeting, chants of “Brown Act” could be heard from disgruntled residents.
On that night Michael Montgomery, City Attorney, recommended the hiring of Arnaldo Beltran as interim City Manager to replace Martinez. Councilmember Edwardo De La Riva asked Montgomery who he had conferred with on the council before making this recommendation. Montgomery stated he had spoken with one member of the council. De La Riva went on to question why they didn’t have a lengthier hiring process in which numerous candidates could be vetted. Medina took it to a vote and to the surprise of some, Medina was not able to secure a majority vote.
The council has had a track record of approving contracts that did not undergo a competitive bidding process.
According to the audit, “Maywood frequently used a noncompetitive process to contract for vital city services, and thus it has not ensured the cost‑effectiveness of those services.” Normal procedure entails a city issuing a R.F.P. (Request for Proposal) where the city specifies what is required for a potential contract. The proposal is then posted publicly or sent to multiple vendors who bid for the contract. Ideally, the most cost efficient bid is selected. Contracted services that did not undergo this process in Maywood include: law enforcement, special legal counseling, and accounting. In the case of engineering contacts, auditors found that the city’s R.F.P. lacked detail that would have allowed for vendors to submit informed bids thereby invalidating the competitive bid process.
ECM Group Engineering & Construction Management received a contract from Maywood in May of 2016. This followed the abrupt firing of Willdan Group, Inc. without any reason given. ECM did not undergo a competitive bidding process. They lobbied the council aggressively, making a legal campaign contribution of $250 to one of the councilmembers, and providing a promotional packet to the city manager that included a letter of recommendation to hire ECM written in the manager’s name for him to issue to the city council. The city manager informed the council that he had not written the letter. This contracting of ECM all occurred while they were being investigated by the city of South El Monte for overbilling the city, including logging 27-hour days for its employees. Maywood allowed ECM to begin work without even acquiring a written contract.
Other reasons for the City’s poor financial condition include officer misconduct lawsuits stemming from the now defunct Maywood Police Department and wasteful spending. In 2009, a report issued by then California State Attorney General Jerry Brown found that the Maywood P.D. had regularly engaged in practices that deprived people of their constitutional rights. Along with improper staffing, city oversight, and record keeping, the report found that the culture of Maywood P.D. was one of “sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, [and] discourtesy to members of the public.”
An example of wasteful spending includes the City Council issuing itself $250 a month automatically in travel expense reimbursements. State Auditors found this to be largely unnecessary for a city that only totals 1.18 sq miles. “Using the current federal reimbursement rate of 54 cents per mile,” the report reads, “We calculated that to justify the full payment for mileage, each elected official would have to drive 463 miles every month, an equivalent of a round trip between Maywood and Fresno.”
Councilmember De La Riva stopped accepting the travel reimbursement a few months after it was introduced. “We already receive a monthly stipend,” says De La Riva. “That should be enough to cover every travel that we have.”
Controversy, Clowns, Civic Participation
Despite its small size, the City of Maywood is one of the most densely populated cities in Southern California with around 30,000 residents. Maywood has the 2nd highest Latino majority in L.A. county at 96.4%. It received national attention in 2006 when it became a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, quickly resulting in the ire of right-wing pundits and protesters. 46.1% of residents are foreign born, according to Census figures from 2016.
Edwin T. Snell is the clown-costumed activist referenced earlier. Initially a supporter of Medina, Snell was one of the speakers at the most recent City Council meeting calling on him to step down. Snell claims he told the mayor “I’ll be glad to help you do recalls.” Recalls in Maywood occurring from 2015 thru 2017 are currently being investigated by the D.A. Snell says that he and Medina had a falling out after plans for a bingo hall on city property fell through. A percentage of the profits were going to go to Snell’s nonprofit organization.
Mr. Snell says he has initiated some 22 recalls of politicians all over Southern California. He likes to repeats a classic adage: “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often and for the same reason.”
Both City Clerk Gerado Mayagoitia and Councilmember Edwardo De La Riva claim to have been targeted by the Mayor in 2016 recalls because they were obstacles to his questionable management of the city.
“They knew I had already talked to the press about some of the stuff that was going on that I saw that was wrong. They knew that I questioned everything that they did,” says De La Riva.
Mayagoitia claims to have been in contact with the D.A. since early 2017, alerting them to illegal activity in City Hall. He says about him and De La Riva: “We don’t play their game. We’re not the guys that look the other way.”
Oscar Magaña is a former Mayor and City Councilmember in Maywood. He is calling for the mayor and others being investigated on the council to step down. He believes low voter turn-out in Maywood is a factor in problems with city leadership. “It’s a very low turn-out,” says Magaña. “If people participated, and if people knew what was going on, I think they would make better decisions.”
The Sprawl will continue to report on the ongoing corruption investigations in Maywood.