G. Gonzalez / SFVS

“You dirty, despicable council!”

That is how the San Fernando City Council meeting ended on Monday, July 17, as Councilmember Jaime Soto berated the others present for adjourning the meeting without addressing his items on the agenda.

In the council’s defense, the meeting had already gone nearly six hours and it was near midnight. Mayor Sylvia Ballin and Councilmember Robert Gonzales had also agenda items that were tabled. 

It was a long meeting thanks to former state Assemblymember and San Fernando resident Patty Lopez, who helped pack the council chambers with San Fernando residents and merchants, and the media. Other organizers included former Mayor Brenda Esqueda, who was recalled from office in part because of an affair with married San Fernando police officer Alvaro Castellon.

Lopez was the ringleader of the night, and the first to speak during public comment.  

Former Assemblywoman Patty Lopez speaking in halting English said, “The reason I came today is to oppose the increase for the- with all the respect- with the hardship, I don’t think right now is the right time to increase any salary. Two million dollars in lawsuit, it’s impossible, how we going to spend the money and more increase,” she said before switching to speaking only Spanish, so that the audience can understand, she said. (There were no translation services available at this meeting.) Lopez failed to win her re-election last November and a subsequent run for L.A. school board has been more active recently at the local city council.

She was referring to Police Chief Anthony Vairo’s salary increase, which was listed on the agenda but was not discussed at this meeting or prior meetings. She also mentioned the current settlement the city agreed to with former commissioner Yolanda Haro, who was referred to by Soto as “plump” in a text message conversation.

Soto engaged in a series of text messages to other residents that gossiped about Haro, discussed her body size and Soto’s preference for having larger sized commissioners. The email messages found their way back to Haro and after she confronted Soto about the text messages, he removed her from his commission. 

Haro filed a lawsuit against the City alleging sex discrimination, wrongful termination, unlawful retaliation, hostile work environment, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She is now going to receive $62,500 for sexual harassment. 

“Ridiculous,” Lopez called the recent actions by the city council. “You should be ashamed,” as she chastised the stern-faced council in Spanish.

Many following public comments had a similar tune.They talked about lack of transparency, ridiculous lawsuits, and no public services, like translation services at this meeting, someone pointed out. 

“Where is the money? Where is our money? “ asked Lupita Camacho, owner of Alberto’s Hair Salon. She complained that every January businesses pay their licensing fee — she pays $350 — but no improvements are ever done in the business area.  

“It’s the lawsuits!” someone yelled out in the audience. There were many interruptions from the audience and Ballin constantly told them to quit disrupting the proceedings.  

Other speakers put the blame for this latest settlement squarely on the shoulders of Soto himself.

“Are we not here as the results of the actions of a council member? Is the lawsuit not because of the actions of a council member?” noted resident Jesse Avila, himself a former council member.

“[Soto] refuses to take actions on what he has done. Take responsibility for your own actions, your own decisions. You are the reason we are here. And wasn’t [Haro] not in your campaign? wasn’t she part of all your ‘Friends of San Fernando?’ Yeah, she was. She’s one of your disciples. So how is it that you can do this? Think about it.”

City Education Commisioner Michael Remenih, a Ballin appointee, added ,“I’m amazed at how much deflection has taken place with Mr. Soto’s latest lawsuit. Last year he cost the city about $43,000. This year it’s up to $62,500. And that’s not including all the legal costs that will be coming along. How much more damage is this man going to do to the City before he’s thrown out of his position, or thrown in jail?”

Also taking aim at Soto was local business owner and Chamber of Commerce member Tom Ross.

”I commend Councilmember Soto for a fantastic coverup of his screw-ups, basically,” Ross said. “It’s nice to deflect attention from the problems you have had by claiming the police are incorrect in asking for raises.. But the bottom line is, the City has done Mr. Soto a favor by settling this. We do not need another high-profile, very expensive trial.

“If you want this to go to trial, hey, good luck.”

Interim City Manager Nick Kimball said the settlement worked out by the Los Angeles firm McCune & Harber, LLP, the firm that represented the City, kept the cost of continued legal action from spiraling out of control.

The potential amount of attorney fees to continue defending the suit “would have exceeded the settlement amount the city agreed to,” Kimball said.

Soto himself addressed the council during public comment.

“You don’t have the community’s interests at stake, only yourself and the people you take orders from. You are servants, you are not leaders, and you don’t belong here,” he said, which got him a round of applause from the audience.  

Soto accused the council and city attorney of planning out the Haro lawsuit as a scheme to “make money for those who do favors for them.” Most recently, Haro campaigned for Councilmember Joel Fajardo’s re-election.  

When Soto called City Attorney Rick Olivarez “a coward” for not attending the meeting — Eli had notified the council he could not attend because of a previous commitment — and went so far as to say that the city attorney’s grandfather, the late Congressman Edward Roybal, would be ashamed of him, the insult shocked Ballin and others. Ballin broke council rules to shoot back.

“Mr. Soto, I would like to add that Mr. Olivarez is far from being a coward. He is an absolute gentleman you can take lessons from.” Ballin tried to continue, but was drowned out by Soto and the audience.  

For two hours residents bemoaned how sidewalks are not repaired, police response times are too slow, parking is a nightmare, businesses are shutting down, murders in the city are on a rise and investigations being handed off to other police departments, and the excuse residents are given is that the City of San Fernando does not have the funds or capacity to deal with these issues, yet they are quick to settle lawsuits.  

Some residents were threatening to recall the city council.  

Patty Lopez said she is not doing this for political gain and swore she is not seeking office. She was warning the sitting council members, she said.

Lopez has attended and commented on the past two city council meetings, demanding transparency, and said her letters and calls have gone unanswered.

“I’m approaching 50 years old,” she said.  “What would make me happy is to be at home knowing that my government is doing its duty.  But when they are wasting tax-payer money, which in this city taxes are high, I can’t stay at home and watch my novelas.”  

As for Monday’s agenda, the council finally approved restrictions on accessory dwelling units seven months after California legalized them, limiting them to one-story, no more than 640 square feet, and requiring the property owner to live in one of the units.  

Other notable items were the approval to move the city’s election day to correspond with national election day and allowing the city seal to be used for a fruit tree giveaway festival and 3rd Annual San Fernando Chile Festival.  

The council voted 4-1 to table the remaining items on the agenda and adjourned the meeting, leaving Soto in disbelief.  

“Dishonest.  Dishonest council members,” were his last words for the night.