A year before Blanca Figueroa was elected South El Monte’s mayor in 2003, the city was a disaster.
It had no city manager. The finance director quit.
The City council even considered firing all the department heads.
Leaders back then seemed proud of the chaos.
“People who want the (city manager) job have to realize you deal with five different personalities, and some realize that you have to put up with a lot of crap,” then-Mayor Art Olmos said unapologetically.
Then came Blanca Figueroa.
She won the mayor’s position in 2003, and, despite a few bizarre incidents here and there, she had a good run in the 21,000-resident, mostly industrial city.
In November, Figueroa decided not to seek re-election for mayor and lost a try for a council seat.
Last week, the council appointed Willhans Ili to fill an open seat, which killed Figueroa’s chance of getting back on the council this year.
Voters first elected Figueroa to the City Council in 1997, and she became mayor in 2003. Her first order of business was to reduce the amount a council member could spend per day from $75 to $50.
She also led a successful effort to take away City Council members’ credit cards.
In October, the city saw its first major retail development when officials opened the Marshalls center on Durfee Avenue.
In addition, South El Monte has had only two city managers since 2003. Gary Chicots served ably from 2003 to 2005. And Anthony Ybarra has done a good job since taking over in 2006. I know that doesn’t seem like any big accomplishment, but South El Monte used to burn through city managers.
While the city has made progress, Figueroa had a few bizarre episodes, too.
In 2007, she spent nearly $21,000 in travel expenses, most of it in South El Monte’s Mexican sister city.
And in December 2008, she made headlines when her fellow council members decided she could no longer work all night at City Hall.
She had essentially turned the City Council office into her own personal work center, complete with slippers, a drawer full of food and a “Mayor” sign on the door.
And during much of the 2000s, she threw her support behind developer Ron Jenkins, who never made good on his promise to develop a retail center near City Hall. But most of the council supported Jenkins.
Figueroa was a colorful character, to say the least.
A phone call with her always lasted at least 30 minutes. She talked in a stream-of-consciousness and assumed I knew all the insider information on local politics. And she was always, always gabbing about her medical problems. But she had an easy way of talking that made the conversation fun. She bragged about hanging out with all the “old-lady” councilwomen from surrounding cities.
When she lost her council bid in November, she was confident her fellow City Council members would appoint her to a seat vacated when Councilman Louie Aguinaga was elected mayor.
They didn’t, even though she got the most votes of the losers.
Instead, she got nice little double cross in a town where people shouldn’t leave home without back armor.
The current council seems pretty unified, however. Maybe it was time for Figueroa to go. But this new group ought not embrace ruthlessness.
They shouldn’t forget how nasty things were seven years ago.
Ben Baeder is the Deputy Metro Editor of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.