La Puente to discuss more travel guidelines tonight

The La Puente City Council will hold its regular meeting at 7 tonight to discuss several items, including one that requires council members to gain approval by the council before traveling for a conference.

The item is being brought forward by Councilman David Argudo, who by far spent the most and traveled the most of any council member in 2011.

According to city documents, Argudo went on nine trips and spent about $11,686. Many of those expenses include hotel-room goodies ($10 chocolate-covered almonds), room service ($63 breakfast) and very expensive dinners – a $109 (plus a $21 tip) dinner at Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse and a $156 (plus $25 tip) at the Signature Room at the 95th – while on a trip to Chicago.

Mayor John Solis, on the other hand, went on seven trips at a cost of $7,768, which included a $75 valet parking charge he billed to the city for a trip to Indian Wells.

He insisted to me during a call he made to me soon after a travel story I wrote came out that it was a necessary charge because the hotel requires it. Calling it a one-sided story – because I included that pesky charge – he asked me to look the expense report over again. I discovered that I failed to mention that on top of those $75, he also gave out about $35 in tips to the valet driver. Then I went to the hotel’s website and saw that the regular parking fee is $12 a day. Nice try.

Councilman Vince House went on six trips totaling $6,438. While on a trip to Oxnard in October, House rejected an $83.50 mileage refund he was due because he stated that he was already receiving auto allowances, according to documents.

Councilman Dan Holloway went on two trips, one of which he spent $2,584 and the other he did not charge the city for.

Councilwoman Nadia Mendoza has not traveled since she was elected to office in 2007.

Records show that the City Council collectively spent $28,475 in 2011.

Each council member, though, can spend about $8,400 for the fiscal year, which runs from July 2011 to July 2012.

Spending at least $3,066 since July, Solis recently went to the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. I’m not sure on the cost of that trip yet.

But according to the warrant register on the agenda tonight, it sounds like Argudo, who has spent $7,347 since July, recently went on a trip to San Francisco. For someone who said last month that he was under his travel budget, I hope that trip was less than the remaining $1,053 he has.

We’ll see how tonight’s meeting goes.

La Puente still searching for permanent staffers almost a year after laying off 13 managers

The La Puente City Council last voted to hire a contracted agency to oversee the city’s planning and public works services while they continue to search for permanent administrators to man City Hall almost a year after 13 department heads were laid off.

The council agreed to hire Civic Solutions, Inc., for $135,000 for a 12-month period while council members continue recruiting to fill the position of the Director of Development Services, a consolidated position that was created after city officials reorganized last March.

Mayor John Solis and Councilman David Argudo are on an ad hoc committee that is responsible for interviewing and hiring applicants.

Of the six permanent positions created under the reorganization, the council has hired three — the city manager, director of administrative services and the recreation services manager.

After interviewing 17 applicants for the development services position — which will oversee planning, public works, development services, building and safety and engineering — city officials have yet to find a permanent replacement.

Councilman Dan Holloway said he was concerned that the positions that were supposed to be filled last July are not being filled and that City Hall is not moving forward.

“Our intent was and hopefully still is to hire a permanent replacement and the process should go forward,” Holloway said. “My questions is how are we going to do that if we’ve had 17 applicants and we found none of them acceptable? What exactly are we going to do?”

City Manager Bret Plumlee said the council will continue to search the market, go back out and advertise the position and begin recruiting again. The contract is good for up to a year, and there is a provision allowing the council to terminate services when needed.

Solis said the contracted worker was a good alternative.

“A lot of cities are going this way to go with a contracted workers,” he said. “We’re saving with this. Nobody is going to a full-time person with benefits. Benefits and PERS are killing cities way too much.”

Civic Solutions has been serving on an interim basis since September and will continue to do so until the city hires a permanent manager.

Because a full-time employee would cost $178,200 in salary and benefits for, the move will save the city about $43,200, officials said.

The cost of providing the services will be funded from the vacant Development Services Director position.

“We’re still looking for permanent solutions,” Argudo said. “At this point in time we have a cost-savings measure. They’re doing a phenomenal time. We’re moving forward and we’re keeping our options open.”

La Puente Mayor’s next appearance will be …

At a special La Puente council meeting earlier this month, Mayor John Solis requested moving the regular Jan. 10 council meeting to Jan. 11.

“The reason I did that was because I don’t think we’re going to have a quorum that day,” Solis said.

He explained that Councilwoman Nadia Mendoza recently had a few deaths in the family, so she likely wouldn’t be able to attend.

Solis also mentioned that he and Councilman Vince House would be out of town at a conference in Sacramento for “one-on-one” time with legislatures and to voice their concerns about the end of redevelopment.

Councilman Dan Holloway wasn’t so convinced – was there something specifically on the agenda that Solis didn’t want approved by a majority vote?

“I want to make sure that we’re being told (Mendoza) won’t be here,” he said. “I will support this if I have assurance that there’s not going to be a quorum. I don’t want to move a meeting just because two council members will be out of town and three of them will be here.”

No fuss, no muss. It was easily approved by the three present members.

And then on Monday, Jan. 9., County Sheriff’s officials released a sketch of a man suspected of raping a La Puente girl. The TV crews were all over it – and so was John Solis.

Residents captured glimpses of Solis being interviewed by several local television stations that night. (Too bad I can’t find any online videos to post. Except this one.)

Anyway, I go about my business and attend a very late night public hearing in West Covina the next day – the day Solis was supposed to be at a conference, right?

Nope. He was at the same West Covina meeting I was at. His friend, Mayor Mike Touhey, is on the council.

“I thought you were going to a conference?,” I asked Solis.

Looking a little flustered, he said he was sick and dragged himself out of bed to do interviews that morning. I guess he was fully recovered by the time the West Covina meeting came to an end at about midnight.

Solis assured me House went to the conference.

Still, at the Jan. 3 meeting, both Solis and House got defensive about the number of conferences they attend and the expenses they incur.

Council members have come under heavy scrutiny for the trips they take by members of the Coalition of Concerned Residents, a watchdog citizens group that recently formed.

“I keep hearing and hearing over and over again that we’re blowing the city’s money going to these conventions,” House said. “We don’t go up there to party and have a good time. I don’t get paid one penny more for those days I’m out of town. I only get my expenses and that I have a legal right to have.”

“Don’t just assume we’re out having a party every time we’re out of town,” he added. “I’m doing my duty. Please don’t berate me for doing it.”

Solis agreed.

“We do go and we’re going to continue to go to it because it benefits the city,” Solis said.

Maybe that stance changes when TV cameras are around.

La Puente’s election gets underway

The nomination period for La Puente’s April 10 general election has opened, with three seats up for re-election.

Seats for Council members Nadia Mendoza, John Solis and Dan Holloway are open for four-year terms.

Incumbents Holloway and Solis pulled nomination papers. Mendoza has yet to pull papers, elections official Carol Cowley said.

Residents who also pulled papers include Planning Commissioner Charles Klinakis, former Puente Pride Award Committee chairwoman Violeta Lewis and Raul Alvarado.
The nomination period ends at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 13.

If nomination papers for an incumbent are not filed by Jan. 13, voters have until 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 18 to nominate candidates other than the incumbents, Cowley said.

La Puente to discuss hiring new city attorney

The La Puente City Council will hold a special meeting to discuss city attorney services at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 15900 E. Main St.

The council will recess to closed session to discuss city attorney services and then discuss appointing a law firm and/or individual to provide city attorney services.

Jaime Casso has been city attorney on an interim basis for more than a year.

Council members John Solis and Vince House appointed themselves to an ad hoc committee to discuss retaining a new city attorney.

Word on the street is Alvarez-Glasman and Colvin Law Firm – which also represents West Covina, Montebello and Pico Rivera – is a finalist.

West Covina may begin to broadcast meetings again

WEST COVINA — Residents may soon be able to stay home and watch city meetings live — something they haven’t been able to do since the televised programming was axed in 2008.

After going three years without broadcasting its meetings to West Covina households, the City Council this week instructed staff to research the cost of potentially implementing video webcasts or live television broadcasts of City Council and Planning Commission meetings.

“We want that transparency and we want to open that window and I’m happy,” said Councilman Fredrick Sykes, a long-time proponent of live broadcasts. “It’s going to be great for the seniors who do not like to drive at night and those who are disabled. There’s thousands of people we represent and it’s for the benefit of the people.”

The program began more than 20 years ago. It cost the city about $180,000 annually when it was broadcast through Charter Communications cable television, officials said.

West Covina began providing audio of City Council meetings in October 2010. And while those meetings are streamed lived, it takes a few days for them to be archived and available on the city website through the Sire Agenda system, which also provides city documents.

Still, West Covina is one of the few cities of its size that does not provide any type of broadcast of meetings to residents, Sykes said.

“It’s like the radio the way they have it right now, and it’s behind the times,” he said. “We represent over 150,000 people and not everyone has Internet due to poverty or what have you. But if we do both the Internet and the cable, now we cover a wider (spectrum) and can cover almost everybody in the city.”

La Puente reinstates employee gift card program

LA PUENTE — Christmas is coming this year to La Puente city employees.

The City Council last week narrowly approved reinstating the city’s annual employee holiday gift card tradition, which was axed two years ago as a cost-savings measure.

The council at its Dec. 13 meeting voted 3-2 to reinstate the gift card program for its 26 full-time and 36 part-time staffers. Full-timers will get a $75 gift card and part-timers will get a $25 gift card.

Though the cost of the program isn’t large — at about $2,800 — it proved divisive, like many things on the council dais.

Councilmen David Argudo, John Solis and Vince House voted in favor of the perk, saying that staffers have taken on double the work since 13 of La Puente’s department heads were laid off earlier this year.

Dissenting were council members Nadia Mendoza and Dan Holloway, who said they preferred that the cash-strapped city find alternative ways to fund a holiday program, including utilizing the council’s budgeted travel fund money.

“Since then we’ve had significant financial problems and significant layoffs, so it concerns me that we’re sending the wrong message,” Holloway said.

La Puente has a $3.7 million budget deficit.

“I thought that because of our financial situation, and we’ve laid off 13 staff members, that it’d be more appropriate to show our appreciation to staff members for their hard work, which they deserve, …for the council to pony up some money from our personal funds rather than the general fund,” Holloway said. “It doesn’t say much to say you’re voting to use public money to thank the staff.”

The annual gift card program started in 1999 as a replacement to a holiday party, which was later brought back. The first year, it cost the city about $1,700 to give employees $50 each. The amounts increased to the current rate in 2005, according to city officials.

Officials in 2008 opted not to cancel the program, which then cost $4,230 to fund, according to staff reports. It was canceled the next year during the employees’ union contract negotiations, officials said.

Argudo and Solis said the staff is underappreciated and their hard work needs to be rewarded.

“We’ve had some layoffs and everybody’s been working double jobs,” Solis said. “We gave our employees Christmas parties up until last year. We keep taking from them, and we need to at some point give back a little bit to them, and I think they would appreciate it. They work hard and it’s just something from us to say thank you.”

West Covina councilman Sykes experiences new role

Newly elected West Covina councilman Fredrick Sykes and his family are still getting used to him sitting on the dais – so much so that Sykes wife, Dana, takes photos of him at the meetings.

Before the official start of Tuesday’s council meeting, the proud wife pulled out her phone and took a photo of Sykes, who was smiling and sitting in his seat.

“I think she was taking a photo to send a (text message) to our daughter,” the laughing Sykes said.

Sykes, 60, went into the November election considering himself the underdog since he had failed to capture a seat in two prior elections. But he ended up beating out former Councilwoman Karin Armbrust with more than 230 votes.

After years of attending council meetings, being a community activist and speaking his mind, Sykes, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, was officially welcomed to the dais on Dec. 6.

Still learning the ropes in his new role as city councilman, Sykes has one thing to say about being elected: “Be careful what you wish for.”

West Covina set to hire retiring city manager under 960 plan

The West Covina City Council at this week’s meeting unanimously voted to hire City Manager Andrew Pasmant – set to retire at the end of the month – under the 960 plan.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System allows retired employees to accept a temporary appointment and work less than 960 hours per fiscal year. It would save the city about $18,000 a month.

Read Staff Writer Martiza Velazquez’s story posted earlier this week:

WEST COVINA – After a decade on the job, City Manager Andrew Pasmant has announced that he will retire this month.

Pasmant’s official date of retirement is Dec. 30, however he may stick around longer to help the city transition to a new city manager, a process city council members said could take awhile.

“As I told the council in a letter, there are a lot of challenges that the city will still face and if they need my help, I will stay a little longer to make the transition as easy as possible,” Pasmant said. “The city has been good to me, so I want to reciprocate.”

Councilmembers are slated to discuss tonight how to begin their search for a new city manager and what to do in the interim.

One of their options is to hire Pasmant temporarily under the “960 plan.”

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System allows retired employees to accept a temporary appointment as a “retired annuitant” as long as the employee in the position works less than 960 hours per fiscal year.

The move could save about $18,000 a month, according to city documents, because the city would not have to pay benefits including retirement payments, health care benefits and accrual of vacation, sick leave and floating holidays.

Pasmant has also offered to stay in his position under the terms of his current contract until an agreed-upon date in 2012.

“I know it’s going to be amicable, whatever the situation is,” Pasmant said. “I know we have a good relationship and I’ll leave it to council what they think is in the best interest of the community.”

Councilman Steve Herfert said the process to find a new city manager won’t be easy or quick.

“What we’re faced with is we won’t probably find anyone as experienced as him. They will probably be newer and we’re going to take our time. We’re not going to do this real quick,” Herfert said.

Herfert said Pasmant has been a major asset to the city. The city has recently been recognized for being energy efficient and business-friendly.

“(City managers) set the tone for how the employees react and how professional the city is and I think we’re a very respected city and I think that has to do with his leadership,” Herfert said.

After retiring, the 56-year-old Pasmant, of Downey, hopes to do more philanthropic work and plans to stay active in local organizations.

“I think I have been very blessed to have worked here,” Pasmant said. “I’m very proud of the accomplishments we’ve had here in the city.”

Coalition of Concerned Citizens forms in La Puente

La Puente City Hall has seen its fair share of ups and downs – a lot more downs most recently.

Over the past year, City Hall has lost 13 department heads due to a reorganization and has gained a new city manager, who is still getting the hang of things after years of instability at the top. It is currently addressing several risk management issues brought forward in August by its insurance agency, the Joint Powers Insurance Authority, because of many lawsuits and claims filed against the city. It has until Dec. 31, 2012 to turn things around.

And now, a group of residents and business owners say those issues – and several new city retrofitting policies that they say threaten the livelihood of downtown business owners – have forced them to form the Coalition of Concerned Citizens to keep the City Council and staff members accountable.

“There’s a whole lot of issues of wasting government money on trips and hassling citizens,” founder Frank Sanchez said. “We want to make a statement. We’re tired that our concerns aren’t being heard and we want a transparent government. We’re looking to get answers.”

A group of about 60 residents, business owners and former and current city staff members attended the Coalition’s debut meeting last month and its members have vowed to attend as many city meetings as possible to make their presence known.

Many say they are frustrated by “petty politics” within the City Council and the micromanaging atmosphere perpetuated by some council members – pointing to some ad hoc committees that recently formed, including an organizational committee and a city attorney request for qualifications committee.

City Manager Bret Plumlee, with the help of Councilman David Argudo and Mayor John Solis, hired Ward T. Komers last month to be the city’s Director of Administrative Services and Roxanne Lerma as the new Recreation Manager.

Komers previously worked as the administrative services manager for Riverside County’s building and safety and code enforcement departments. Lerma previously worked for the city of Walnut and Yorba Linda, and was a Parks and Recreation Commissioner for Placentia while she was still in high school.

Despite the progress, La Puente still has a ways to go, coalition members said.

“Our coalition mission is simple,” coalition spokesman Craig French told the council on Nov. 22. “The betterment of La Puente through community involvement and responsible and transparent governance.”

The group will be speaking during oral comment at the City Council meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 15900 E. Main St.

The coalition will hold its own general town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Big Blue Building, 123 S. First St.