Months after El Monte Union bond mismanagement accusations, many are still not speaking out

It’s been about three months since I returned to the good old San Gabriel Valley Tribune and since that time I’ve been following this very intriguing and very secretive agreement that keeps anyone in the El Monte Union High School District from talking about what really happened between the district and its former bond management company APM.

I’ve attended one Board of Trustees meeting, flipped through a couple of months worth of minutes and spoken to community members and have found very little evidence that the public is pursuing the whole issue.

A little background:

- After an internal audit, district officials in August cut ties with APM, which it accused of misusing money from the district’s $148 million Bond Measure D, passed by voters in 2008.
- In October, Superintendent Nick Salerno retracted those statements, citing a new settlement agreement with APM.
- Terms of the settlement kept APM and EMUHSD from elaborating on issues between the two entities. Further, EMUHSD paid APM $150,000 in back invoices and APM’s contract was not re-instated.
- EMUHSD since hired Industry-based Del Terra, which works with several surrounding school districts.

Now as I continue to follow up on the issue, even bond oversight members, who are charged with the task of ensuring taxpayer money is properly spent, are uninformed of what exactly happened in those few months.

Mike Felix, a former district employee and member of the district’s Citizens Oversight Committee, is one of few speaking up about the issue, although he knows very little about what went on.

“I really wasn’t comfortable with this whole thing. It’s shrouded in mystery,” he said, adding that he has asked district officials what exactly the accusations were, how much money was involved and which employees were placed on leave as the district continues to investigate their possible involvement in the whole alleged scheme.

When it comes to others in the community, he said they don’t want to get involved.

“I think a lot of people are apathetic and a lot of people who work here or are associated here are afraid to rock the boat. I also think there’s that group of people who hope that it will just go away. I’m none of the above. I want to know what’s going on. Sometimes I feel like I’m the black sheep.”

Board member Carlos Salcedo said that the settlement agreement keeps him and other district officials from elaborating.

“We agreed to that. It was mutual and there’s certainly things that we can’t share,” he said about the agreement.

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.”

Controversial San Dimas businessman closes downtown liquor store

San Dimas residents are reporting that local businessman and perennial city council candidate Sid Maksoudian has shut down his high-end liquor store.

Assistant City Manager Ken Duran confirmed what many people were telling me: Chalet Gourmet, 120 W Bonita Ave., is closed for business.

After calling Sid a few times, I finally got him to pick up the phone on Tuesday. With some hostility he asked why his business is any of my business.

I persisted, but my efforts were rewarded only by an obscenity-laced response that I’ll assume means “no comment.”

Then he hung up.

Sid has during the years tangled with councilmembers, other downtown business owners, the Chamber of Commerce and organizers of the San Dimas Rodeo. As far as anyone knows, Sid still lives in San Dimas, so while he might not be a presence downtown anymore, it’s probably too soon to assume this is the last of him.

Azusans allied against parking proposal

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A group of Azusa residents who oppose the city’s plans for a four-story Gold Line parking structure behind City Hall are planning a protest rally on Saturday.

The original plans for the parking structure placed it on the north side of the railroad tracks, across Azusa Avenue from Target. The city, hoping to use the Gold Line site for a retail establishment, has proposed building it on the site of Veterans Freedom Park

The Save Azusa Civic Center Park Committee (SACCPC), naturally opposes the idea.

To show just how ugly the parking structure will be, the group has put together a simulation of what they think it will look like. They photoshopped a picture of an Irwindale parking structure over the park – with remarkably realistic looking results.

For those interested in the rally, it will start at Azusa Avenue and Fifth Street on Saturday at 11 a.m. The marchers will head from there to the park for the rally at noon. Mayor Joe Rocha and Azusa Unified School Board Member Yolanda R. Pena may even be there.

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.

A forgotten milestone

In Jay Chen’s 2011 Year-in-review, he mentioned various milestones from 2011 for the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District. These included a failed recall attempt against him, a HLPUSD board ;member, and his free college application seminars.

But what he did not mention may be more important:
The changing of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. School will start three weeks earlier and end three weeks earlier. The change was controversial and may be trend- setting.
Here’s a section from our story which ran in December:

The Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board voted 4-1 Thursday night to start the next school year on Aug. 7, three weeks earlier than usual. It is the first local school district to adopt an early start calendar for the entire PreK-12 population.

School will let out May 21, 2013, instead of in late June. A similar calendar was adopted for the 2013-14 school year.

Some may call that decision of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest school district one that affects the most people — parents and children.It affect thousands of families in La Puente and Hacienda Heights. It could also lead to other districts doing the same thing.

Quite a milestone.

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.

Caltrans to shed responsibility for Highway 39

By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

After announcing three months ago it was dropping plans to reopen the long-closed upper portion of Highway 39, Caltrans is now pursuing plans to legally abandon the highway used by millions to access the Angeles National Forest.
Saying the cost of maintaining 27 miles of winding, mountain highway north of Azusa known as State Route 39 was too high, Caltrans has begun shopping it around to other government agencies.

“Now we are looking with our attorneys into how we can abandon this responsibility,” said Ronald Kosinski, deputy district director for environmental planning in District 7, which includes Los Angeles County.

“It is of minimal value to the state of California to keep pouring money into it (Highway 39),” Kosinski said.

The routine cost of maintaining the existing highway is $1.6 million per year, he said.

Kosinski said Caltrans met on Dec. 16 with the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Fish and Game to discuss different options.

“The county says they don’t believe they can operate it. We’ve also talked to the Forest Service,” he said.

Queries sent from this newspaper to these agencies were met with quick responses.

“We’ve received no formal notification of this idea from Caltrans management, so we cannot comment on it,” said John D. Wagner, assistant public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Michael Cano, transportation aide with Supervisor Mike Antonovich,
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whose region includes the foothills leading up to the forest and the Antelope Valley, also said neither the supervisor nor anyone at the county had seen or heard any formal request to take over responsibilities for Highway 39.

“There is not a compelling reason for the county to want to assume control of it,” Cano said.

Longtime cabin owner and environmental activist Glen Owens was dumbfounded over what some are calling a Caltrans trial balloon.

“Why would a state agency try to shirk its responsibilities and then think another government agency would take those over?” asked Owens, a Monrovia planning commissioner. “They just can’t pick and choose what to maintain and what not to maintain.”

Access to the forest trails and the wild parts of the San Gabriel River is critical to a plan being considered by the National Park Service to include the forest as a National Recreation Area co-managed by the NPS. That issue may end up in Congress next year.

Some said that Caltrans’ idea to legally abandon responsibility for the highway proves that the NPS needs to step in before things get worse.

“If the state does abandon it, and no one else picks up the maintenance costs, the risk is it (the road) could get shut down,” said John Monsen, environmental consultant and a Tujunga resident.

Kosinski said other parts of Highway 39, in Orange County and through Covina and Azusa, have been or still could be abandoned to those cities. Likewise, cities such as Long Beach, Pico Rivera and Temple City have taken responsibility for State Route 19, also known as Rosemead Boulevard, after the state relinquished responsibilities.

Cities did this for numerous reasons, including adding median projects or for incorporating retail redevelopment. Temple City is planning a new dedicated bikeway for the southern portion of Rosemead Boulevard.

State Route 39 stretches 40 miles from Orange County as Beach Boulevard, through the San Gabriel Valley as Azusa Avenue and into the forest, connecting Southern California residents to thousands of miles of hiking trails, offroad vehicle riding areas and numerous campgrounds. It is also a route for county workers to three key mountain reservoirs.

The road stops at the 40th mile marker at Snow Spring, a steep, rugged region about one mile north of the turnoff to Crystal Lake. Highway 39 once continued to Angeles Crest Highway near Wrightwood, but that has not been the case since 1978, when a major slide wiped out the road. Recently, Azusa businesses, cabin owners and some environmental groups lobbied for repairing the 4.4-mile section. They say having full circulation into Wrightwood and its ski areas, and into the high desert and La Ca ada Flintridge area, will bring more shoppers to the foothill cities of the San Gabriel Valley.

Despite pleas from business owners, cabin owners and at least one member of the state Assembly to reverse itself, Caltrans has dug in its heels and is basically saying it will never complete the 4.4-mile gap project.

“They are backing out of what they said they were going to do,” said Tony Glassman, safety manager at California Amforge Corp. on North Vernon Avenue in Azusa.

Caltrans and the Forest Service completed an Environmental Impact Statement in 2009 for the project. It held public hearings in Azusa. Many thought the money – about $32 million – was in hand.

An article dated October 2008 in a Caltrans in-house newsletter says the project would be started in fall 2010. “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, etc. can keep District 7 from opening up this challenging route,” was the subtitle.

In the article, Caltrans officials said they had plans to rebuild the damaged portion of 39. “`This might seem like a lot of work just to maintain an impassible highway, but it’s an obligation Caltrans must fulfill,”‘ said Damage Restoration Coordinator Bill Varley. “`The district has a long-term commitment to this highway.”‘

But it appears Caltrans had no intention of completing the project. According to the California Transportation Commission, Caltrans never “delivered the project” to the Commission. Meaning, a formal request for the $32 million was never made.

Kosinski said a big portion of Caltrans’ decision not to pursue was based on the possibility the project would hurt or kill the fragile Nelson’s bighorn sheep that live in the area.

The environmental impact statement from 2009 says the sheep are a concern, but not an insurmountable problem.

“Consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is not required as there will be no effect to any species listed as Endangered, Threatened or proposed as Endangered or Threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act with the implementation of the proposed project,” read the report.

However, since the Forest Service considered the sheep a “sensitive species,” the issue was examined in connection with the reopening of the road to Angeles Crest Highway.

The status of the sheep under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) was in question. “After a detailed review of the CESA and the Code, Caltrans understood that the San Gabriel Mountains population of Nelson’s bighorn sheep was not afforded protection under CESA or the Code,” said the Jan. 23, 2009 report signed by Kosinski.

The report stated that Caltrans wanted “concurrence” that the sheep population where the road would be rebuilt met federal exemption criteria “and therefore was not fully protected.”

“The population in the San Gabriel Mountains, a transverse range, is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal or California Endangered Species Act,” the environmental report concluded.

The report said there are about 300 sheep in the area of Highway 39, down from a high of 500-600 in the 1980s. At the project site, biologists estimated about 10 sheep existed.

Kosinski last week said the reopening project was scrapped because the state doesn’t have $32 million to $40million to complete it. He also said completing the road to Angeles Crest Highway “would be bad for the environment” and said the sheep must be protected.

While Monsen agreed with the decision not to reopen the highway at Snow Spring, he was not in agreement with Caltrans abandoning the mountain highway entirely and predicted a wave of outrage at such an idea.

“People here are not too happy about the position we are taking,” said Kosinski, saying there were those even within Caltrans who disagreed with both decisions.

steve.scauzillo@sgvn.com

@stevscaz/twitter.com

626-962-8811, ext. 2237

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.”