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.

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.”

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.

Reports of Lola Storing’s death greatly exaggerated

Former La Puente councilwoman Lola Storing is doing fine in a Yorba Linda rehab facility.

Councilman John Solis passed on word last week that letters sent to Storing’s La Puente home were returned, marked “deceased.” No one with the city had heard any news about Storing, leaving the question open.

Storing has a listed Yorba Linda number, and a call quickly confirmed she’s healthy.

Storing was in two auto accidents shortly after losing the November 2009 election, according to a Tribune report the following January, and many in the La Puente community were worried after not hearing from her.

La Puente: Kenline update, Holliman’s last meeting

Former City Manager Josi Kenline is still negotiating the terms of her departure.

A settlement agreement was listed on tonight’s council agenda, but I’m now hearing the item will be pulled. Her contract called for $160,000 in severance.

I’ve got an article pending on Kenline’s management of City Hall in the past year. It’s been holding for a couple weeks, but should see print later this week. Stay tuned.

Also tonight, this should also be interim City Manager Al Holliman’s last meeting. He’s going back to his full-time teaching position at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri. The council has already interviewed two candidates to replace him — still on an interim basis — and will hire one tonight.

Planning Commission appointments are also on the agenda, along with the Puente Pride and Education commissions.

Appropriately, decision on marijuana dispensaries involves procrastination

For all the huffing and puffing going on in La Puente regarding marijuana dispensaries, it is taking the city some time to decide if they are going to outlaw the businesses.

Debate sparked late last year when 10 stores opened before a cap was placed on marijuana dispensaries in the city.

Now four months since city officials said they wanted to ban the businesses, they have decided to wait until July before further discussion after business owners threatened litigation.

Now city officials are trying to decide if they are willing to take a hit from lawsuits if they decide to oust the dispensaries, or if they are going to pass and allow them in the city.

LA PUENTE – Nearly four months after saying they wanted to ban medical marijuana dispensaries here, the City Council decided late Tuesday to postpone a vote to push the shops out and consider its legal implications.

The council will meet behind closed doors to discuss potential lawsuits from dispensary owners on July 13 and publicly deliberate again on the ban on July 27.

“We need to know what it’ll cost us before we go down this road,” said Councilman John Solis, who proposed the delay.

Although the threat of lawsuits loomed for weeks, the council decided at the last minute to seek more time. Several owners of the city’s 10 dispensaries have threatened that any action to push them out of the city would face a stiff legal opposition.

The council’s move was approved 3-2.

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