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Appointment Fuels Ongoing Dispute in Hawaiian Gardens

Times Staff Writer

The recent appointment of a close friend of Mayor Kathleen M. Navejas as director of the Parks and Recreation Department has added fuel to a controversy over the way the beleaguered department has been run the past year.

Leonard Chaidez, 37, was hired despite placing fifth in a field of seven applicants who were interviewed by a three-member independent panel earlier this month.

The City Council voted 3 to 2 two weeks ago to hire Chaidez, executive director of the privately operated Hawaiian Gardens Social Services Agency. He takes over the $2,841-a-month parks and recreation job Aug. 1.

Last week, City Councilman Donald Schultze, who voted against Chaidez’s appointment, accused Navejas and council members Venn Furgeson and Helen (Lenny) Wagner of “cronyism.”

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Called ‘Outrage’

Schultze said it was “an outrage” that they favored Chaidez after his relatively poor showing in the interview. Mayor Pro Tem Rosalie Sher joined Schultze in opposing Chaidez’s appointment.

Chaidez scored 78 of a possible 100 in his interview, officials said. The top prospect, Gregory Johnson, a Long Beach Parks and Recreation superintendent, scored 91. Johnson was not available for comment.

Schultze said the decision was based on Chaidez’s close personal and political association with Navejas, Furgeson and Wagner. He warned that it will further damage the already tarnished image of the department, whose director was transferred to another department last month amid allegations of incompetence.

"(Chaidez) is not qualified for the job,” Schultze said last week in a telephone interview. “We selected someone who has absolutely not one hour of recreation experience and doesn’t have the educational background.”

The job description said applicants should have a degree in public administration, recreation or “a related field,” and five years of increasing responsibilities in recreation programs.

Although admitting that he has not had recreation experience, Chaidez said he has worked almost 12 years in various neighborhood social programs geared to teach and help young children and teen-agers. Those programs include the Boy Scouts of America and the Hawaiian Gardens chapter of Head Start. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social ecology from UC Irvine.

Runs Agency

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Besides being a longtime friend of the Navejas family, Chaidez for the past three years has run the nonprofit social service agency with Navejas’ husband, Carlos, a former city councilman who is chairman of the organization.

Chaidez, who has been the only full-time employee, coordinates the agency’s food distribution programs and helps the mostly Latino community deal with legal and social problems. He is also responsible for fund raising. Carlos Navejas has yet to name a replacement.

Schultze also charged that Chaidez received special consideration because he has helped run the campaigns of Kathleen Navejas, Furgeson and Wagner.

The mayor pointed out that Chaidez also aided Schultze’s campaign in the spring.

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Schultze admitted that Chaidez had helped, but remained adamant. “The fact is, he is not qualified,” Schultze said.

The mayor last week denied that Chaidez was hired because of any close relationship or for political reasons. “Leonard was hired because he was the best man for the job,” Kathleen Navejas said.

Although admitting that Chaidez’s low ranking after the interview process should technically have disqualified him, the mayor said Chaidez was the only one of the seven applicants who is a resident of the small one-square-mile city, is bilingual and is Latino.

“I was impressed with Mr. Johnson, but Leonard knows the community,” the mayor said. “He can uniquely meet the needs of the people.

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Schultze said he will propose this week that the council reopen the search for a new director. Kathleen Navejas pointed out, however, that “there could be liability” if the council reversed its decision.

Series of Complaints

The disputed appointment is the latest in a series of growing complaints about the Hawaiian Gardens Parks and Recreation Department.

The former Parks and Recreation director, Roy Mehan, who held the post for a year, was moved to another administrative position last month after residents complained that the department was being run inefficiently, Kathleen Navejas said.

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She ordered an examination of the department last month after residents complained that the city was failing to provide adequate services. The activity center’s hours had been reduced, for example, residents said.

Residents also have complained that Ernie Vargas, who runs the city’s Alternative Gang Program, has allowed gang members to operate the center’s various programs, and that various facilities have become run-down.

The mayor said an apparent lack of leadership by Mehan was the cause of the various complaints. “He did not know how to take care of situations. He was under attack all the time,” she said. Mehan was not available to comment.

“The whole department started crumbling,” the mayor said. “It was a mess.”

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She said she believes Chaidez can turn the department around and deal with fellow residents. She cited Chaidez’s work with local youths as well as his experience as an Orange County probation counselor and Hawaiian Gardens public safety commissioner.

“Ninety percent of the job is working with people,” the mayor said.

Controversy Downplayed

Chaidez, in an interview from his office at the social services agency, downplayed the controversy over his appointment. He said he was anxious to “give the department some accountability.”

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“I think the council wanted somebody who was knowledgeable and has a keen awareness of the city,” Chaidez said. “That was a very big plus for my being hired.”

Chaidez said he plans to begin a study of the various complaints about the department, and start a “good, tight fiscal policy” as manager of the department’s $400,000 yearly budget. He would not elaborate.

“I’m not sure what the problems are (in the department),” Chaidez said. “I just want to come into it positively.”


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