South Gate Clerk Gets a Tough Lesson in Politics

Times Staff Writer

She is the go-to person in South Gate for investigators seeking paper trails of political corruption. Carmen Avalos, the no-nonsense city clerk, provides all documents, answers all questions, returns all phone calls.

Yet she is the one who some say is being treated like a criminal.

The political powers of this working-class city in recent weeks have stepped up a yearlong campaign that has stripped away almost all of Avalos' duties, including her right to oversee the city's crucial voter recall election next week.

She is barred from staff meetings. She was unable to give her children Christmas presents after the City Council slashed her $76,000 annual salary to $600 a month. Her three-member staff was taken away.

Meanwhile, the council continues awarding pay raises and lucrative contracts to ex-convicts and people under investigation over allegations of corruption. Some of them roam City Hall freely; Avalos needs an appointment to visit the administrative offices.

"I knew this wasn't going to be Disneyland when I took this job," said Avalos, a 33-year-old former high school biology teacher, "but I didn't expect the twilight zone."

Encouraged by her high school students to run for office, Avalos admits she was a political neophyte when she took to the streets in her 2001 campaign. Two years into her four-year term, she is battle-weary and bruised, but she still says she will stand up to a political machine that has steamrolled almost all its other City Hall enemies.

Her strange plight captures South Gate's upside-down political world at its most extreme. Though clerk-city council power struggles are nothing new in municipalities, Avalos' situation is unusual in its intensity and in the response from authorities. Then-Secretary of State Bill Jones, after reviewing Avalos' complaints, declared the city's elections the most corrupt in the state.

Avalos earns praise from the district attorney's office and state officials for her cooperation in several corruption probes. One of the few elected officials in the city who has not been under investigation, Avalos in March was honored by the state Legislature during Women's History Month. The award celebrates the contributions to society of honorees from each of the state's legislative districts.

"She is a classic example of a teacher wanting to get involved in civic service," said state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), who nominated Avalos for the award. "I chose her especially because she has been able to maintain her integrity and honor. She has held her head high, doing her job to protect the voters of South Gate."

Shortly after receiving the honor, a crowd of council supporters cornered Avalos in a hallway and called her Malinche, referring to the Aztec mistress of Hernan Cortes, whom many Mexicans consider a traitor.

Avalos' critics call her a biased clerk who has taken sides in the city's volatile politics. City Manager Jesus Marez says Avalos is a disruptive presence who was banned from meetings because she was verbally abusive.

"She doesn't get along with anybody and she wants to smear everybody with accusations," said Treasurer Albert Robles, the city's most powerful politician, who is targeted in the recall election, along with his three City Council allies.

But Avalos says she is a victim of political retaliation for refusing to bend to Robles' demands. She says Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, also a recall target, has never forgiven her for defeating Ruvalcaba's younger sister during the election.

And the bias claims have no merit, Avalos said, noting that a judge dismissed a council-approved lawsuit that alleged she favored the recall effort.

"It's a hostile takeover of an independent elected position. Carmen is under assault by these people," said Councilman Hector De La Torre, a critic of the council majority. "She has legal standing, which they're just trampling on."

For Avalos, it's ironic to be sidelined as the election date nears. Her desire to clean up the city's notoriously vicious campaigns -- candidates have been falsely called child molesters and deadbeat dads -- was the reason she entered politics.

When she ran in 2001, her high school students had playfully, but sternly, dared her to turn her anger into action.

Avalos knew little about local politics and was strapped for cash, but she and about 30 students canvassed door to door, up and down tree-lined streets. Campaign "hit piece" mailers falsely called her a carpetbagger and a boozer, but she won the election by 400 votes.

Two days later, her welcome to South Gate politics arrived: She found a mangled teddy bear on her front lawn, its throat slashed and its arms torn off.

Avalos entered a sharply polarized and unforgiving political environment. Officials and contractors agreeable to Robles and his council allies, including a convicted embezzler and several people under investigation, have received lucrative consulting and legal-services contracts. The probes involve alleged misuse of public funds, with officials being accused of using taxpayer dollars to fight the recall election.

Meanwhile, others who refuse to go along with leaders' demands have been fired, placed on administrative leave, or forced out, according to former officials and employees.

As an elected official, Avalos could not be shoved out the door. But the council and the administration have given control of tasks traditionally the clerk's responsibility to their allies. Avalos no longer prepares agendas or introduces agenda items. In a symbolic move, her desk at council meetings -- traditionally directly in front of the dais -- was moved off to the side.

Avalos started with three assistants; now she has no one under her authority. The city has not complied with a judge's order to restore her pay, appealing the ruling instead. Avalos is given only three minutes to speak on issues at council meetings, the same as the public. When she has gone over the limit, Ruvalcaba has pulled her microphone plug.

The turmoil has taken its toll on Avalos, a divorced mother of two children. The teddy bear incident, she said, traumatized her oldest child so much that he needed therapy. She wants to legally challenge some of the city's moves, but is so short on funds that she has been reduced to using money from her son's savings account to pay the bills.

But Avalos, a short, energetic woman always ready with razor-sharp retorts, still pushes aggressively for her cause, even when her pleas are ignored. At a recent meeting, Ruvalcaba approved more than $200,000 in taxpayer funds for the criminal defense fees of several allies, and OKd payments to a convicted embezzler who serves as the city's litigation specialist.

But she did not address Avalos' salary demands, and cut Avalos off when the city clerk tried to publicize the city's firing of her last assistant.

"Stop," ordered Ruvalcaba when Avalos demanded to be heard.

"I will not stop," said Avalos, who was eventually silenced by Ruvalcaba's gavel smashes.

Most troubling to Avalos and others has been her inability to play a role in the recall election. After stripping away her electoral powers last year, the city snowed her under with the lawsuits accusing her of helping the recall proponents, which were thrown out by a judge.

Bereft of duties, facing mounting legal bills and completely isolated at City Hall, Avalos began appealing to outside authorities for help.

Then-Secretary of State Jones came to the city twice and declared Avalos' treatment "cronyism plain and simple." The Legislature then unanimously voted to remove electoral control from the city's hand-picked elections official, Julia Sylva, an attorney.

Avalos' cooperation, according to prosecutors, has helped them gain a conviction and two no-contest pleas on electoral fraud charges against three Robles allies.

The district attorney's office launched one of its biggest ever political corruption raids based on Avalos' tip. Authorities are investigating whether an attorney working for the city used public funds for political purposes. Avalos has also complied with subpoenas for city records from the FBI and investigators from the California State Bar.

But Avalos said her cooperation with authorities seems only to bring her more troubles. The council placed on the March ballot a measure asking voters to approve the salary reduction. Avalos hopes voters resist their natural inclination to slash the salaries of public officials. The only thing she ever wanted to do, she said, was serve the people.

"It never stops.... It seems like they will do anything they can to hurt me," she said.

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