Website Takes City Officials to Task

Times Staff Writer

When Huntington Park Councilman Ed Escareno spent double his city-allotted travel budget for two years in a row, watchourcity.com asked him to pay it back.

When the City Council voted itself a $350-a-month raise, and hired its city attorney in closed session and without requesting competing bids from other attorneys, the website listed which council members had gone along with it all.

And when the council approved $50,000 in cash and in-kind services to help an influential business group put on a Mexican Independence Day celebration, while allocating $16,500 for a Fourth of July celebration and cutting preschool programs' funding, the website wisecracked, "It seems that the Budget Committee and the rest of City Council members do not have any close ties with the city's preschoolers."

Wrapping an old-style muckraking soul in new technology, the website, www.watchourcity .com is an experiment in public oversight that has been kicking the shins of Huntington Park elected officials since it went online in March.

In news story form, the website presents public-record data on who donated money to which council member, along with suggestions as to what the donor might want in return.

The site includes links to the budget and city contracts. Sprinkled through its pages are quotes on civic involvement from Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Pablo Picasso, together with barbed questions along the lines of: "What was Mayor Juan Noguez, Vice Mayor Ofelia Hernandez and council member Mario Gomez hiding from the public?"

Though the site regularly takes public officials to task, the founder has refused to make his own identity public. He would only tell The Times that he was a bilingual adult, born in Mexico and raised in the United States, a city resident though not a city employee, and that he worked on the site six to eight hours a week and made no money from it. He also said he'd never worked in journalism or with computers. He has communicated with The Times by e-mail and telephone.

"We receive a lot of whistle-blower e-mail," he said. "Everybody fears reprisal, everybody. Anonymity is paramount."

The site's founder said he was attempting to fill the void left by the decline of news coverage and civic participation in the city over the last 20 years.

Blue-collar Huntington Park is similar to many towns southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Its population of 62,000 is made up overwhelmingly of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of whom are not U.S. citizens, have no history of civic involvement or newspaper reading and are busy working and raising families. With the transition of those communities from middle-class white to poor Latino immigrant in the last two decades, local newspapers declined dramatically. The Los Angeles Times and La Opinion focus their coverage nationally and regionally as opposed to daily coverage of the 88 cities in the county.

"We really don't have a local paper," said Councilman Ric Loya, who has served on the council for 12 years.

Huntington Park, moreover, has become a place for immigrant families to get established before they move east, to towns like Downey or Whittier.

All that has created a vacuum in civic oversight that is typical of many small cities, said Felix Gutierrez, a journalism professor at USC. "The vacuum came at the same time that there's been an explosion of media technology. It's natural that some people somewhere would be using that technology to fill that void."

According to the website founder, a group of city residents saw these demographics and a lack of public oversight give rise to chaos a few years ago in South Gate, where the city treasurer, the mayor and two council members were recalled amid corruption allegations.

"There was no watch group as is the case in communities that have better educated populations, or second- and third-generation immigrants," the founder said. "Here you have first-generation immigrants with the least involvement in civic duties. Twelve hundred votes can elect a councilman. That's a very small minority that can elect a council member who then makes decisions on how millions of dollars are spent."

Mayor Noguez, a critic of the site, said he read it when it started, because it posted facts about city spending. Then the site began to editorialize, he said.

"I lost respect for them when they started doing that," the first-term mayor said. "A prudent website that is non-opinionated, just gives the facts, is what's necessary virtually in every city. Black and white was all they needed to print, and they chose to start doing a lot more than that. It's completely one-sided. They only take the bad."

Noguez said the site had not asked for his side of what it posted.

"We'd like to hear from [council members]," the site founder said. "Perhaps I should start to contact them."

Noguez said he believed that Linda Guevara was behind the site and was using it to lash out at her opponents. Guevara, a former councilwoman, was convicted in 2002 of lying when she falsely claimed to live in Huntington Park.

Guevara said she was called by the website founder and answered his questions about what documents were public record and how to obtain them. But she said she had nothing to do with organizing the site. "I don't have time," she said.

"I don't know why they keep bringing my name into things. I just work in my home."

The site founder said Guevara has contributed only public records to the site, but "whether Linda was involved in it or not, public record is public record."

The city apparently views it differently. An attorney for the city recently sent Guevara a letter -- received Aug. 17 -- accusing her of "obtaining city records evidently by illicit conspiratorial means" and threatening her with prosecution.

"Everything I've gotten I got through the city clerk," Guevara said.

The three council members most taken to task by watchourcity.com are Escareno, Hernandez and Gomez. Gomez, through a city secretary, declined to comment on the site. Escareno and Hernandez did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Loya, whom the site has rarely criticized, called it "one of those unfortunate things that surfaces when people get frustrated that they have no information about city government. I don't like the editorializing in it. But can you fault one for editorializing when they find out what they've been finding out?"

Watchourcity.com began by monitoring the council's travel and cellular-phone spending, the founder said. From there it expanded to include a "campaign contribution watch" and a "contracts watch."

"You'd be surprised how much information is just out there publicly available. Research can be quite easy," the founder said.

Since then, watchourcity.com has criticized the council for increasing Little League fees and for making plans to build a card club. It has asked why City Atty. Francisco Leal has not reported campaign contributions made to Hernandez, and why Noguez, Gomez and Hernandez received a "highly unprecedented" $62,000 of in-kind contributions on election day last year.

The site has also berated council candidates for using old-style Mexican political strategies, such as offering two tacos to those who voted in the March 2003 election.

"It's purely politics from south of the border," the founder said.

It's unclear whether the site is having any effect beyond City Hall, among an immigrant population that often doesn't read English and presumably has a low rate of computer ownership.

The site's founder said one goal of watchourcity.com was to set a new standard for citizen involvement in largely Mexican Huntington Park.

Still, he said, not even his mother knows that he is involved in the site, and would be upset if she found out.

"Growing up in Mexico, our moms, the last thing they wanted us to do was to question authority," he said. "You respect authority. Well, what if the authority isn't doing the right thing?"

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