Work ethic or housing ploy?
On most evenings you can find South El Monte Mayor Blanca Figueroa in her wood-paneled City Hall office, which is crowded with her personal touches -- figurines, plants, plaques, photographs, three flags, a tattered Bible, a refrigerator, a microwave and two fish tanks housing Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel, her four betta fish.
“It’s my home away from home,” said Figueroa, who admits she’s often there until the wee hours doing city work. “I put on my slippers, put my hair up. It’s comfortable.”
Her fellow City Council members, however, think it’s too comfortable. They contend that Figueroa is living in the office because her own home is not fit to be occupied.
“The mayor has been living at City Hall for the last eight months,” said City Councilman Hector Delgado, who added of her office, “Does it look like a professional office or does it look like somebody’s bedroom?”
Delgado has been leading an effort to limit the amount of time Figueroa can spend at the office. He says he has surveillance video that shows Figueroa there at night, kicking back, cooking dinner and watching Mexican soap operas.
That’s because her own house, he says, lacks heat and air conditioning.
Delgado’s charges this week are the latest salvo in a public battle that has drawn international attention since he and his fellow council members voted last week, with Figueroa in mind, to prohibit all city workers from being in City Hall after 11 p.m.
Figueroa, 53, calls the allegations “ridiculous and preposterous,” and says Delgado has never been to her “absolutely livable” home. Besides, she says, “There’s no place to sleep at City Hall, and it’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.”
Since the council’s curfew vote Dec. 9, reporters from all over the world have been calling, and the City Council has been barraged with hundreds of e-mails from far and wide.
Residents in the city of 20,000 hardly seem to have noticed.
“I haven’t talked to my neighbors about it, and I’m not really interested,” said Jody Bush, 74, who has lived in the city for more than half a century. “I saw CNN was doing it. I was surprised by the interest in it.”
South El Monte is a tight-knit, no-fuss, blue-collar town, and people’s minds are on the ailing economy, which has hit local families and industry hard. And even though it has changed a lot over the years, it’s still the sort of place where people have known each other for years.
On Monday, after giving an interview to NPR about the curfew, Figueroa walked the two blocks from City Hall to the South El Monte Senior Center to help preside over the annual Christmas luncheon. She was welcomed like a celebrity by the senior citizens, many of whom she greeted by name.
“Hola!” she said again and again as she made her way slowly through the crowd.
The mood at the party was convivial. There was a raffle, a performance by a local cheerleading troupe and a big spread of turkey, sweet potatoes and green Jell-o.
Many of the 300 or so seniors at the party had lived in South El Monte most of their lives and saw it grow from farmland to a place of light industry such as window, door and shoe manufacturing. Today, nearly 70% of South El Monte is industrial, with the rest a grid of residential neighborhoods with modest houses and neat lawns.
“Where the school is, there was a pig farm when I moved here,” said Nadine Martin, 87. “It’s been built up a lot, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
When Figueroa moved to South El Monte from East Los Angeles with her parents and five brothers in 1960, the town was still very rural. The family raised cows, goats and chickens at the home where Figueroa still -- at least by her own account -- lives.
Back then, the mayor says, her family was discriminated against because they spoke Spanish. Today, more than 80% of the town is Latino, and business is sometimes conducted in Spanish at City Hall. There’s also a sizable population of Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian residents.
Figueroa got her political start in the ‘90s. She was teaching at the local high school at the time and was outraged when she learned that a developer had planned to build a casino near the school. She formed a committee to fight the casino, won that fight and then decided to run for a council seat. She was elected to the panel in 1997 and elected mayor in 2003.
Figueroa says she spends most of her days in meetings, so she needs her evening hours to catch up on e-mail and paperwork.
And she has to do that work at the office, she said, because she does not have a fax machine or a copier at home.
The workload, she says, has been especially heavy during the last six to eight months -- something she blames on the economy. More and more South El Monte residents are being laid off from their jobs and losing their homes, she said.
Council members don’t deny that there’s more work to do of late. They just question when and where she’s doing it.
“I’ve gone in there, and she’s watching TV and eating her dinner,” said Councilman Joseph Gonzales. “She’s been using the office as a living space, and that’s not what the offices are intended for.”
They also have raised safety concerns, pointing out that a car was burglarized in the parking lot recently on a night when the mayor was alone in her office, just a few hundred feet away. In South El Monte, as in many cities, the mayor is a member of the council. Figueroa was the only council member to vote against the curfew last week.
Gonzales said that the council’s five members are meant to share two offices. As for Figueroa’s lair, he said, “It used to be a generic office for all City Council members to use. Our office has been made into her office.”
Figueroa, who frequently refers to herself in the third person, has been saying in recent days that she will try to comply with the wishes of her colleagues. But she makes no firm promises.
“The mayor’s work is never done,” Figueroa said. “The mayor’s got to burn the midnight oil.”