Christina Cortez was once Miss Montebello. But the city won't be naming her Most Popular anytime soon.
Now 38, a mother of two and a telephone company sales manager, Cortez is making a lot of enemies in her hometown. She's on the Montebello City Council now, and often on the losing end of 4-1 votes as the city spirals down a financial rabbit hole.
She freely admits to making a pest of herself on the council dais, mostly by demanding answers to questions that don't have easy answers. She further annoys by adding up the numbers on the city's budgetary spreadsheets — and pointing out when the math is all wrong.
"It was never real," Cortez said, referring to years of city budget reports. "It was all ballooned-up numbers and make-believe."
Montebello, like many other California cities, is in a deep fiscal crisis. Some people there think it's on the verge of bankruptcy.
Cortez, who was elected to the council last year after two members were recalled, has been demanding to know why. It's the first time she's ever held elective office. So she figures she should do her homework and ask to see all the messy details.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but as she's been poring over budgets and contracts, the city has found itself answering some embarrassing questions about its finances.
The federal department of Housing and Urban Development is demanding that Montebello return $1.3million in housing funds that the agency says the city misspent. And L.A. County prosecutors are trying to find out what happened to $1 million missing from two recently discovered off-the-books city bank accounts.
"This is incredibly impossible," Cortez told me in the living room of the Montebello home where she grew up. "Why Montebello? We have this snotty attitude. We're the educated middle-class Latinos. But there's a lot of mismanagement that was done. I'm not sure that we're going to get to the bottom of everything that's happened."
I lived for two years in Montebello, one of the many stops in my family's itinerant Southern California history. Cortez's description of the place rings true to me.
"We're like the mansion of East L.A.," Cortez said. "When you're moving on up, you move to Montebello. And when you're really moving on up, you move to Whittier."
Montebello is not supposed to have anything in common with Bell, the working-class community just to the south, where the longtime former city administrator and most of the City Council members are facing criminal charges in a corruption scandal.
A lot of people in Montebello are particularly angry at Cortez for her continued insinuations that their city is headed down the same path.
"She conjures up these fantasies, as if she were looking in the closet and finding the boogeyman," said William Molinari, who's served on the Montebello City Council for 25 years. In the process, Molinari added, she has "seriously damaged the image of this city."
Judging from the modest turnout and mellow mood at Wednesday night's Montebello City Council meeting, I think it's fair to say most of the city's 62,000 residents aren't yet in a panic. They're not expecting to see their city leaders hauled off in handcuffs any time soon.
"There's been a lot of negative press.... You would think there would be a storm of people here," said Larry Salazar, a community activist, after a special council session called to discuss the mysterious bank accounts. "But this isn't the city of Bell."
When Cortez spoke, it was to accuse Councilman Molinari of yelling at her in a recent closed session and threatening to report her to the district attorney for revealing what the council had discussed in another closed session.
"They said I was talking too much," she said. "And I said, 'You know what? Call the D.A. because I can't wait to tell them what I know.'" She then suggested that the other council members had placed her on the far end of the dais because she was the council's only woman, provoking some groans from the audience and catcalls of "grow up!"
But a few moments later, that same audience erupted in applause when Cortez said: "I want accountability to be held to us as council members. That was what I was elected to do."
A lot of what Cortez is saying about her local government is undeniably true — and not just for Montebello.
"In the corporate world, if you make a $1.3-million mistake, you're fired," she told me, referring to the misused housing funds. "You might even go up for embezzlement. Here, there's not even a slap on the wrist."
Across California, across this country, we've been living in a budgetary fantasyland. In times of plenty, governments develop bad habits. People with connections profit — within and outside the law.
Often in government, a few insiders really run things. And no one thinks to question them. So it's not surprising that someone who repeatedly asks for answers gets treated like an irritating outsider.
"Every seven to 10 days, we get new numbers," Cortez told me about the city's budget process. "How can you make decisions when you don't know how much money you have? It's black and white. There should be no gray."
Molinari told me he's grown frustrated by such statements. "Ms. Cortez doesn't choose to educate herself on how municipal finance works," he said.
But municipal finance, like state and federal finance, isn't working so well these days, is it?
Cortez says Montebello is, in effect, stealing money from its redevelopment agency to stay afloat. "I'm trying to scream, but no one is listening," she said. "No one wants to admit that the house is falling."
The emperor has no clothes — and he can't balance his budget, either.
The woman in Montebello trying to scream this in public isn't crazy. She's doing her job.