Smogland Radio is a news podcast by and for LA from Los Angeles Public Press. Twice a month, we’ll have reporting that holds powerful people accountable, advice on how to thrive in Los Angeles, and in-depth stories about the issues that affect all of us. We’re hard on this city, because we want it to be better. We may be one of the smoggiest counties in the country, but we don’t have to be.
This week, we got a tip about something going down at the Bell Gardens city council, so managing editor Adrian Baumann and LA county reporter Ashley Orona went to investigate. Plus, a dispatch from the Aetna Street community in the San Fernando Valley, where unhoused residents say it feels like the city has put a target on their back.
NOTE: This episode was updated with a small development in the story of the Bell Gardens recall and a correction to the location of the Bicycle Casino (it’s east – not west – of the freeway).
BELL GARDENS — Bell Gardens councilmembers are no strangers to recall efforts; dueling recalls are almost a family tradition. There were successful recalls in 1991, 1999, and an attempt in 2020.
Last month saw another chapter of the story for the Southeast LA city, when four members of the Bell Gardens City Council were served with recall papers.
Despite the recall proceeding through the official channels, it’s not exactly clear what organization is behind it, or what their exact motives might be. Still, though exactly who is coordinating the effort or even what the recall effort is about, remains vague, but the people surrounding the effort are a familiar cast of characters.
“The whole group, they don’t want to say who they are,” Rogelio Rodriguez told LA Public Press mysteriously, at a recent council meeting. “This is barely starting, and it’s going to be big.”
Rogelio and his wife Estela Rodriguez both signed the “notices of intention to circulate petition” (the official document that kicks off a recall). To Bell Gardens residents, Rogelio Rodriguez’s name might be familiar. In the late ’90s Rogelio served a brief term on the council, and soon thereafter his daughter, Jennifer Rodriguez, was elected to the council. She served until 2019 when she was removed from office by the state attorney general for failing to show up to meetings. Jennifer Rodriguez subsequently ran twice more for city council, and remains an active presence in the Bell Gardens political scene, with some pinning the recall effort on her. Also listed on the petition was Gerardo Rodriguez, Jennifer’s ex-husband.
At the Sept. 25 council meeting where councilmembers were given the recall paperwork, Rogelio Rodriguez spoke repeatedly during public comment, in both English and Spanish, denouncing various city policies. After the meeting when asked about the recall he responded mysteriously.
Questioned directly as to whether he was part of the group mounting the recall effort Rodriguez said in Spanish, “Yes and no,” adding that to speak to the press he needed the authorization of someone above him in the group.
At an early Sept. meeting of the council, Mayor Francis De Leon Sanchez, along with councilmembers Maria Pulido, Marco Barcena, and Gabriela Gomez were served with a “notices of intention to circulate a petition,” one of the first steps in a recall process. But the paperwork submitted appears to be recycled from another recall effort, from 2020, in which then mayor Alejandra Cortez, Councilmember Barcena, and former councilmember Pedro Acietuno were served notices. This more recent paperwork lists Pedro Acietuno, erroneously, as the person being served in all four copies, even though he’s no longer on the council.
Concurrent with the serving of the recall notices, a website, “Basta Jenny,” was launched laying out documentary evidence of many of the scandals of the Rodriguez family, and pinning this latest recall effort on Jennifer. Though definitive evidence that the Rodriguez family is the driving force behind the recall has not been obtained, their prominence on the paperwork, history, and presence at meetings lends credence to the idea. LA Public Press could not obtain comment from either Jennifer, Estela, or Gerardo.
The reasons given for initiating the recall are vague, with some of the focus on the passage of a recent retail cannabis ordinance. However, the city clerk found the paperwork deficient, pointing out several problems, including the paperwork being turned in a day late, and listing the wrong name of the person they were trying to recall.
The reasons given for the recall are also broadly similar to the 2020 language. Both the 2020 and the 2023 recall notice include the phrases: “Under election law, you have placed personal interest above the interest of the community and enriched yourself, and your acquaintances through the approval of various projects that have been brought forth to the Council pertaining to real estate development and public safety,” and “You have failed to keep campaign promises to protect Bell Gardens from the proliferation of cannabis businesses and the health and safety concerns such businesses will bring to the community,” along with other boilerplate accusations.
Bell Gardens, just like the other each of the other 87 cities in LA County, has its own unique city government and political culture. And as in the rest of the county, governance can often get bogged down in what seem almost like elaborate inside jokes — only legible to the people involved.
Back in 1999 three councilmembers were successfully recalled in an effort led by then councilmember Maria Chacon at the head of a group called Bell Gardens Parents United for Justice. That coalition ushered in Pedro Acietuno to the council, along with Rogelio Rodriguez who served out a truncated term before losing his reelection. Chacon was subsequently appointed city manager by the city councilmembers she helped elect, though prosecutors later charged her with conflict-of-interest for pressuring these very councilmembers into appointing her. Even earlier, in 1991, a successful recall effort removed four white councilmembers, with four Latinos elected to office to replace them.
Mayor Francis De Leon Sanchez declined to comment, as did Councilmember Maria Pulido. Numerous attempts were made to text and call Councilmember Barcena with no response. Councilmember Gabriela Gomez did comment to note that she had only recently been appointed to the position (after the resignation of former mayor Alejandra Cortez), that she had as a result not been present for the vote on the cannabis ordinance, and that she believed herself to be too recently appointed to the council to have been tested, let alone merit a recall.
Rogelio Rodriguez would not confirm whether another attempt at circulating the recall would occur, again saying he needed the authorization of the higher ups.
When asked point blank if the organization had any name he laughed and said, “I don’t know.”