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).
This week, we got a tip about something going down at the Bell Gardens city council. 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.
Nancy: You’re listening to Smogland Radio, broadcasting from the fenced-off sidewalks, concrete riverbeds and messy neighborhood Facebook groups of Los Angeles.
I’m your host, Nancy Meza.
Welcome to a new episode of Smogland Radio, a production of LA Public Press. Each episode, we’re gonna be going on a little journey across LA together.
Remember that this is your news podcast about the city we all hate to love and loooooove to hate.
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Today on the show… we’re going to Bell Gardens. In Southeast LA.
Okay. Have you ever been to a local government public meeting?
If you have, you know that the many colorful characters that make up a community are usually present.
You also know that the meetings can feel suuuuuuuuuuuuuper looooooong and draining.
Tape: Nobody’s bullying anybody.
Nancy: Something juicy happens!
Tape: You’re ridiculous. It’s so sad that you’re out of your mind. You have a responsibility as a mayor to be truthful.
Nancy: Today, we’ve got a story about something HAPPENING in local government. At the Bell Gardens city council, specifically.
To really understand what’s happening in your local government, sometimes you gotta get into the WEEDS. You gotta pull back the curtain, and take a look at all the messiness happening behind the scenes.
And today on Smogland Radio, we’re spending most of the show… in that messiness.
Alright, Let’s go.
Today in the studio we are joined by LA Public Press reporter Ashley Orona. And LA Public Press managing editor Adrián Fernández Baumann. Thank you so much for joining me in the studio today.
Ashley: Hi Nancy. Glad to be back.
Adrian: How’s it going Nancy?
Nancy: Awesome. All right, so welcome to the studio. So we are here today because LAPP got a super hot tip and you two actually went out and investigated it and it’s about Bell Gardens, right? But before we talk about the tip itself, let’s just introduce people to Bell Gardens.
So where is Bell Gardens and what can you tell me about it?
Ashley: Yeah, so glad to be back, Nancy. Bell Gardens is an incorporated city in southeast LA County. It has a very large Latino, Latine population. Some people may know it for the Bicycle Casino, which if you’re driving down the 710 freeway, you can see the big tower to like the west.
Some people might also have some childhood memories there in the Toys R Us that’s no longer there or some stressful memories at the DMV. It’s also very famous for the Diosa de los Moles, which is one of my favorite restaurants. Bell Gardens was also one of the first cities to have rent control in the SELA region.
And many other cities around are trying to emulate that as well. But Bell Gardens also has a history of being messy at their city council meetings sometimes. There was this one time a city council member, who is not on the council anymore, was at the center of a lot of drama. So, a few years back, this council member and another council member went at it in front of the public at one of the city council meetings. One of them was accusing her colleagues of having some conflict about a contractor that they’ve hired.
The council members were talking over each other and it just kind of looked like some high school drama. Someone tried to step in and kind of stop it, but they they kept kind of like going at it this person is no longer at the city council but the point is, sometimes it gets a little messy in the city council meetings in front of the public.
Nancy: Thank you so much, Ashley, for that context. Okay, so let’s talk about the tip. What tip did LAPP receive?
Adrian: So we got a tip that there was going to be a recall in Bell Gardens. And recalls are kind of common in the area. California has some very liberal, very low bar recall laws. But basically we got this tip that several of the city council members were going to be issued papers, notifying them that they’re going to be recalled.
So it’s kind of similar to like a lawsuit. You have to be served these recall papers informing you that you’re going to be recalled before that person can then go to the city clerk.
And turn in a full bundle of paperwork saying that the recall has been initiated. So we got this tip, and sure enough, on I believe it was the September 11th meeting four of the five council members got served papers. And they seem to be kind of shocked according to a source who Ashley spoke to.
Ashley: Yeah. So I spoke to someone who was at this meeting and what they basically said was that they saw the council members get served with these papers and a lot of them were shook. They’re like, what does this mean? Is this even valid? So yeah, that’s what we try to investigate.
Adrian: So again, California has some really low bar recall laws. to start the recall, you only need a couple dozen signatures and a little bit of paperwork, and then you can start gathering the petition signatures to do the recall.
It’s a very low bar, especially in a city like Bell Gardens that has like 30,000-ish people. and you gotta mean some chunk of them are kids, can’t vote. Some chunk of them aren’t citizens who can’t vote. The actual voting population is going to be like maybe 10,000 and then of that you need 10 percent of that.
So it’s like it’s like a small high school yearbook worth of signatures that you need to actually get. the recall on the ballot.
So the papers were served. But the paperwork wasn’t all in order and the county clerk, Daisy Gomez, who’s a very nice lady and explained some of this stuff to us. She, you know, the, the paperwork was turned in a day late.
Some of the names of the people that they were trying to recall were wrong. It just was done kind of sloppily. And the stated reason for the recall is it says a bunch of sort of like boilerplate patriotic like – oh, you’re not representing us this and that. But the thing that they highlight is a new cannabis ordinance that was passed like a month ago in Bell Gardens that allows for retail cannabis shops in various parts of the city.
But in talking to one of the people that was involved in the recall and looking a little deeper, the motivation seemed to not be entirely focused on cannabis.
So we actually went down to the city council meeting last month and tried to talk to, to some of the council members and, you know, they were a little nervous, understandably. People also don’t always want to talk to the press. But one councilwoman did speak to us, Gabriela Gomez, and she was very startled about being recalled because she was appointed two months ago.
Three months ago-ish, the mayor resigned. The mayor of Bell Gardens actually just resigned. And Gomez replaced her, and so this is one of the instances where the paperwork was filed incorrectly because the challenge to recall Gomez actually had the name of like, of one of her predecessors listed.
And she was kind of like, pleasantly bewildered about what was going on. She was just like, I didn’t vote on any of this stuff. She just, she just got there. You just got there. Yeah.
We have some tape of her talking about that.
Nancy: All right, let’s pull it up.
Gabriela: Gomez: Honestly, you know, I’m fairly new at this, so I was like oh, recall, okay. But I was actually appointed in August. To fill a vacancy.
Adrian: So you’re, well, you’re brand new.
Gabriela Gomez: Like, literally, like, yeah. I still have the tag on me, you know. I don’t know if I want to return it yet. But you know, they wanted to recall who they thought they could recall. So that’s what they went ahead and did.
Adrian: All right well thank you so much.
Gabriela: Gomez: Thank you.
Nancy: Damn. Honestly, I feel for Gabriela Gomez cuz imagine this is like you’re just on the job and this whole thing is happening. So, I don’t know. I hope she doesn’t return her tag. I hope she stays a little bit.
All right. So who is responsible for this recall? Who’s the person or the group that are trying to get these members out of council?
Adrian: So I think Ashley will talk about this in a moment, but there’s a kind of shadowy coalition that we don’t really know about. The paperwork that people have to submit includes a series of signatures saying we want to start a petition, And this woman, Jennifer Rodriguez’s name shows up a couple of times in that paperwork.
We don’t know for sure that it’s her, but there’s a lot of good reasons to believe that she might be one of the motivating forces behind organizing this coalition. She was initially elected almost 20 years ago in the mid aughts. And she was on the council for about 15 years, but then about eight years ago, she just stopped showing up to meetings.
She kept collecting her salary. But she wasn’t showing up to meetings. She wasn’t executing her duties as a council member. What was happening at the time was a kind of messy divorce. Her husband appears to have been involved in the weed business, gray, black market, you know, legal, unclear.
There was a raid on her house by police. Her husband was arrested for possession of methamphetamines. And eventually, she stopped showing up and the California Attorney General at the time filed a writ to remove her.
Some arcane legal term, I can’t remember it right now. And a Superior Court judge removed her from office. But, she ran again.
Ashley: Yeah, so she ran in 2020 and then again in 2022 and she lost both elections. While these campaigns were happening, there’s a lot of discourse happening on social media, specifically on those like Facebook community pages.
Oh, like, you know, you’re from Bell Gardens When… Facebook page. Exactly those. And there’s a lot of residents just they’re bashing on her. I think at some point they created a flyer that was actually sent out to like people’s homes. Just kind of like going against Jennifer Rodriguez. But yeah, she’s kind of been a laughingstock.
But she is still trying to get back into the halls of power.
Nancy: She is persevering. She’s like, I’m not gonna let all these obstacles get in my way of my political aspirations.
Nancy: And for our listeners who are tuning in, if you’re like, damn, this is messy. Just know that for folks in Southeast LA, this is like a Tuesday, like so much shit goes down in the small city councils that, yeah, this kind of is normalized in some ways.
Nancy: Unfortunately, very unfortunately.
Okay so talking about community watchdogging, word on the street is that there’s also this website. Talking about Jennifer, can you talk about the website?
Adrian: Yeah, there’s a website. It’s just called Basta Jennifer, right? And it’s just a website listing all of her messiness.
And it’s anonymous. And I checked on the Wayback Machine and there wasn’t a copy of it a few weeks ago, so it appears to be fairly new. I think it’s gone up roughly around the time of the recall.
So this website went up around that time and it’s kind of, it’s kind of a mean website and like a very unflattering picture of her at the top and like everybody looks bad when they’re in the middle of a facial expression and says, you know, it’s a little unfair, but like It’s interesting. There’s a lot of interesting facts about her on there.
Ashley: Yeah. And they have like some official, like government documents. They might have FOIA’ed or something. Yeah.
Nancy: They did their research.
Adrian: It’s a well-researched website.
Ashley: It’s in English and Spanish.
Nancy: And it’s bilingual. So everyone can understand. Wow. All right. So Adrian, you mentioned earlier that on the actual recall papers, there was language around the new weed ordinance. So Is this recall about the weed and the weed businesses coming in
Adrian: Well, the official reason — I don’t, I don’t doubt that there is some… group of people in the city that are worried about cannabis businesses. Whenever this comes up before a community, people definitely worry about, Oh, you’re going to put a weed shop next to the school.
You’re going to put a weed shop next to the park. And Bell Gardens, cannabis law didn’t go to great lengths to proscribe where the shops couldn’t be — it sort of gave distances from places, but It didn’t like do a, a complex zoning thing.
So I mean, you know, maybe, But, given that they also filed a recall against Gomez and she wasn’t even there to vote on this it seems like there might be some ulterior motives.
Nancy: So as both Adrian and Ashley have mentioned, Bell Gardens is a small city, right? Part of the Southeast LA small cities. Right, so we know that there’s like messiness going on all over Los Angeles, Los Angeles would be really messy right now. But why do smaller cities always seem to have some sort of just messy bullshit going on, right?
Adrian: I mean, all governments have messy shit going on in the background. Like, LA City Council has seen three council members indicted in the last few years, out of 15.
So, that’s kind of crazy. So I think really the thing is like the kind of person that’s attracted to government, the kind of person that’s attracted to power is a dramatic personality. Usually, right? You’re going to end up with situations like this.
The thing about smaller cities is that there’s less oversight a lot of the times. But in smaller cities, you have that, that dynamic of the threshold for getting into government is so low. You don’t have to raise millions of dollars. You don’t have to get millions of votes. You have to get like, like a few hundred votes sometimes. Or 10, 20 more votes than somebody else.
And you’re in government. And once you’re an incumbent, you can sit there for a long time. And so you end up with, you know, a merry cast of characters who are running these various cities. and in Southeast LA, there’s so many different cities with so many different city governments,
The distance between people and their government, it’s actually much smaller. Which, a lot of people like that, right? People talk about that as a virtue and a value of like — having so many small cities as opposed to four million people in the city of Los Angeles But it means that you’re gonna get to see the sausage get made on that same granular level.
Nancy: And sometimes you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made, you just want to eat it. You just want to have a good ass hot dog.
Ashley: And to get back to the recall, Adrian and I actually went to one of the city council meetings.
and we were able to see some of the recall papers beforehand, and I took a look at some of the names on there, and while we were at the city council meeting, someone that signed that paper, went up to make a public comment.
So, you know, we quickly rushed into action and were able to speak to him after the council meeting.
Adrian: Ashley quickly rushed into action.
Nancy: That’s some good reporting right there.
Adrian: Regular Woodward and Bernstein over here, Ashley.
Ashley: Yeah, so once I recognized him, I talked to him. I’m like, can I speak to you? We’re, you know, trying to cover this recall. And he actually said yes.
Adrian: So have you ever seen Parks and Recreation?
Nancy: I love Parks and Rec.
Ashley: Me too.
Adrian: It’s a great show, right? Like, if you’ve covered a lot of small city councils, when you watch the show, the thing that really stands out is like, true to life, is that every city council has a handful of usually older people who go every time and talk about whatever they want to talk they’re like, today I’m going to talk about the United Nations.
Today I’m going to talk about the president. Today I’m going to talk about alligators. And, this guy went up, and spoke twice at the city council.
You know, when we asked him, like, what’s the purpose behind this recall, he goes, well, the cost of water went up, the cost of electricity went up, which of course the city’s not controlling the cost of electricity. the taxes went up and then the cannabis, right. And so there’s a way that these places become a place for like all kinds of grievance politics.
And it’s very reminiscent of any of the town hall episodes of Parks and Rec.
Ashley: But yeah, I think we have some clip of the resident that we can share with y’all. Yeah.
Resident: (TRANSCRIPTION COMING)
Nancy: Wow. That’s gonna be my answer for everything. Are you part of this? Si y no. Yes and no. Either way, you’re protected.
Yeah. So we, you know, asked him like who else is involved or what are the reasons for this recall and he said that he couldn’t comment, that he had to get like permission from the higher ups or from the other coalition members
Nancy: That is… That is… Very paranoid. I sense paranoia. A little bit, yeah. I sense I’m hiding something, but I also want to tell you something.
Ashley: Yes, I think it also senses like trying to protect someone. And may this someone be Jennifer Rodriguez?
Nancy: Wow. Yeah, so this is all interesting, right, this is happening in SELA, in Southeast LA. I actually had the honor to spend some time, right, in SELA
And one thing I noted that was different, right coming from Boyle Heights to Southeast LA is that folks in SELA are aware of corruption and in a way they’re super hyper aware of their council members, their past, this is someone they went to high school with, they know the drama, right.
Like I remember the first couple of weeks I got the lowdown of like the SELA chisme that was happening at Elizabeth Bakery, you know, cafecito and the tiny little, the bolitos, so for me, that was really interesting, right? Because in Boa Heights, like, through my work in the anti-getrification movement, we had to convince people, like, you shouldn’t trust these politicians. And when I went to SELA, folks were already very distrusting, right? It was just like, nah, man, that person kind of is shady.
So what do you think makes SELA corruption unique? Adrian, you mentioned that the whole city’s corrupt, right?
Ashley: The whole county?
Nancy: The whole county
Adrian: No, the whole country. The whole world.
Nancy: The whole city, the whole county, the whole country, the whole world.
Nancy: Maybe the universe, I don’t know. We have to go explore. But what makes SELA corruption unique?
Ashley: Yeah, so there’s been many widely covered corruption cases in southeast la. As many listening might. No, already the L. A. Times covered how the city of Bell had a huge corruption scandal. Various city officials, including the city manager, the police chief and some council members were receiving outrageous salaries despite Bell being one of the poorest cities in the county.
There’s also been other corruption cases in Southgate, Maywood, Cudahy.
And I think what makes it unique in SELA is that some community members might live in one of the cities, but they work in the other, or they go shopping in one of the others, or went to school in one of the others, so when corruption happens in one of these cities, it just doesn’t affect that immediate city, it affects the region. So I think all of these just incidents has made residents more distrustful of their elected officials.
Nancy: Right, and I feel another importance piece is that there’s not a lot of traditional media that’s focused on SELA or the SELA region at all. So we have these SELA Facebook groups, citizen journalists who do the work themselves of digging up the dirt and putting together information so people know what’s happening. But without more traditional media, honestly, politicians just feel like they can get away with things that they wouldn’t get away with elsewhere or for example if the LA Times had covered them..
Adrian: The Bell thing is interesting because people in Bell knew that that had been happening for decades. Right. Not only were they getting like 600, 000, 700, 000 salaries, but like, you know, they were just very personally vindictive too.
And they would do stuff like put a bus stop in front of somebody’s house to fuck them over if they complained in the city council meeting and stuff like that.
But you know, in reality, this has been happening in all these different cities forever, but there’s not a ton of press attention and there’s not a ton of resources. If one LA city council member’s doing something shady.
You know, everybody’s interested in that. If one city council member or city manager in SELA is doing something that’s, you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars here and there kind of corruption, which on the scale of that city is a big deal, but on the scale of the country or the state just gets ignored until the LA Times is like, well, we feel like we want a Pulitzer this year.
Let’s go look at something.
So like, I don’t want to give the impression that SELA is a uniquely corrupt place. I think government officials and people everywhere are corruptible. SELA is a place where it’s easier to get away with certain levels of corruption. And SELA is a place where there’s so many different cities, that there’s lots of different schemes going on at the same time.
And It also means that people are closer, as we said before, several times here.
You went to high school with the city council member. And so like, you know, you see him at the bar talking loudly after a few drinks and people find out stuff, right? I think that’s one of the key differences to keep in mind here.
Nancy: All right. So we’ve been talking a lot about corruption in SELA. But are the people behind this recall actually alleging corruption? Right? Because… There are a lot of things in kind of how the US government works that aren’t necessarily corruption, but just hella messy and messed up processes.
Nancy: Yeah, so is that what we’re seeing here in the situation?
Adrian: So, the text of the recall petition does not use the word corruption. It does say things like, you’ve enriched yourself, and you’ve taken advantage of taxpayer money, and you’re by irresponsibly traveling and attending junkets.
When people throw around the word corruption, like, colloquially, And they kind of just mean bad government, or they mean like government that might pay off for the politician, but that wouldn’t reach the legal muster for corruption where like the FBI would raid you.
Again, enriching yourself and your acquaintances through the approval of various projects.
That hints at an implication of corruption without using the word corruption. But, that could also just be sort of business as usual.
Ashley: Yeah, I also think that this might be… A situation where some residents or a coalition is just expressing a lot of grievance with their local government. You know, there’s a lot going on right now.
People can’t pay their rent. People have a difficult time buying food. So, you know, they… think that their city council might have the answers to solving a lot of these issues directly. So I think it might be also them just, you know, expressing their grievances with their local government
Adrian: File a, file a recall, express yourself.
Nancy: Express yourself! Okay, so what is actually going to happen with the recall?
Adrian: So. They failed to get the paperwork in on time. They failed to do the paperwork application. There’s apparently a shadowy coalition of people that might want to say that this is just the beginning. Right?
So we don’t know. It depends on how much motivation they have. Even if they managed to fill out all the signatures again and reapply the paperwork and serve the city council members again, would there be a special election? Would they get put on the March ballot? I don’t know. Like we asked the city manager and the city clerk and they were both like.
It depends on when they get it in and we’d have to like, look at the law and try to figure out what the law requires us to do. Like, it’s uncertain because two of the city council members who were served are up for re-election anyways. And again, the primary’s in March, so it’s not that far from now.
And so it’s safe to assume that some level of like fighting will continue, but whether that fighting will be legally effective, I don’t know.
Ashley: So let’s see what this shadowy coalition tries to do next. You know, like Adrian was mentioning, this initial recall attempt failed. So are they going to try to, you know, submit it again? So there’s a lot of things in the air right now and we’ll be here to follow it.
Nancy: Awesome. Yeah, so we’re definitely going to keep folks updated about the recall process. But there are some good things happening, right? And in the city of Bell Gardens, as you mentioned, Ashley, like rent control is one of the only SELA cities that has passed the rent control ordinance. So the recall process is meant to be kind of a tool right for voters and a tool for constituents to be able to hold folks accountable and I just for me like from hearing all this just kind of fear like there’s a lot of good things that some folks who are not corrupt on both part of city council want to do.
So I just hope that it doesn’t disrupt kind of like the things that need to happen in terms of like local government or small government functioning. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Thank you so much, Ashley.
Ashley: Of course. Thanks for having us.
Nancy: Adrian, for joining me in the studio and for giving me this hot ass chisme. Of course, it’s not chisme ’cause y’all investigated it . So yeah, thank you for joining me in the studio today and we’ll keep all of our listeners up to date on this recall process.
Ashley: Thank you Nancy.
Adrian: Thank you Nancy.
We’ll be riiiight back.
We’re gonna end the show this week… in the San Fernando Valley. On Aetna Street.
Liz: Hi, this is Liz Chou from LA Public Press, reporting from Aetna Street in the San Fernando Valley.
Nancy: That’s where a community of unhoused folks have been living for years. The city has tried to sweep and displace them before, but the Aetna Street community has managed to stay together. They successfully negotiated with city workers to get a trash pick-up instead of a sweep… They wrote a letter to the mayor…
But over the past month, Aetna residents and activists say it feels like the city has put a target on their back.
First came the outreach workers. Then the police. And then, the fence.
In their letter to the mayor, Aetna residents asked that the city tell them in writing about any offers of housing or motel rooms. Since it’s so common for offers to change or evaporate entirely once people have already given up their tents and other belongings.
But city workers refused to give Aetna Street residents any of that information before hurrying them onto shuttles taking them off Aetna street . All they knew was they were going to a motel room… somewhere. With no idea about how long they’d be allowed to stay there.
Residents who have tried to stay on the block have gotten arrested, cited, or both.
There’s been a series of sweeps where the remaining residents lost most or all of the belongings they had left.
The city then put up a fence blocking off the public sidewalk where the Aetna Street community had once been.
Residents say it feels like the city is determined to displace them, by any means necessary. Despite apparently having no permanent housing to offer them. And no plan for how they could permanently move off the street.
Here are two of the people who have been arrested over the past month. Organizer Carla Orendorff. And Gelly, an Aetna Street resident. Carla talks first.
Carla: We’ve had five arrests, completely fenced up public sidewalk. People who are very unhappy in hotels who are bed bug ridden, can’t sleep in their beds. The city of LA is a fucking disaster. The cruelty — it’s punishment because this is a strong community of people who genuinely look out for each other and have been punished and criminalized for caring for each other. They’ve been displaced one, two, three, four — this is the fifth displacement in two weeks.
They’re trying to kill people. And they very nearly did. There are people that don’t survive this.
Gelly: I feel like I’m targeted. There’s a laser beam pointed at the middle of my forehead for a kill shot. That’s how I feel. And if they’re trying to help people get permanent housing, that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.
Carla: They’re not here to help. The city without a doubt is trying to take people out. They’ve taken everything from people multiple times over, LAPD is running the show. They believe that they control the streets. And they’re punishing people. People have described feeling hunted by LAPD. Which is exactly what they’re doing. They’re hunting people. They’re targeting Black people in this community especially. That’s who mostly has been handcuffed. But they’re targeting everybody who lives on the street.
Nancy: A group of UCLA researchers with the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy have worked with the Aetna Street community over the past year. They wrote an open letter about the repeated sweeps on Aetna Street and the city’s failure to find permanent housing for Aetna residents. You can find that letter on our website, lapublicpress.org.
To end the show today, we wanna share a song recorded by our correspondent Paisley, who’s also a member of the Aetna Street community.
Smogland Radio is produced by Phoenix Tso and Carla Green. I’m your host, Nancy Meza. We’re a production of LA Public Press, a non-profit newsroom for Los Angeles.
Eduardo Arenas made our music, and Jaime Zacarias made our show art. Special thanks to the Robinson Space where we record this podcast!
Additional music by Epidemic Sound.
Also – we’re a newsroom funded entirely by donations!
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Thank you so much for listening.
We’ll see you right back here in a couple weeks for our next episode.