September 11, 1998

City's Politics In Upheaval

BELL GARDENS, Calif. (AP) - Maria Chacon once was heralded as a community leader who helped Hispanics gain political power.

Now, the Mexican immigrant is at the center of a costly and messy upheaval, with many supporters, including some she helped into office, turning against her.

``Councilwoman Chacon is a cancer on this city!'' resident Gabriel Velasco shouted during a typically raucous City Council meeting last month.

For her part, Ms. Chacon accuses her critics of ingratitude.

Her rise began in 1991 when the council was comprised of five whites while the city's population of 44,000 was 87 percent Hispanic.

Then a landlord, Ms. Chacon organized a recall effort that ousted four council members after they voted for a rezoning plan that would have limited apartment buildings in the Los Angeles suburb. She argued that reducing the number of units was a racist move to limit the growing Hispanic population.

With Ms. Chacon as campaign manager, four new council members were elected. She later became a U.S. citizen and won a council seat herself in 1994.

Since then, however, Ms. Chacon and her colleagues have been accused of creating an inept city government stacked with friends and relatives.

In recent years the city has agreed to pay about $2.5 million to at least 10 former employees - including a police chief and two city managers - who claimed they were unfairly dismissed or demoted after Ms. Chacon and her supporters were elected.

Council meetings have at times become near-riots, with demonstrators for pro- and anti-Chacon factions accusing each other of corruption.

Few of her former allies showed concern when Police Chief Fredrick Freeman arrested Ms. Chacon at her City Hall office on Aug. 12 for investigation of inciting a disturbance during a council meeting two nights earlier.

``The news of her arrest pleased many people,'' said former Mayor Frank Duran, who was elected to the council in 1992 with Ms. Chacon's help. ``She deserves to be arrested and dragged out.''

``It has been devastating and painful for me to see that people you think you know, people you supported, can turn their backs on you so quickly,'' Ms. Chacon said.

A few days after that meeting, Ms. Chacon and her remaining supporters filed papers to recall the council majority they had helped put in office.

While some outsiders say the city's politics are laughable, residents say they have nothing to smile about.

``I don't like this for my city,'' Betty Avila told the council at an August meeting. ``This is a farce.''

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