Former Alhambra City Councilwoman, Barbara Messina termed out (for the second time), from the Alhambra City Council in 2018. She held a big retirement party then was swiftly appointed to the planning commission by her replacement on the city council, Ross Maza, who had run unopposed for the seat; he nonetheless received one campaign contribution for $1,390. It was from Barbara Messina.
By Sean McMorris
During Ms. Messina’s short time on the Alhambra Planning Commission, a significant number of controversial development projects have come before the Planning Commission. Commissioner Messina has supported all of them even though not all of them have received majority approval from the newly constituted Planning Commission—something that is itself a new phenomenon. What Ms. Messina supports as a commissioner is her prerogative. Yet, more than once now, Commissioner Messina has openly butted heads with members of the public during Planning Commission meetings—something she never shied away from as a City Councilwoman either. Her confrontational behavior, however, appears to be wearing thin with more and more residents.
For the first time in decades, two non-establishment candidates won City Council seats in 2018, which has thus far greatly changed the dynamics of the City Council and City commissions. It is hard to know for certain if this injection of new blood on the City Council is responsible for the greater uptick in civic engagement at City Hall, but it is undeniable that more and more residents are regularly attending City Council and various commission meetings. Packed City Council chambers for controversial issues are no longer an uncommon phenomenon.
During one Planning Commission hearing on July 1, 2019 for a large development project on 801 E. Main Street, Commissioner Messina used a great deal of her speaking time to rebut, and even attack, members of the public who disagreed with her views about the development, as well as those who brought up her voting record and the campaign contributions that she had accepted from the developer of the project she was about to vote on (see transcript of relevant portions of the referenced Planning Commission meeting here).
At one point, Commissioner Messina stated to the packed audience, “I’m challenging you right now publicly to produce any legitimate tangible proof of corruption at city hall during my last 12 years or anything now because you’re very free with the accusations.”
We Accept Your Challenge, Commissioner Messina
Given the copious examples of corruption that exist, such a challenge cannot go unanswered. Furthermore, such a ridiculous blanket claim cannot be overlooked in light of Commissioner Messina’s silencing tactics at Planning Commission meetings, as well as her public opposition to a 2020 ballot measure that is meant to stem corruption and make Alhambra elections fairer and less beholden to moneyed interests.
The list provided below includes some examples of what one might call corrupt behavior at Alhambra City Hall, which Transparency International, a leading authority on government corruption, defines broadly as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” More specifically:
Political corruption is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.
The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it provides enough recent examples for an adequate response to Commissioner Messina’s claim that corruption does not now exist, nor has it ever existed, at Alhambra City Hall while she has held sway there.
1- Phony PACs
An easy place to begin is then-Councilwoman Messina’s $14,000 fine by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for her connection to the creation and operation of a phony Independent Expenditure Committee that sent out mailers falsely claiming that her political opponent wanted to bring a casino to Alhambra. Others involved in the dubious Political Action Committee (PAC) include Barbara Messina’s husband and former Alhambra Councilman and Mayor, Michael Messina; developer, Der-Mean Sun; and former Alhambra Councilman and Mayor, Paul Talbot.
2- Brown Act Violation
In 2013, the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office warned then-Mayor Barbara Messina that she had violated the Brown Act by not allowing a resident to address comments to then-Councilman Steven Placido or to speak critically of him during the public communication portion of a City Council meeting. The warning prompted a public apology from both the City Council as a body and the city attorney.
In 2004, former Alhambra Councilman John Parker Williams bribed then-Councilman Daniel Arguello with $25,000 cash from a developer whose project was to be voted on by the Alhambra City Council. Arguello was wearing an FBI wire during the transaction. Parker Williams pleaded guilty in 2007 and was sentenced to one year of jail time, three years’ probation, and a $1,000 fine. In exchange for his guilty plea, the money laundering and conspiracy counts were dropped. The Alhambra Planning Commission approved the development project that was connected to the bribe anyway. Former Alhambra City Councilman, Efren Moreno Jr., had this to say at the time:
If the city’s willing to work with people convicted of bribery of elected officials, and they themselves are elected officials and city officials, what does that mean? Then there is a perception that they’re willing to work with dirty people.
4- Political Reform Act violations
Alhambra City Councilmembers who have been warned or fined for violating the Political Reform Act include the following: current councilmembers Jeff Maloney and David Mejia who received a warning letter from the FPPC in 2018 for improperly reporting $5,000 each in campaign contributions from the same developer; former three-term Alhambra Councilman, Luis Ayala, who ran out the statute of limitations on an FPPC investigation into him and his campaign regarding the improper filing of over $100,000 in campaign contributions; former three-term Alhambra Councilman, Gary Yamauchi, who was fined $232 by the FPPC in 2017 for not reporting required donor information on $3,200 in donations; former three-term Alhambra Councilman, Steven Placido, who was warned by the FPPC in January 2017 for not reporting all required donor information and fined $950 the same month by the L.A. County Registrar for filing campaign finance reports 95 days late; 3-term Alhambra Councilman, Stephen Sham, who received an FPPC warning letter in 2019 for not accruing donations properly and not disclosing required information about all of his donors; and former Alhambra Councilman and current San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District Board Director, Mark Paulson, who was fined $100 by the FPPC in 2019 for not disclosing consulting income on his statements of economic interest (Form 700s).
Nepotism was a common occurrence at City Hall under the previous City Council. In 2015, the Pasadena Star News reported that six members of various city boards, committees and commissions were relatives of City Council members. Barbara Messina was one of four Alhambra Councilmembers singled out at the time for placing her husband and former developer, Michael Messina, on the powerful Successor Agency Oversight Board to the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency, which was in charge of overseeing the transfer of tens of millions of dollars in assets from the dissolved Alhambra Redevelopment Agency (ARA). As a consultant/lobbyist, Michael Messina lobbied City Hall, including the ARA, to approve projects for his developer clients while his wife, Barbara, was a member of the City Council and ARA.
Many believe that stacking commissions with family members is a conflict of interest and simply unethical because it undermines the independent oversight ability of what is supposed to be a resident-based advisory check and balance on local government. As reported by the Pasadena Star News, “Stacking boards and commissioners on boards is far more common with a dynastic system than with democracy,” said Pasadena-based political consultant, Mike Shimpock. Nonetheless, Barbara Messina and her fellow City Councilmembers saw nothing wrong with the practice.
Also relevant to recurring nepotism at Alhambra City Hall, in 1994 the Alhambra Civil Service Commission reinstated then-Alhambra School Board Member and former Alhambra police officer, Steve Perry, to the Alhambra Police Department after he was fired, according to the L.A. Times, for tipping off the subjects of a Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control investigation. The Civil Service Commission hearing on the matter was closed to the public. Two years later, Perry was convicted and sentenced to three years’ probation for ”stealing $31,000 from the local police officers association while he was president in 1992 and 1993,” as reported by the L.A. Times. Then-Councilwoman Barbara Messina defended him, stating to the L.A. Times, “People who don’t know him will cast stones. He is a genuine person, and I don’t feel he has a malicious bone in his body.”
Despite multiple brushes with the law, Perry has been president of the Alhambra Education Foundation—the fundraising wing of the Alhambra Unified School District—since 2006.
6- No-bid city contracts
One of the easiest ways for corruption to flourish is through the procurement process at city hall, especially if a city has lax procurement laws in its charter, like Alhambra does. Colorado Boulevard.net has reported extensively on Alhambra’s no-bid (i.e. non-competitive) city contracts over the years. Two of the most egregious include the annually renewed no-bid city contracts for the subsidization of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce—worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—and the City’s towing contract in which the previous City Council forfeited tens of thousands dollars in annual franchise fees so that a five year contract could be awarded to Al’s Towing rather than open the contract up to competitive bidding. The owner of Al’s Towing was a substantial campaign donor to all but one of the City Councilmembers who approved the new contract.
Similarly, major campaign donors Brad and David Perrin are recipients of a 50-year no-bid contract for concession services at Almansor Court. Documents show that the City likely broke the law in 1990 when they gave the Perrins exclusive rights to oversee and contract out the construction of an expansion to the facility. A 2019 audit revealed that the Perrins under-reported $300,000 owed to the City over the last three years.
7- Influence Peddling and Cronyism
The “revolving door,” which is politicians going to work for the moneyed interests they once governed in order to help those interests curry favor with current appointed and elected government officials, has a long tradition in Alhambra politics. When the moneyed special interests (development, real estate, lobbying, and business) are not actually sitting on the Alhambra City Council, which is more common than not, those former City Councilmembers are not shy about outsourcing their power and influence at City Hall to improve their own bottom lines.
As previously mentioned, former Alhambra Councilman turned lobbyist/consultant, John Parker Williams, was convicted of bribery while attempting to secure City Council votes for a development project he was hired to get through the entitlement process at City Hall.
Former Alhambra Councilmembers, Mark Paulson and Paul Talbot, formed an entitlement consulting business together, Gateway Consultants, after they termed out on the City Council. Through Gateway Consultants, Paulson and Talbot were paid to work on numerous development projects in Alhambra and surrounding cities. After Talbot divested himself of the business when he became the Monterey Park City Manager, Paulson continued to consult under the business name and under the radar without a business license until Colorado Boulevard.net reported on his illegal consulting activities in 2017.
Former Councilman Michael Messina (Barbara Messina’s husband) worked as a consultant/lobbyist for developers after he left the City Council. City documents obtained by Colorado Boulevard.net show that in one instance, Michael Messina was paid $6,000 a month by a developer seeking an amendment for his Alhambra project, and was to be paid an additional $39,000 upon approval of said amendment. Mr. Messina’s wife, Barbara Messina, was an Alhambra City Councilmember at the time and sat on the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency (ARA) Board—the body that would need to approve the amendment Michael Messina was seeking. As a board member of the ARA, Barbara Messina discussed and voted to approve the initial project and at least one related resolution.
8- Undue Influence
It has been said that when money is speech, speech is no longer free. It is no secret that money has a loud voice at Alhambra City Hall. That the people and entities behind that money have so much persuasive influence at City Hall is troubling and the epitome of corruption. From the business lobby (see Chamber of Commerce contracts, and other no-bid contracts) to developers (see dark money PACs, Messina fine, Lowe’s project, Marengo development, 801 E. Main St. hearing transcript) to city contractors (see Perrin concessionaire contracts and Alhambra towing contract) to the real estate industry (see dark money PACs, Paulson emails, and code enforcement as tool for the real estate industry), those with money and power have consistently been able to unduly sway city policy in their favor, often to the detriment of a majority of Alhambrans.
9- Personal Gain and Fiscal Irresponsibility
Although Alhambra City Councilmembers get a modest monthly stipend of around $900, they also receive unlimited health insurance coverage while in office (including premium coverage). What is more, they get that same coverage for life if they serve for three terms (12 years) on the City Council. This practice is not common and has resulted in 1) City Hall providing City Councilmembers with better insurance than all other employees at city hall, 2) City Hall incurring yearly tax-payer funded insurance costs over $100,000 for sitting City Councilmembers, and 3) City Hall incurring untold annual costs to the City for retired City Councilmembers (all five of Alhambra’s previous city councilmembers termed out with full lifetime insurance benefits).
Also fiscally concerning and politically suspect, under the previous City Council, on which Barbara Messina sat, there were four Alhambra City Managers in five years, three of whom left with hefty pensions (Julio Fuente, Mary Swink, Mark Yokoyama, Jessica Binnquist).
In addition, 3-term Councilman Stephen Sham’s printing business, Plaza Printing, received tens of thousands of dollars via the annually-renewed no-bid City contracts to the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce while Sham sat on the City Council.
In 2007, former Alhambra Fire Inspection Specialist, Ken Toh, was fired for exposing a cover-up within the Fire Department and later City Hall regarding a downtown blaze that left one man dead. Assistant fire chief John Kabala told the press that the fire was the result of an electrical problem before the department had time to investigate the matter or find the body of Charlie Lee on the first floor of the building next to a gas can, suggesting arson, not an electrical problem as the cause of the blaze. Through his investigation, Toh obtained witness statements as well as video footage of Lee removing items from the building and eventually entering with what looked like a gas can. Rather than follow up on these leads, the Department fired Toh and launched an investigation against him. City Hall spent millions of dollars trying to convict Toh of improperly interfering with an investigation. During that process, witnesses testified at trial about improper interrogations, threats, coercion, attempts at illegal recordings, breaches of protocol, and the destruction of documents. A jury took less than an hour to find Toh not guilty in 2008.
In 2012, Toh won a civil suit against the City. During that trial, the L.A. Weekly reported that “Former Alhambra city employees swore under oath that top Alhambra officials, including City Manager Julio Fuentes, were involved in suppressing or destroying evidence in controversial fires.”
11- Pay-to-Play Politics
A matter that has been front and center for years in Alhambra is that of wealthy campaign donors receiving favorable votes on the City Council. The amount of moneyed interest cash that has gone into the coffers of past and some current Alhambra City Councilmembers is significant. Worse still, those City Councilmembers see nothing wrong with it and justify taking the money by decrying the cost of running for office in Alhambra. They then patronize the public by claiming ad nauseum that money does not affect how they vote.
The number of moneyed interest donors is too long to list here, but some of the most recent and egregious examples include the following:
A $5,000 donation to both City Councilmembers Mejia and Maloney from developer Arman Gabay, whose large development project was approved by the City Council then revoked after a lawsuit and the subsequent arrest of Gabay on federal bribery charges.
City Councilmembers Mejia and Maloney also received $10,000 each from four entities associated with Brad and David Perrin, the recipients of a 50-year no-bid city contract for concession services.
In 2018, the real estate industry spent over $40,000 in independent expenditures on establishment-backed City Council candidate and realtor, Suzi Dunkel-Soto.
Also in 2018, an independent expenditure PAC composed of developers and city contractors spent over $20,000 on establishment-backed City Council candidates.
Not surprisingly, the City Councilmembers and candidates who are reliant upon campaign donations from moneyed interests are opposed to a 2020 resident-initiated ballot measure that will decrease the influence of money in Alhambra politics.
12- Dirty Politics
Lies, theft, and smear are par for the course for Alhambra’s establishment politicians. As previously mentioned, Barbara Messina, in conjunction with her husband, former councilman Paul Talbot, and developer Der-Mean Sun, formed an illegal PAC to send out fictitious political mailers in 2006 that claimed that Barbara’s opponent, Dan Arguello, wanted to bring a casino to Alhambra. Barbara Messina was fined $14,000 for her role in the PAC.
In 2016, Councilman David Mejia’s campaign sent out a political mailer falsely characterizing his opponent, Ken Toh, as an undesirable community member. Contrary to the mailer, Toh was involved in a great deal of community service and volunteer work. Per the reference to Toh’s firing in the mailer and his successful civil suit against the City, Toh was vindicated by a jury for his uncovering of a cover-up while the City was admonished for its role in the matter and had to duly compensate Toh for damages.
It is not unlikely that this kind of dirty politics, as well as the amount of tainted special interest money pumped into Alhambra politics, have contributed greatly to an indifferent electorate and canceled elections in Alhambra.
13- Stifling Civic Engagement and Public Opposition to Control the Narrative
Barbara Messina has led the charge over the years, both as a City Councilmember and now as a member of the Planning Commission, to prevent members of the public from saying things that are critical of City Councilmembers and commissioners. As Mayor, she violated the Brown Act in 2012 when she silenced a member of the public from speaking critically of a fellow City Councilmember. As a member of the Planning Commission, she, and others on the Planning Commission, have openly advocated for a reining in of critical comments by the public at Planning Commission meetings. While acting as a City Councilmember and member of the Planning Commission, Ms. Messina publicly has attacked community members who disagree with her, essentially attempting to shame detractors into silence while discouraging would-be speakers from approaching the dais.
The public recently raked Councilman Mejia and others on the current City Council over the coals for initially approving Councilman Mejia’s riders to an ordinance that would cut public speaking time in half and curtail when people could turn in speaker cards. Public opposition was so great that the City Council reversed course and removed the amendments from the ordinance.
In 2017, Councilman (then-Mayor) Mejia wrote an op-ed in the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter, which goes out to every residence and business in Alhambra, describing as cyberbullies anyone who criticizes City Hall over the internet.
For years, City Hall has contracted with the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce to host the State of the City Address. The Chamber charges attendees a fee and holds the event during a time when most residents cannot attend. It is not common for cities to charge a fee to attend a public address, and the optics are that of an event that is exclusive to insiders and campaign donors who want to pat themselves on the back without detractors spoiling the moment. The Chamber then writes a glowing review in its mass publication about the whole affair.
14- Misuse of Funds
There are plenty of examples of Alhambra City Hall using local, state, and federal funds questionably. Many of those instances happened under Ms. Messina’s watch on the City Council. Here are some obvious examples.
Annually renewed no-bid contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce (Chamber). One of those contracts is around $130,000 per year for what is essentially a subsidization of Chamber activities. Another contract worth around $100,000 per year was for the City’s Rose Parade float; the Chamber acted as a pass-through for the money with no accountability. A third contract, worth over $100,000 a year, goes to what is essentially a sister organization of the Chamber, the Alhambra Central Business District Association. The money is used in the same manner as the promotional services contract that subsidizes the Chamber. None of these contracts have ever been audited.
City Hall has also granted sweetheart no-bid contracts to insiders close to the Chamber and establishment politicians.
In addition, there is a strong case that City Hall has greatly abused its HUD/CDBG grant funding over the decades. The grant funding is meant to improve the lives of low and moderate-income households. Rather than use the bulk of these funds for affordable housing and programs that would directly impact low-income residents, City Hall has used CDBG funds to subsidize low-wage businesses and City Hall salaries, build public infrastructure that should be paid for through the general fund, and underwrite a code enforcement department that City Hall has promoted as a tool for the real estate industry to use to keep housing prices high.
15- Conflicts of Interest
In 1986, three members of the Alhambra City Council had conflicts of interest with a sizable development project in the City, resulting in a voting dilemma for the five-person City Council. Such a dilemma was unprecedented at the time.
Colorado Boulevard.net has also obtained city documents that show that former six-term Alhambra City Councilwoman Barbara Messina may have violated conflict of interest laws in the early 90s when she sat on the Alhambra City Council and Alhambra Redevelopment Agency Board.
Two legal memos (one that appears to be from the City’s current City Attorney, Joseph Montes) reveal that the City’s law firm, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, determined that Barbara Messina had a conflict of interest and may have violated City (AMC, Article XIX, Sec. 141) and State laws (CA Gov. Code 87100; CA Gov. Code 1090).
The conflict of interest referred to is the result of consulting income to Michael Messina (Barbara’s husband and former Alhambra City Councilman) from a developer (Richard (Der-Mean) Sun). Ms. Messina discussed and voted to approve the developer’s project, along with at least one resolution to the original Disposition and Development Agreement (DDS), while she was both an Alhambra City Councilmember and Alhambra Redevelopment Agency Board Member.
According to City documents, Barbara Messina’s involvement with the project after her husband Michael was hired by the developer to aid in getting an amendment to the DDA may have violated conflict of interest laws (the memos state that there is a possibility that a violation occurred but no determination is made), which is a misdemeanor offence and could result in jail time and being barred from public office. One of those memos concluded that if Barbara Messina violated conflict of interest laws, she would have to resign from the City Council immediately and/or her husband would have to return any money received for his work on the development project. Ms. Messina never resigned her post and no legal action was initiated. However, it is unclear why this potential conflict of interest violation was not further investigated by City Hall so as to make a legal determination on the matter, or why the Messinas’ potential violation of conflict of interest laws was never disclosed to the public.
A California Public Records Act request was made, but City Hall claims that neither they nor the City’s law firm, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, have any documents pertaining to the potential Messina conflict of interest referenced in the two legal memos. In fact, the City claimed not to have even the legal memos obtained by Colorado Boulevard.net. This leaves unanswered questions about whether City Hall directed the City Attorney to investigate the matter to determine if a conflict of interest indeed occurred, and if not, why? Public records also show that two other councilmembers at the time (between 1989-1995) abstained from voting on the development project because of conflicts of interest (Mary Louise Bunker and Tallmadge Burke). If Ms. Messina also had abstained from voting, the City Council would not have had a quorum to vote on the project.
It should be noted that the developer paying Michael Messina, Der-Mean Sun, was the same developer who colluded with the Messinas and former Alhambra Councilman Paul Talbot to form an illegal PAC in 2006 that sent out smear mailers against Ms. Messina’s political opponent. The FPPC later fined Barbara Messina’s campaign $14,000 in 2010, as reported by the Alhambra Source, for violations pertaining to “campaign bank account, reporting of expenditures and sender identification on mass mailings” tied to the PAC.
Not Surprisingly Messina Denies Corruption and is Against a Ballot Measure to Stem it
Barbara Messina’s claims that Alhambra City Hall is above corruption and that malfeasance was non-existent during her time on the City Council smack of dishonesty and arrogance. They also are blatantly counter to the record.
As a party to many of the instances of corruption written about in this article, Ms. Messina’s attempts to dispel and/or whitewash these acts should be considered in light of her involvement and/or presence at City Hall when most of them occurred.
I have no doubt that Ms. Messina will decry this whole piece as “fake news” like she recently did when speaking publicly as a planning commissioner about a 2020 Alhambra ballot measure that is meant to rein in corruption and ensure that Alhambra elections are fairer and City Councilmembers are more accountable to their constituents.
Because the previous City Council, on which Ms. Messina sat, would never implement such reforms of their own volition, residents wrote the initiative and, with the aid of other community members, collected over 8,000 resident signatures to have this anti-corruption measure placed on the 2020 Alhambra ballot. That Ms. Messina now views herself as the face of the resistance to this ballot measure is not unexpected given her role in fostering the current questionable norms at City Hall which the ballot measure is meant to address. Ms. Messina’s denial and/or defense of these norms has provided the proponents of this anti-corruption initiative with ample justification for its implementation.
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