A recent investigation into public records from 2018 to 2020 regarding Huntington Park’s city council had concluded that council members participate in a culture of pay-to-play, which raises ethical questions of who they really serve.
Huntington Park City Hall (Jesse Goddard / LA Times)
KCET published their in-depth investigation about connections between campaign funding of council members and the city contractors they approve. City contracts are usually bidded, so there could be fairness in competition between businesses who seek funding from city council to fulfill a task. There are circumstances where contracts are given through a no-bid process. Donating to the council member’s campaigns seems like a new factor taken into consideration when giving businesses city contracts. Pay-to-play is an illegal practice of paying off elected officials for the right to do business in a city. Huntington Park City Council isn’t committing anything illegal as every donation and contract has been recorded publicly, but they have interfered with the spectrum of ethics because residents might not get the best deal and it could be seen as politicians putting the interests of themselves and city contractors first.
Huntington Park City Council distributed more than $11 million of taxpayer money to contractors that funded more than 30% of their political campaigns, which include LAN WAN Enterprise, Alvarez Glasman & Colman, Express Transportation Services, Nationwide Environmental Services, Unified Consulting, North Star Land Care, Mr. C’s Towing, United Pacific Waste (acquired by CR&R in 2019), and Prime Strategies.
This year, an ordinance of no campaign limits was passed by the City Council, allowing more campaign donations than what AB 571 explicitly limits. The purpose of AB 571 is to prevent corruption among all levels of government by putting a cap on donations, so the city council continuing their ordinance has raised questions. Vice Mayor Eduardo “Eddie” Martinez commented, “I voted in support of the ordinance updating our municipal code to include the language of no campaign contributions limits as required by AB 571 which took into effect on January 1, 2021.
The staff report recommended supporting the ordinance and since no alternative plan was presented to me, I voted to keep the city’s campaign’s contribution policy in place. This policy has been in place since the early 2000s. I would entertain any reform presented to the council by the staff or community. It’s important to note that many contributions by contractors support the turkey and toys giveaways for residents. We would need to study the pros and cons of contribution campaigns. We don’t want to create an environment of new PACs opening up or limit officials from supporting community initiatives. I also want to share that all contractors are selected through a bidding process, RFP (Request for Proposals) in accordance with the city ordinances.”
In South Gate, candidates who run for city council can obtain no more than $1,000 from a company or individual in donations, and cannot spend no more than $30,000 in an election. Huntington Park is significantly smaller than South Gate in area and population. Huntington Park Councilmember Marilyn Sanabrias commented, “I had spent about $50,000 the first time I ran for office. Running for office is costly because you need to advertise yourself to the community. I started running as a slate with other candidates to be cost efficient.” According to KCET, Miguel Molina, whose family runs a business in Huntington Park, said some local politicians seem to be better at asking for residents’ support than working on community concerns such as trash pile ups, homelessness or other issues that affect residents and businesses. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that they’re all just donating to each [other] to keep everyone’s position secure,” Molina said.
Mayor Graciela Ortiz seems to benefit the most from the current council members as her city council and LAUSD District 5 campaign donations accumulated about $41,000 from city contractors, according to KCET regarding public records about campaign donations. Various city contractors donated about $18,500 combined to council members Marilyn Sanabrias, Karina Macias, and Manual Avila. Eddie was elected as vice-mayor in 2020 and has only received a dinner of $75, according to financial disclosure forms. He ran as a slate with Sanabrias and Ortiz, being more cost efficient.
Council members aren’t the only ones who benefit from this culture of pay-to-play. Consultant Efren Martinez hired Karina Macias’s political consultant service to assist in funding his state assembly campaign. L.A. Times reported that Macias raised $25,000 in donations from city contractors and was paid $6,800 in commission. There’s conflict of interest surrounding Martinez having business ties with six city contractors, consisting of Nationwide Environmental, Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin, Unified Consulting, Express Transportation, and LAN WAN. It’s important to note that Ortiz, Macias, and Sanabria have personal ties to Martinez, further speculating that personal relationships are another factor taken into consideration when giving city contracts to certain businesses.
By staff writer, Brianna Andrade