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Party or policy retreat? California event blurs line

May 28, 2019
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The building housing the California Contract Cities Association is seen on Friday, May 24, 2019, in Cerritos, Calif. Attendees say a Southern California gathering of local government officials, where a fight broke out between city councilors, is known for its party culture. The May 18 incident drew unwanted attention to the California Contract Cities Association. It's a little-known organization representing 76 communities, many in the Los Angeles area, that contract for services like firefighters and police. (AP Photo/Frank Baker)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A late-night argument between Southern California city councilors ended with one unconscious on the floor of a resort during an annual gathering of local government officials that some past attendees say is more fraternity party than public policy retreat.

The May 18 incident drew unwanted attention to the California Contract Cities Association, a little-known organization formed six decades ago to represent the interests of communities that contract for services such as police, fire, trash collection and street maintenance.

The fight occurred around 12:30 a.m., after the first day of business at the Annual Municipal Seminar, held at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa. The meeting agenda included panels on such issues as homelessness, active shooters and government ethics.

There also was plenty of time for relaxation and fun on the taxpayers’ dime.

A golf tournament was played before official business started and conference attendees received a welcome bag with a bottle of wine, corkscrew and several tickets for free alcoholic drinks at conference-sponsored events.

Association Executive Director Marcel Rodarte declined to provide names of the attendees but a list obtained by The Associated Press showed more than 350 people.

Many were officials from the organization’s 76 member cities, along with people from the Los Angeles County sheriff and fire departments — agencies that contract with many association cities.

There also were representatives from companies including Southern California Gas and TNT Fireworks. TNT provided a fireworks show on the last night of the gathering.

The meeting isn’t cheap — $600 per person for the seminar and a discounted $214 per night for hotel rooms. Many cities foot the bill for their officials to attend.

The association, comprised of Rodarte and two underlings, expected to bring in $320,000 at the event, according to its budget.

The AP spoke to five people who either attended this year or have gone before. All described it as a gathering that is more social than business and where alcohol is prevalent, sometimes provided by city vendors who rent out suites and provide open bars.

One called it “spring break for city council members.”

All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they did not want to harm professional or business relationships.

Virtually all of the association’s members are from Southern California, and most from the Los Angeles area. Many are small, though Los Angeles itself and Long Beach are members.

Cities pay between $1,200 and $8,000 in membership dues each year, budget documents show.

The organization advocates for local governments, though it is not registered to lobby at the Capitol. Its primary function is hosting several educational seminars each year.

They’re often held at upscale resorts; the annual conference in May has been held at Indian Wells for 19 years, and a summit last October was held at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort and Spa. The Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort in Orange County also has played host.

The League of California Cities, a larger city advocacy organization, is holding its conference this year at a convention center in Long Beach.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who represents the city of Commerce that is home to the councilors who fought at the meeting, has attended one of the association’s conferences. She questioned whether the seminar “is the best way to be using our taxpayer dollars.”

“I’ve been questioning the culture around Contract Cities — and I don’t think I’m the only one — for a long time,” she said.

Margaret Clark, mayor of Rosemead just east of Los Angeles, said she doesn’t see the gathering as a giant party. She said it was a shame “one jerk that can’t handle his alcohol,” gave the organization a bad reputation, a reference to the Commerce city councilor who allegedly punched a colleague.

“We’re not going out there to schmooze,” Clark said. “Those of us that really care about our communities are there to learn and share.”

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the incident, which started with an argument between two Commerce City Council members— Ivan Altamirano and Leonard Mendoza — and ultimately involved seven people.

Mendoza was knocked unconscious and Commerce Mayor John Soria said he and Altamirano were attacked from behind by two people and he was punched in the head and face.

Rodarte, the contract cities’ executive director, noted the fight was not during an association-sanctioned event. He said Commerce’s membership has been suspended.

The association “condemns, in the strongest terms, the behavior of those involved in the incident,” he said in an emailed statement, adding “violent behavior is unacceptable and inconsistent with the values of our Association and members.”

He declined to address whether the association has too much partying at its events.

Tom Hogen-Esch, a professor of political science at California State University-Northridge who studies Los Angeles government, said organizations like the Contract Cities Association can be a valuable advocacy tool for communities.

But, he said, “cities obviously need to be careful about these kinds of events, making sure that they don’t become junkets.”

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