San Fernando's Financial Crisis Burdened By Scandal

The small Southern California city of San Fernando is facing a seven-figure fiscal crisis. But the town has been unable to address its money issues because the romantic entanglements of the city leaders are dominating the agenda.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And while we're on the subject of tawdry trysts, lovers' spats and family feuds, let's go to the town of San Fernando, here in Southern California. The city of 25,000 has big fiscal problems, but the romantic entanglements of its leaders are grabbing the attention and the headlines. NPR's Carrie Kahn has our story.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The first chapter in the city's salacious, downward spiral began last fall when the police chief was accused of having an affair with a 19-year-old cadet. Chapter two came last November in the final minutes of the city council meeting. That's when then-Mayor Mario Hernandez announced he has lost his business, declared bankruptcy and...

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

MAYER MARIO HERNANDEZ: I'd like to put out there before - and squash the rumors that, yes, I have been in a relationship with councilmember De La Torre.

KAHN: Not only was long-time Councilwoman Maribel De La Torre sitting on the dais with the mayor, his estranged wife was in the audience. When she stood up to object, Hernandez asked police to remove her. Then another councilwoman, Brenda Esqueda, was accused of having an affair with a police sergeant and intervening on his behalf in a personnel matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

BRENDA ESQUEDA: I never did anything illegal or unethical.

KAHN: Esqueda - who is now mayor - says she stepped in only to keep the city from firing a whistleblower. She says the officer exposed malfeasance in the force. Whether he is her lover or not, she won't say.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

ESQUEDA: If I say, you know, it's my personal life, you know, I will not deny or - either way, you know, it's just - it's my personal life, and I feel like I'm being attacked.

KAHN: A recall drive was launched against the mayor, the former mayor and his councilwoman girlfriend. By the way, the former mayor, Hernandez, resigned just days after calling police to his house and accusing his paramour of strangling him and ransacking his bedroom. Both took out restraining orders. Councilwoman De La Torre is scheduled for arraignment on battery charges next week. Summertime is always hot in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, but this is too much, says Sylvia Ballin, one of only two council members not facing recall.

SYLVIA BALLIN: We have some serious, serious issues that we have to, have to focus on. I'm worried. I don't want the city of San Fernando to end up in bankruptcy.

KAHN: The city is facing a budget deficit of as much as a million dollars, and may have to lay off employees. Businesses are shutting down. J.C. Penney just closed its doors after 92 years in town. The two bowling alleys and movie theater are long gone, and that doesn't leave much for entertainment - unless, of course, you count city council meetings. Last week's was a doozy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

MARGIE CARRANZA: Everyone here has dirty skeletons in their closets.

KAHN: Like most speakers, resident Margie Carranza was there to reprimand, and then she went on to point out adulterers in the audience. Ralph Perez called on the entire town to repent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY COUNCIL MEETING)

RALPH PEREZ: It's time we stopped thinking with our heads and start working this city, and loving one another with our hearts. Thank you.

KAHN: Perez is the current mayor's father. As she wiped away tears, her alleged boyfriend, the police sergeant, videotaped the entire meeting. Unfortunately, the real issue of the night - what to do about the city's fiscal problems - will have to wait for the melodrama to subside. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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