San Fernando: America's Sexiest, Most Scandal-Ridden City Government 

Thursday, Oct 11 2012

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Months later, in November 2011, Mario Hernandez, then mayor and Esqueda's ally on the council, confessed to the audience at a council meeting that not only was he filing for bankruptcy — but he was having an affair with De La Torre, the councilwoman sitting directly to his left on the dais.

The crisis in City Hall has spilled over to the police department, where five police chiefs have cycled in and out of the position a total of eight times in the last year and half. When an acting chief has been fired, placed on leave or quit, it is usually after locking horns with a member of the council.

The department's latest casualty, in fact, was the chief at the time Hernandez filed his police report — who refused to allow Hernandez to retract the report when he had second thoughts the next day.

click to flip through (2) ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

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City government has virtually ground to a halt. Residents have mounted a campaign to recall their elected officials, while city staffers say the embattled council members have skipped crucial meetings, leaving them without direction to address the worsening budget crisis. The meetings that officials do attend quickly devolve into drawn-out sessions of public shaming.

But at least one entity in San Fernando seems to be enjoying the drama: the San Fernando Valley Sun, the local newspaper whose editorial focus is trained like a klieg light on the scandals that continue to emerge from the police department and the council's ruling troika.

"Staked out in 1874 and left to bake forever in the California sun." So begins the chapter on San Fernando in The San Fernando Valley: Past and Present. The birthplace of the Valley was founded just before the real estate boom of the 1880s, and has been violently battered by cycles of boom and bust ever since.

The last few years have been exceptionally rough for the city of 24,000, which is 92 percent Latino. Paint peels on the signs for auto body repair, check-cashing outlets and quinceañera dress shops. And those are the lucky ones that are still open — they're outnumbered by storefronts empty except for their "For Lease" signs.

Rydell Motors, the largest dealership in town, shut down last year; the city's loss in tax revenue was estimated at $1 million a year. In July, JCPenney, whose historic building has anchored downtown San Fernando's shopping district since 1953, was shuttered by corporate ownership — a $56,000 blow to the city's tax base.

But if recent years have been hard, the boom around the turn of this century was a good one for San Fernando — and much of that had to do with Sev and Martha Aszkenazy.

Severyn Aszkenazy was an unlikely name for a young Latino kid growing up in Pacoima, San Fernando's poorer neighbor. He was named after his Jewish biological father (with a minor spelling variation). But he didn't know the man as a child; he was baptized Catholic and raised by his mother.

Before he became the most powerful man in San Fernando, Aszkenazy went to San Fernando High School and had a paper route delivering the San Fernando Valley Sun. In high school he met the woman who would become his wife, Martha. Back then, as now, the pair was a team — Martha recalls taking over his route on days he couldn't do it.

It was Martha who, years later, took the initiative to reach out to her husband's father, Severyn Ashkenazy, a Holocaust survivor–turned–prominent Westside hotelier. Father and son met for the first time at the tony Mondrian Hotel, one of Ashkenazy's properties. There, father immediately embraced the son he never knew. Soon after that first meeting, both Sev and Martha went to work for him.

In addition to some 30 buildings in San Fernando, the couple ultimately came to own two businesses in town: Aszkenazy Development and Pueblo Construction. Through them, they would invest heavily in projects in their hometown, even after decamping to Los Feliz.

Library Plaza was one of several Aszkenazy projects rubberstamped by the City Council during the golden years. The plaza was restored in 2000 — a $3 million venture financed via a joint public-private partnership. The city's now-defunct redevelopment agency put up $800,000 in loans to kickstart the project; Aszkenazy bankrolled the rest.

The circle of businesses clustered around a courtyard is the closest thing San Fernando has to a town square. Sitting in the plaza, San Fernando City Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin gives the lay of the land.

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