The Sriracha hot sauce plant in the city of Irwindale faced its possible demise tonight, but supporters nearly brought the Irwindale City Council to its knees.
In the midst of a sea of red-shirted Sriracha workers, a chili grower who accused the council of "preparing to go to war" with the plant, and a lawyer who ripped the city's evaluation of the manufacturer as "random," the council unraveled like a cheap wetsuit in storm surf.
See also: Sriracha Hot Sauce Supply Halted
Ultimately the body voted to ...
... put off any action on the Huy Fong Foods plant until its first meeting in April, which the mayor and a council member referred to as April 1. That's the wrong date, but the whole thing was indeed a joke.
A Huy Fong rep told us that four families were the source of most of the complaints about the odor emanating from the plant - complaints that led to talk of shutting it down - and says one of those families is that of the son of Councilman Hector Ortiz.
Ortiz told us he was sitting out the vote tonight because "I have property within the allotted distance" of the plant.
So what was this really all about? Huy Fong CEO David Tran originally pointed to the fact that he had a long-term lease with the city, which had wooed him to come to Irwindale from Rosemead, but that he essentially nixed the deal when he bought the property outright.
Then came the complaints - which had never come before. Or so it seems.
Tran played down the land-deal aspect of the controversy, telling us that some of the earlier complaints had come before he completed the purchase.
So was he happy with the decision to put off any action against the plant?
"No," he told us. "My workers are worried."
John R. Tate, an attorney for Huy Fong, told us, "I feel the magnitude of the response is disproportionate to the problem."
A deputy city attorney floated the idea of giving the plant 120 days to comply with a nuisance abatement order - to end the stink.
A South Coast Air Quality Management District official said the AQMD was conducting chili-grinding bench tests of its own, with results coming in the following weeks.
"To date we have determined that there has been no public nuisance that requires us to take an enforcement action," he told the council.
An AQMD spokesman told us that odor complaints came from 20 households, with four of those residences accounting for a vast majority of them - 41 of 73 complaints.
An L.A. County Economic Development Corporation official told the council that Huy Fong is good for about $220,000 a year in tax income to the city.
A few of the council members said they were not trying to shut the plant down. "It was never our goal," said Mayor Mark Breceda, speaking to a packed council chamber that has room for 80.
He said he lived right behind the plant and had no problems with it.
Though some neighbors did complain about the smell, few seemed to support drastic measures.
Meanwhile, worker after worker, most of them Latino in a majority Latino city with an all-Latino City Council, pleaded for the body to let their employer employ. Even a councilman said, "We're all Mexicans here," implying that salsa in any form, even from a Vietnamese immigrant, was welcome.
"You got a pot of gold," one worker told the council. "Don't let it go."
Another worker said he had asthma but never had a problem working around the chili. "Please don't shut it down," he said.
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Employees brought their families, and babies and strollers abounded. Huy Fong handed out red "Save Sriracha" t-shirts that ended up filling City Hall.
Tran gave interviews in Vietnamese and English. He said that after he opened the plant to tours for anyone who wanted to see it, not one council person came by.
"I don't say the other side is a liar," he told reporters after the meeting. "But you have to wonder why" some in City Hall have targeted his operation.