Last year, Dave DePinto joined a group of homeowners in a meeting at City Hall with their councilman, Felipe Fuentes. The California High-Speed Rail Authority was proposing an above-ground viaduct through Big Tujunga Wash, and DePinto and the others wanted him to oppose it.
With a map spread out on the table, DePinto made his case against the high-speed route, which included a tunnel under his community of Shadow Hills. Fuentes heard him out, but he was not persuaded. According to DePinto, Fuentes noted that an alternate route would cut through Sylmar and Pacoima — where he had more supporters.
“Here's where I got the votes,” Fuentes said, pointing to the map. “Do the math. I don't need you.”
Whatever Fuentes' position on the route, DePinto was stunned that he would be so dismissive of constituents' concerns.
“It left me dumbfounded,” he says. “My relationship with the councilman, as far as I'm concerned, is over.”
Fuentes is now at the center of a major drama at City Hall — whether and how to restructure the Department of Water and Power. Fuentes' proposal, which would require voter approval, would give the department much greater independence from political oversight. He argues that this would make the department more efficient and eliminate “interference” from elected officials.
But it also would work to the advantage of IBEW Local 18, the powerful union that represents DWP workers. Over the years, IBEW Local 18 and its close ally, IBEW Local 11, have contributed some $35,000 to Fuentes' campaigns for state and local office.
Fuentes also has been a big supporter of IBEW, giving $20,000 to the union's 2009 campaign for a solar program known as Measure B. Alex Padilla, a Fuentes ally, gave another $25,000, making them the top two political supporters of the ballot measure, which narrowly failed.
But while Fuentes has tended that alliance, his relationships in his district have frayed. Local politics is never free of personal conflicts, but the Weekly spoke with several community members and neighborhood council leaders who described unusually fraught relations with their councilmember.
“He usually comes to our neighborhood council meetings and says his opinion, which is always the opposite of what the residents say,” says Juan Salas, of Pacoima. “Instead of having a conversation, he’s like, 'I’m gonna lecture you on why this is good for Pacoima.' It's like, 'No, you work for us.'”
Fuentes' spokesman did not respond to requests for this report. When the Weekly asked Fuentes about his DWP proposal at two recent meetings, Fuentes remained silent and left.
In Sunland-Tujunga, residents have been frustrated by growing encampments of homeless people in Tujunga Wash. Brian Schneider, who has organized efforts to address the issue, says Fuentes has been no help.
“The definition of nonresponsive is Fuentes' office,” he says.
He says Fuentes told him nothing could be done because the homeless people were camping on private property. So Schneider complained to other officials, who talked to the property owner and organized a clean-up and regular patrols. “He drove over after it was done and looked at it,” Schneider says.
“I don't know if he hates us or what … [but] he did not want to be participating in a bunch of people telling him we need help,” Schneider says. “He was tried in absentia by the people of Sunland-Tujunga and he was convicted.”
Sunland-Tujunga is used to feeling like a stepchild. But several leaders there said Fuentes' leadership has been noticeably worse than previous councilmembers. It didn't help when Fuentes forced the neighborhood council to move out of its office to make room for a nonprofit.
“How do you communicate with somebody that doesn’t want to accept the opportunity to communicate with you?” asks Cindy Cleghorn, a past president of the neighborhood council. “We're on our own. We're all at a loss as to what's happened.”
Several community members said they had noticed a deterioration since January, when Fuentes announced he would not seek re-election in 2017. There is much speculation as to why he is bowing out after a single term, but no clear explanation.
“He came on really strong, but right now pretty much every community has shut him out or are completely against him,” says Vanessa Serrano, president of the Pacoima Neighborhood Council.
“What he's doing is not working and he doesn't care,” says Edwin Ramirez, who writes the Pacoima Today newsletter. “He knows he's not popular.”
DePinto, the president of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association, would prefer that Fuentes resign instead of serving the rest of his term. For now, DePinto is just waiting for a new councilmember who might be more interested in his concerns.
“We don't ask him for anything,” he says. “I just don't talk to him anymore.”