Nepotism, dirty tricks, abuse of power, head-scratching disbursement of public funds — in recent years, the five incumbents on the Alhambra City Council have attracted more than their fair share of controversy but hardly any competition for their seats. The same five politicians have sat on the council since 2006, and at the end of each four-year term, most of them run uncontested for re-election.
Is it a sign of a satisfied electorate, or of an electorate resigned to business as usual?
Who knows. But this year, Ken Toh is running for a council seat, and things in Alhambra just got a lot more interesting.
Toh is the fire-protection specialist whom the Alhambra Fire Department forced out for pursuing evidence that showed a blaze the year before in a largely Chinese section of Alhambra was an act of arson — not, as the department had concluded, an electrical fire. Toh has a master's degree in mechanical engineering, was born in Malaysia and was the only man at the Alhambra Fire Department able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese.
The blaze in question consumed a two-story strip mall and brought national TV news crews to Alhambra, a city of nearly 85,000 in the San Gabriel Valley, 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. CNN aired video of 50-foot flames shooting into the sky and a plume of smoke so dark and vast that it temporarily blotted out the sun, as Chris Vogel reported for L.A. Weekly in 2011.
Assistant fire chief John Kabala told a crowded press conference that the blaze had been caused by an electrical problem in the attic of the strip mall. But Kabala had spoken before he or his fire investigators had had time to enter the frame shop on the first floor, where a gas can sat near the freshly discovered body of store owner Charlie Lee.
From the 2011 L.A. Weekly article:
Toh soon learned, by talking with fellow non–English speakers who knew Lee, that Lee may have been behind on his rent and possibly in debt. He began following a rumor that Lee and his wife were having problems. He knew that among Chinese businessmen, it was not unheard of to burn their shop down — as a way to save face if the business is failing.
Toh and Alhambra city code enforcement officer Mike Hatzbanian retrieved the video from a nearby surveillance camera pointed at the back of Lee's shop.
The eerie video showed Lee moving items — frames, artwork, documents — from his store into a warehouse in his back lot from 4 a.m. until shortly before smoke began billowing from his store. Toh says at one point it looked as though Lee carried a gas can into the shop. A gas can was later found in the frame shop. After Lee entered his store a final time, he never reappeared on the tape.
Rather than rewarding Toh for his findings, the Alhambra Fire Department launched an unprecedented investigation against him, conducting 55 witness interviews, serving 11 search warrants and creating an exhaustive 82-page investigative report. Rather than revisit the cause of the fire, fire investigators investigated Toh's friendship with the owner of the destroyed strip mall, Peter Fong. Had the fire been the result of arson, rather than an electrical issue, Fong would avoid civil liability, the report noted.
From the L.A. Weekly story:
In March 2008, Fire Chief Vince Kemp fired Toh, although Toh believes Kabala actually made the decision to terminate him. A month later, District Attorney Steve Cooley's office charged Toh with interfering in an investigation, a criminal misdemeanor. Toh would soon face trial.
Alhambra fire officials and Cooley's office sought to prove that Toh — one of just two Asians in a department of mostly white and Hispanic firefighters — had colluded to get Fong out of trouble. During Toh's trial, his criminal defense attorney, Jonathan Mandel, revealed the numerous flaws that Toh had exposed in the fire investigation and presented the testimony of colleagues in the fire department that Toh was the victim of a witch hunt and a cover-up.
The jury took less than an hour of deliberation to side with Toh.
Toh said that, if he were white, he does not believe the fire department would have accused him of a competing loyalty to the Chinese community. Toh says he is focused on running a clean campaign, but he has not forgotten that the city government backed the fire department against him in 2008.
“I do not want to talk about corruption on the city council,” Toh told L.A. Weekly. “I don't know if there's any corruption or not. But in 2008 I was forced out of my job because the city chose to cover up and support the fire department, and I had to fight with the city in criminal court to win back my dignity.
“Consequently, the city had to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money, which could have been avoided if they chose to be truthful.”
Despite the acquittal, Toh couldn't get a job after the verdict. His private consulting work mostly dried up. He says he had no choice but to sue the City of Alhambra for violating his civil rights. The case was settled for $800,000 in 2012, he said.
Former Alhambra city employees swore under oath that top Alhambra officials, including city manager Julio Fuentes, were involved in suppressing or destroying evidence in controversial fires.
For as much of a pariah as the ordeal made Toh within the city government of Alhambra, to the Chinese community he is a hero. He is counting on the support of that community, and of the Asian community as a whole, which today constitutes 50 percent of the population of Alhambra, to have a chance to win in November.
His populist message on development — more green space, less congestion, less of a priority given to private development downtown — has garnered early endorsements from two of the more outspoken critics of the current city council: Efren Moreno, a council member from 2000-04, and Eric Sunada, an aerospace engineer who lost a close race for the First District seat to incumbent Stephen Sham in 2014.
“The city has been giving away community development block grants for city buildings. They give those monies to business owners and developers, who are not really part of the community, or residents of Alhambra.” Toh said. “Those grants are not really benefiting Alhambra, especially the low- and middle-income residents.”
Toh's opponent in the District 4 race is David Mejia, a Los Angeles police sergeant; they are running for the council seat to be vacated by current vice mayor Steven Placido, a councilmember since 2004 who is not eligible to run for re-election due to term limits. The Alhambra Democratic Club endorsed Toh in August.
Mike Hatzbanian, the former Alhambra city code enforcement officer with whom Toh retrieved the surveillance camera video eight years ago, is a volunteer for Toh's campaign.
“My personal opinion is I've known him from approximately '93, on, and he's the straightest person I've known, and I think he'd make a big difference in the city, as long as they have three votes,” Hatzbanian says. “If he goes in, we need to get a couple more people and then things will change.”