Hermosa Beach treasurer David Cohn found himself in bawdy talk-show territory late last year after alleging to police that a topless masseuse stole his iPad 2 and tried to extort $6,000 from him in exchange for promising that she wouldn't leak government information contained on the device. The topless masseuse, in turn, alleged that Cohn had given her the iPad — and assaulted her when she refused to perform a sex act.
She has been charged with extortion after an investigation by Hermosa Beach police, and Hermosa City Councilmen Patrick “Kit” Bobko and Michael DiVirgilio have asked city manager Tom Bakaly to suspend Cohn until the L.A. County Sheriff's Department completes its investigation of the masseuse's assault complaint against Cohn.
But Bakaly refused to suspend the city treasurer, and the Hermosa Beach City Council ignored Bobko when he came to it for backing at a mid-December meeting. Cohn had stopped coming to his office, but he appeared at that meeting to insist that he can function fine despite the two investigations, and that no sensitive information was leaked before the iPad was recovered. Hermosa police won't say either way.
The city's reaction was somewhat unusual in an era where public officials embroiled in potential felonies or sex scandals often take a leave of absence. But it's not unusual in Hermosa, a beachside community set in its ways, where Bobko, a successful litigator and graduate of the Air Force Academy, has emerged as a thorn in the city's side.
“Too often our councilmen are controversy-averse people, content to go along to get along,” says former Hermosa councilman Michael Keegan. “Mostly they just want to go to ceremonies and glad-hand everybody, not deal with hard problems. Kit definitely does not fit that profile.”
Bobko is the most controversial figure in town in years. He is troubled that union members of the Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association draw six-figure salaries in a laid-back, upper-middle-class, heavily white suburb that saw only a single murder in the past several years. He's disturbed that fire captains in the Hermosa Beach Firefighters Association, who deal with only a handful of structure fires citywide annually, rake in $240,000 a year.
Not to mention city meter maids who earn up to $95,000, and paramedics who earn $140,000. Skyrocketing pension costs are putting the squeeze on the city to boot. Bobko wants to talk about all of it.
His reward for bringing an unusual activist approach to sleepy civic life in Hermosa: Hermosa Beach police spied on him, he says, under the guise of personally delivering office mail to his home — a highly unorthodox police service that pre-dates Bobko. A city firefighter then allegedly used the cops' surveillance of Bobko to file a felony criminal complaint claiming Bobko didn't live in Hermosa Beach. The firefighter's complaint led the L.A. County district attorney to put Bobko under surveillance for “several weeks.”
“Kit takes all the attacks in stride,” says DiVirgilio, his frequent ally. “He doesn't shrink from political fights.”
Bobko says Hermosa's elected leaders and top city bureaucrats are failing to tackle its financial problems, including $14 million in future pension payments promised to city workers that Hermosa, with its general fund of just $27 million, has no way to pay.
Bobko led an effort to hire a team of economic consultants to review city finances. Some Hermosa residents have begun to rally to his cause: taking on city unions whose members contribute cash to select City Council candidates, then win favorable salary deals from the same politicians they helped elect.
“We're in this mess because we've negotiated everything away,” says Carolyn Petty of Hermosa Beach, a financial officer at a technology company. “The city has given unions everything they wanted without thinking about the future.”
Bobko, 42, elected in 2006, says, “I wasn't willing to play their game.” A partner at L.A. law firm Richards, Watson & Gershon, he says, “I work for the taxpayers, not the unions.”
But in 2010, city firefighter Paul Hawkins filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County district attorney claiming that Bobko illegally lived outside Hermosa.
Hawkins wrote in his complaint: “Every police officer I've spoken to who has been tasked with delivering city correspondence, several times a month, to his residence of record has said the 19th Street apartment appears unoccupied. … Mail is stacked behind the screen door and nobody ever answers the door. Myself and my co-workers have never seen a light on in the apartment.”
So District Attorney Steve Cooley ordered a lengthy and costly investigation by his Public Integrity Unit. The unit's chief, David Demerjian, says investigators concluded in 2011 that “Mr. Bobko has established a domicile within the city of Hermosa Beach.”
Bobko describes Hawkins' success in getting him investigated and staked out by the DA as “gratuitous thuggery” intended to intimidate an elected city official for speaking out.
Aaron Marks, president of the Hermosa Beach Firefighters Association, tells the Weekly that Hawkins was acting as a private citizen. “We had nothing to do with it,” he says. “I wish it had never happened.”
Bobko shoots back: “Obviously there was cross-pollination between the police and Hawkins.” And Hawkins, he argues, is not simply a rank-and-file firefighter but “a past president of the firefighters union.”
The unions openly took on Bobko after a civil Los Angeles County grand jury red-flagged Hermosa Beach's $14 million in unfunded pension liabilities and warned that it could eventually cripple the city's ability to provide essential services.
The city's seven unions agreed to a two-tier pension system that provides less generous benefits to new hires. That concession “won't have a real impact for many years,” when the new hires finally begin to retire with cheaper pensions. So Bobko proposed outsourcing the police department's parking enforcement bureau to a cheaper outfit.
The city's 10 meter maids, who are Community Service Officers, earn $59,000 to $95,000 in total compensation. While salaries could be trimmed by hiring private meter maids, Bobko says the real savings would come from not having to pay big city pensions. “If it turns out that I'm wrong about this and we can't save money, I'll be the first to admit it,” Bobko says.
The Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association packed a September meeting with members and supporters who denounced Bobko's proposal. It was defeated 3-2, with DiVirgilio voting with Bobko.
Councilmen Jeff Duclos, Howard Fishman and Peter Tucker voted against it. Tucker told the Weekly, “Our staff identified more than 100 civic duties performed by the CSOs. These private companies would only be all about issuing as many tickets as possible.”
Tucker, who belongs to a city employee union in nearby Redondo Beach, where he has a job, said his acceptance of campaign contributions from the Hermosa Beach police union “had nothing to do with my vote. … Union pressure doesn't matter to me.”
But DiVirgilio says the packed meeting illustrated how government unions easily tap city workers and others to overwhelm politicians with a one-sided, angry crowd. While the unions assign organizers to pull in member-based crowds, he notes, “Neither Kit nor I have the time to organize a bunch of people to come to a meeting.”
Jaime Ramirez, president of the Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Bobko says it's outrageous that his home has been staked out by law enforcement. The local government unions' “message has clearly been received by the rest of the community: If you're a man or woman with kids, thinking about running for council, how would you feel knowing that the cops are monitoring your home and taking pictures of whomever comes and goes?”
On a related note, Bobko has banned city police from delivering mail to his home.
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