Gabriela Gomez, a former planning commissioner, was sworn in on Aug. 14 as Bell Gardens’s newest councilmember.
“Being on the planning commission is not the same as being on the city council and there’s a lot to learn and that’s what I’m here for,” Gomez said shortly after the appointment vote. “I’m here… to work with you… and we can do what’s best for the residents of Bell Gardens.”
Gomez, an 8-year resident of Bell Gardens, is replacing former Mayor Alejandra Cortez after Cortez abruptly resigned in early July citing personal and professional commitments. Mayor Francis De Leon Sanchez was selected by her colleagues to be mayor in a reorganization following Cortez’s departure.
Gomez will serve on an interim basis until Nov. 5, 2024, at which point a special election will be held to serve the remainder of Cortez’s term which expires in 2026. Gomez is eligible to run for the remainder of the term but she says she has not decided whether or not she will run.
“I’m not saying no,” Gomez said in a phone interview. “I’ve never really done this before, I’m not quite sure how I’m gonna feel about it in a few months. I’m open to it but I haven’t quite decided just yet.”
Gomez is employed as a public information officer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services and previously worked as a case manager for 16 years. During the public application process, Gomez cited her over 30-year career with the county as well as volunteering in the county’s homeless count and as an elections worker as qualifications for the position.
“There’s no amount of pay, there’s no other kind of reward that is more rewarding than seeing a family do better because of something that you did,” Gomez said after speaking about a family who was housed as a result of a rental assistance program. “That’s what I want to bring to the City of Bell Gardens.”
Gomez, who was appointed to the Planning Commission by De Leon Sanchez earlier this year, was appointed to council by a vote of 3-1 with Councilmember Maria Pulido voting no. Gomez said that De Leon Sanchez was also the person who encouraged her to apply to be a councilmember.
“When she brought this up, in considering the vacancy, and what this means to the city, I was like, ‘Y’know, this year is the year of saying yes,’” Gomez said in a phone interview.
Pulido backed former city council candidate Andrew Leon for the position. Leon secured 155 votes in 2022, the least amount of votes of any candidate in that cycle, and also ran on a candidate slate alongside Pulido in 2018.
Leon is also an education commissioner and has previously served as a planning commissioner for the city. He is currently employed as a Senior Management Analyst with the City of Montebello, according to his application.
“We were very fortunate to have several quality applicants currently serving as commissioners,” Councilmember Marco Barcena said via email. “Some were also public sector or government employees with many years of experience serving the public. Of these applicants, I felt Gabriela Gomez would work best with the current council.”
Other candidates interviewed by the council included Senior Citizens Commissioner and former Bell Gardens Police Explorer Stephanie Perez and government consultant Diana Rivera, also a member of the Senior Citizens Commission.
During Gomez’s brief tenure on the planning commission, controversy ensued surrounding a recommendation to the city council to pass an ordinance permitting retail cannabis businesses–thereby repealing a 2016 ordinance that banned all commercial cannabis establishments in the city.
“Having cannabis dispensaries means that people in the City of Bell Gardens, and others that come through, have access to safe, lab-tested, regulated cannabis as opposed to whatever’s out there on the black market,” Gomez said.
Gomez was the lone commissioner in support of the recommendation at a public hearing on May 30. The commission ultimately voted 4-1 to decline the recommendation but council, amid criticism from some community members, opted to pass the ordinance by a vote of 3-1 with one absence.
Planning Commission Chairperson Tony Rivera argued that the commission was not given enough input on zoning for potential cannabis shops and that residents were also not given adequate input on the proposal.
“We did not have enough discussions on this item, with the planning commission, on the zoning. And we did not have enough [discussions] with the public,” Rivera said.
Gomez pushed back, saying that the public hearing was itself an adequate opportunity for public input.
“People have had the chance to speak,” Gomez said. “I don’t know what the need for more public hearing [is], this is the public hearing.”
Gomez says a primary importance of retail cannabis in Bell Gardens is to diversify the city’s revenue sources which are heavily dependent on revenue generated by the Parkwest Bicycle Casino located near Florence Avenue and Eastern Avenue.
Last year, then-Mayor Cortez told The Los Angeles Daily News that the city lost “about $10 million” when the casino was closed for nine months in 2020.
“It’s a revenue source and it’s legal in the state of California,” Gomez said. “That money can go a long way to help with either our housing initiative or youth programs or whatever it is that needs to be done in this city.”
“You can’t have a single industry town,” Gomez said, referring to the casino.
Gomez names a lack of “revenue streams” as one of the biggest problems facing Bell Gardens.
On Aug. 28, Gomez attended her first full meeting as a newly sworn councilmember.
Following a presentation on climate emergency by environmental justice groups, Gomez signaled support for creating an environmental commission and said in an interview that she also supports accessibility for “alternate modes of transportation that don’t pollute the environment.”
Gomez also appointed Gustavo Mendez to take her seat on the Planning Commission. Mendez was previously a member of the Education Commission.