Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Whiff Of The Shovel

Because Susan Henderson does have a political agenda, and because that agenda informs so much of what she publishes in her paper, you do have to look between the lines a bit when reading some of the more "serious" journalism there. And chances are that if you read an article in the Mountain-Views "Observer" dealing in any way with the government of this town, or its employees, you are going to get a report that will invariably attempt to blame City Hall. She has a well-known problem with a few members of the City Council, and this is apparently the way she deals with her issues.

But when the target of her slanted coverage becomes the Police Department, you might begin to wonder just how powerful and all-consuming her problems with City Hall have become. This isn't just a matter of her comically standing before the City Council and loudly threatening to sue the Mayor over an imagined slight. That farcical behavior can be easily laughed off as the actions of an over-blown personality struggling with the realties of something personally embarrassing to her. No, this involves a rather clumsy attempt to portray our Police Department as somehow being a threat to the community whose mission it is to protect. And as such it need to be examined.

In the February 28 edition of the Mountain Views "Observer," an article entitled "Sidewalk Washing Banned - Regardless Local Business Owner Jailed In Mishap Over Watering Sidewalk" (that headline just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?), reported on a curious incident involving a certain Tom Smock, owner of the Four Seasons Tea Room in downtown Sierra Madre. Susan Henderson, who wrote the article, reported the flap this way:

"Smock noticed the mess (dog crap) shortly before the restaurant opened. Although business owners are banned from using water to clean sidewalks at any time of the day, due to the nature of the biological waste, it was necessary for Smock to scrub the area down and rinse the surrounding sidewalk. He did so responsibly, or so he thought, so that the entrance to the restaurant would remain sanitary. He also did so under the vigilante (sic) eye of Sierra Madre's Code Enforcement Officer, Lisa Volpe."

Not exactly sure what Ms. Henderson meant by the use of the word "vigilante" since Lisa Volpe is officially a member of a recognized and salaried Police Department. Perhaps it is the position of the "Observer" that the rather calm streets of Sierra Madre are actually the setting for some sort of frontier justice? Ms. Henderson continued:

"What happened next astonished witnesses. According to Smock, when Volpe approached him regarding the violation of the city's water ordinance, he informed the officer of the extenuating circumstances. He even offered her a whiff of the shovel (since the contents had been disposed of), to verify his statement. Apparently that action was enough to send Volpe packing."

Now I personally would never stick a dog crapped shovel in the face of a Police Officer. Or anyone else for that matter. And the courtesy implied in the phrase "offered her a whiff of the shovel," doesn't quite register with me. But, as we shall see, that shovel does play an important role in this story.

"For many who have knowledge of the incident, it is outrageous that cleaning up after someone else's dog could land this popular resident and business owner in jail. It is also inconceivable to others that the water violations, a civil fine, has already cost Smock over two days in jail, a cash outlay of $30,000, plus attorney's fees."

The "cash outlay" being something usually called bail. Money Mr. Smock would have returned to him upon the resolution of his difficulties.

This matter came up at Tuesday evening's City Council meeting, and after a public comment that reflected the viewpoint expressed above, Police Chief Marilyn Diaz was invited to talk about it. What she offered was a decidedly different version of the affair. One that the "Observer," should have at least mentioned in its report. That is, if it was a venue for actual journalism.

To start off with, apparently Mr. Smock, the ever vigilant protector of the integrity of the sidewalks in front of his Tea Room, has been a repeat offender in the matter of water usage. He and Officer Volpe had discussed the misuse of City water to clean that stretch of sidewalk on previous occasions, and warnings on the matter had been issued. So Officer Volpe, finding the fastidious Mr. Smock at it once again (a violation of a City ordinance designed to prevent undue depletion of our tight supplies), stopped by to discuss the matter with him. Chief Marilyn Diaz then got down to the truly serious stuff:

"On Saturday January 31st CEO Volpe was again on duty and saw this same business owner holding a water hose and washing down the entire length of the sidewalk in front of his business. Since this was now a repeat incident after a warning, CEO Volpe stopped, took photos of the situation and attempted to address the violation with another verbal reminder. The business owner began to use vulgar language and call CEO Volpe names. He was irate ... When CEO Volpe turned to leave, the business owner faced her and, from about 4-5 feet away, turned the hose on her. He first aimed it at her feet, wetting her boots, but then moved the hose up her pants to her police utility belt. In doing so, he soaked not only CEO Volpe's uniform, but City-issued equipment, including tape recorder, cell phone, and portable police radio. CEO Volpe nonetheless remained calm, called for a supervisor and walked a short distance away."

Now in the less genteel surroundings that I grew up in, if you hosed down a Police Officer you were definitely engaging in some risky behavior. But apparently Mr. Smock didn't find the release he was looking for in merely hosing Officer Volpe, and the incident escalated.

"The owner then bent down, picked up a gardening shovel, leaned forward and thrust the blade end of the shovel toward CEO Volpe's throat, saying 'See, there's (expletive) on the shovel.' CEO Volpe quickly stepped back as she perceived the business owner was agitated and somewhat out of control and she feared for her safety."

Not quite the kind of behavior you'd expect from the owner of something called The Four Seasons Tea Room. Perhaps the gentleman is the victim of years of debilitating scone inhalation? One can only wonder.

So how does a City deal with such a thing? Do you let the fellow off the hook? Whitewash the incident because some people might not be able to emotionally deal with a connection between the owner of a tea room and threatening an officer with dog crap and a shovel? No, you arrest the guy and haul him off to jail. I really don't see any other option here. Look at it this way, if you or I, people who are not the proprietors of an institution of such undoubted importance to the community, were to do something like this, what would our fate be? A trip to City Hall for a commendation and pictures with this town's leading personalities? Followed by a wine tasting? I rather doubt it.

Apparently the District Attorney has filed charges, and Mr. Smock has obtained legal counsel to defend himself against those charges. A "whiff of the shovel" indeed.


  1. Thanks for printing the whole story, Sir Eric.
    Folks can come to their own conclusions.

  2. I hope the true story is covered in the real local papers. People must know the truth. Why would H. Susan Henderson print such a story? Thanks to Kurt Zimmerman, Chief Diaz, and Sir Eric the truth is finally known about what really happened.

  3. Speaking of Harriet.......
    I hope she LOSES in COURT AGAIN today!
    Today Bernie Madoff goes to court, today Harriet goes to court.
    A couple of shysters, the both of them.

  4. Only in Sierra Maundry. So when's the book?

  5. I can just see it now - "Sidewalk Washing Banned - Regardless Local Business Owner Jailed In Mishap Over Watering Sidewalk - THE OTHER SIDE"
    An exclusive MVO. oops, MV exclusive, or maybe not so exclusive,
    The MVO, oops MV, has learned that there were TWO people involved in the incident. The Sierra Madre resident whose story was previously promoted, AND a police officer who somehow ended up soaked....

  6. Lisa Volpe characteristically approaches residents in a provocative, antagonistic and hostile manner. I'm not condoning the bad behavior of the tea room owner (or the poor reporting in the MVO), but I can understand it, based on personal experience with this SMPD employee (NOT police officer). No matter how Chief Diaz paints it, this picture has an ugly underbelly that's not being addressed; there are always two sides to a story and I'm willing to bet Volpe's behavior was not as professional and blameless as she and her superior would lead us to believe.

  7. 5:53 We have good guys and we have some real "jerks". Once I was told an elderly lady was reporting a bear on N Lima to an officer who was parked at the Farmer's Market. She went up to his window to tell himand he screamed, "Stand away from the car."

  8. I agree with 5:53, she has absolutely 0-zero personality when it comes to dealing with the public, as a matter of opinion the whole SMPD has terrible PR skills when dealing with the towns folk who pay their salaries. This isn't Rampart District or South Central for christs sake, if this is supposed to be Mayberry why do we have cops that act like Hill Street Blues(I know, bad analogy)but you get my point. I have heard both sides of the story, let the judge decide the outcome. Hey Lisa,,,SMILE FOR A CHANGE!!! LOLO

  9. Any chance of a Tom "The Shovel" Smock Vs Lisa "Sour Puss" Volpe Grudge Match? Could be staged at the YAC with the proceeds going
    to help pay down the nut on that SMPD raise we some how got
    suckered into funding? The new economic environment demands we
    be creative, so let's get it on!

  10. I am accustomed to slanted reporting from the organ you've described, but the omission of an two entire courses of conduct is simply shocking. This Mt. Views Robserver has given new meaning to the term distortion--raised it to a new level of art form.

  11. come on, if our cops wanted to be real police officers they'd apply at the LAPD or Pasadena.

    i wonder how many of our cops applied elsewhere and was turned down or how many of our cops actually move on to actual police work

  12. sounds like some town "officials" need special pr training 101.I'm glad a judge will hear both sides and I hope appropriate restitution and apologies are offered...could it be that both sides and dog owner need to step up.

  13. the sierra madre weekly published both sides, FYI...there is also a comment from the attorney representing Smock. Interesting, to say the least!