DOWNEY - Hoping to make a difference in the community while honoring their campaign pledges, Mayor Luis Marquez and Councilman Fernando Vasquez have reaffirmed a commitment to both save and donate their entire City Council stipends, dedicating the funds to local charities and education projects. With thousands of dollars set aside, the two council members believe that donating the money serves as another means to give back to the community.
For Vasquez, who was sworn in nearly a year ago last December, the pledge gives him an opportunity to sponsor projects that benefit his main constituency: the youth.
"I'm the youngest of the council members so involvement with youth is one of my biggest goals," Vasquez said. "I feel like an opportunity given to me, so I want to be that person to help out the next generation."
This year alone, Vasquez helped establish the Downey Youth Commission, which will soon give 15 local high school students the chance to work with their local government.
"I said 'we've got to make this happen,'" Vasquez said. "My commitment to youth is unquestionable. I'm a believer in helping the underserved. They're our children and our youth."
Vasquez believes his Council stipend funds will provide him other ways to cater to youth by allowing him to offer academic scholarships to local students.
"I've been blessed so I want to help them further their education," said Vasquez. "My parents encouraged us to get a college education and told us not to forget to give back."
Shortly after the election, Vasquez opened a separate bank account where he now puts his quarterly stipend. Every month council members earn $731.91 plus $30 for each community development commission meeting they attend. The mayor's stipend is slightly higher each month at $862.39.
Currently, Vasquez's account has nearly $5,100 in it dedicated to local community projects. "The money is there - trust me," he said with a laugh. "And I want to spread it around."
In addition to scholarships, Vasquez is also interested in talking to local principals and the PTA about starting a culturally sensitive health program in the Downey Unified School District to combat childhood obesity by teaching kids how to eat and prepare healthier food options.
Since many schools have limited resources, Vasquez hopes his stipend funds can help get the program off the ground.
Vasquez also expressed interest in donating to other local events and organizations, but said he will decide exactly where the money will go next year when he begins donating the funds.
Marquez, elected in 2008, hopes to broaden his range of giving next year also as he continues donating his stipend to worthy local causes. In addition to donating to existing charitable groups, Marquez hopes to offer his own scholarships in the spring which will be open to local college bound seniors in high school to help them continue their education.
While Marquez is currently saving money in order to make an impact with his stipend, he expressed interested in working with Vasquez on a larger scholarship program next year.
"Have I given every dollar? I'll be honest, I haven't. But I do plan on keeping and honoring my pledge," Marquez said last week. "The economy has been tough. Both me and my wife have state jobs so with furloughs it's been challenging, but my commitment to our youth and the city is unquestionable. I will make good on all of those promises."
Marquez said many of the donations he's already made have been done behind closed doors with little to no fanfare.
"I've given quietly," he said. "I've helped out in my own quiet way."
"For the past 3 years in a row I've participated in the turkey give away meal at West Middle School for people who don't have as much as others during Thanksgiving. With my own money I purchased 300 turkeys and gave to different groups," said Marquez.
Marquez also said he has donated funds to the Young Women's Empowerment Conference held at Cal State Long Beach. Last year, Marquez gave money to go towards Downey women attending the conference, which is hosted annually by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal.
"It is my strongest commitment to help out residents the best I can as much as I can in every way I can whether through PTA Helps, Rancho Los Amigos, The Arc...my commitment is true," he said.
Unlike other cities such as Cerritos, Downey does not offer council members health care benefits, car and cell phone allowances and retirement plans. Marquez believes local representatives should run for office to serve, not for the perks.
"We are a perfect example of what a true public servant is," said Marquez speaking of the Downey City Council. "You do this because you care and want to make a difference. Not to get rich. Whatever I can do to help, I'm here to do it."
Vasquez echoed Marquez's sentiments, reiterating that his time on the Council is about serving others, not himself.
"Personally, I come from very humble beginnings. My parents came here over 40 years ago and taught me to give back. That's why you're in public service," said Vasquez. "You don't do it for the money - you do it to give back."