Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
An assortment of salsas placed and ready for competition.

Salsa Competition in Environmental Planning
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 04/2011

Some compete in marathons, paintball tournaments, or even games of golf but District 7’s Environmental Planning Division competes with a twist (of lime?).

At Caltrans where the main ingredients: diversity, creativity, teamwork, innovation, and dedication are part of a winning recipe, the same could be said of the District 7’s Environmental Planning Division. In this case, these employees used tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, salt, and other ingredients (some secret) to create salsa masterpieces for some lunch time fun.

In 2010, a salsa competition was started when Senior Environmental Planners Don Kukla and Carlos Montez decided that a battle to see who had the best salsa should be organized. “A salsa smack down,” said Montez. The winner was Montez.

This year, Montez had to defend his title against eleven contestants (one of them being a late write-in). Contestants were instructed to use only edible ingredients which could be canned or fresh, but the end product had to be homemade. Each contestant’s salsa would be sampled by other staff and then based on the ballot counts, the top three choices would be sent to a panel of judges. Over 40 people attended and the items were donated by the competitors and other staff.

Based on the votes, the 2011 Salsa Champion is Environmental Planner/Biologist Joel Bonilla. Bonilla won with his “Tia Leti’s Salsa Roja.” His salsa was named after his Aunt Leti who taught him how to make it amongst other dishes. Bonilla used all of the basic ingredients but was unwilling to divulge his secret ingredients.

The write in candidate Environmental Planner Sameer Momani placed second and Kukla placed third.

Bonilla was quite humble about his achievement, “Next year some young buck could take the champion trophy from me. To stay competitive I might switch things up in my recipe and try something new.”

The runner up, Momani likened his last minute entry into the competition to what the division’s job is to do. “It is about participation. In our division we try to get everyone involved, it’s the same concept as what we do in the field for the public.”

On a deeper level, this event helps to provide more than just lunch time fun, it provides more.This event maintained the same underlying theme that other festive Caltrans events hold.

“This event is definitely a morale booster,” said Anthony “Tony” Baquiran who helped organize this year’s competition. “With everything that’s been going on and furloughs for such a long time. You need lighthearted things like this to help keep us together.”

Employees at every level in Environmental Planning participated in the effort and the fun. But the benefits for the office environmental were easy to recognize.

“Events like these help to break the ice between people which in turn improves productivity,” said Division of Environmental Planning, Office Chief Aziz Elattar. “Lunch time activities like this are conducive to the positive flow of ideas and creativity.”

It is possible that this yet another event in Environmental Planning that has set the foundation for other similar lunch time activities. “Everyone gets to interact. Even though we are a small of office, people don’t get to talk to people on the side of the office,” said Kukla. “We going to try to this annually. There’s been talk of a hummus throw down.”

According to some of the salsa competition organizers, there may be plans to expand the salsa competition district-wide. It is quite possible that there are other divisions in District 7 who could rival the creativity and effort that was shown for this event (it would be really tough to do).

“This is event has become part of tradition within our division and the district to find better ways to foster collaboration with our colleagues,” said Division of Environmental Planning, Deputy District Director Ron Kosinski, who is also a member of the District 7 Golf Team.

From archaeological work, cultural preservation, helping to protect the environment, and much more the Environmental Planning Division is definitely a diverse group of people with a lot of creativity.


Joel Bonilla, 2011 Salsa Champ. Sameer Momani, second place salsateer. Dawn Kukla, one of the organizers.  She placed third. Tony Baquiran and Dawn Kukla, both helped to organize this event.