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San Fernando City Council Approves Controversial Measure; Recall Signatures Are Turned In PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia, Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 24 May 2012 05:10


City Clerk Elena Chavez and Julie Fernandez, Executive Assistant to the City Administrator) preparing to count the signatures gathered by petition by the recall committee. When it was determined that there were enough minimum signatures to qualify for a special election, the signatures were transferred by the city clerk and Officer Parks to the office of the Registrar of Voters. The individual signatures will now be validated as registered voters in the City of San Fernando.

Less than an hour into this week's San Fernando City Council meeting, Robert Ortega was escorted out of the chambers by police after getting into a verbal confrontation with Mayor Brenda Esqueda.

Ortega followed several residents who spoke out against the "Rules and Decorum" ordinance on the council agenda.

As the long time resident directed his comments directly to Esqueda, she interrupted him and instructed him to direct his comments to to the council as a whole.

Upon Esqueda's continued interruption, Ortega shouted "Shut up Brenda", which caused the Mayor to warn him again. When Ortega did not seem to comply, Esqueda asked police chief Gil Carrillo to intervene and escort Ortega out of the council chambers. Ortega said he didn't want to leave, he wanted to speak, but he was escorted out.

While this time, Ortega's penalty was to be banned from the meeting, he could be facing a $250 fine next time, as the City Council approved the "Rules and Decorum" ordinance he was railing against.

Mayor Esqueda said the measure was only meant to "stop the interruptions in the City Council." The ordinance was passed with a 3-2 vote from Esqueda and council members Mario Hernandez and Maribel De La Torre. Mayor Pro Tem Antonio Lopez and Sylvia Ballin voted against the ordinance.

"We need to take a stand," said Esqueda in detailing the ordinance based, she said, on the unruly behavior and obscene language expressed by residents coming to the podium during the public statement part of the meetings.

"In the last few months, people have had no respect for the Council Chambers," she noted, adding that some in the community have told her they don't want to come to the meetings because "it's like the audience from the Jerry Springer Show." Residents meanwhile have pointed out that Esqueda, De La Torre, and Hernandez have all failed to take responsibility for causing embarrassment to the city.

A Scandalous Council

The description of the council as a Jerry Springer show is not too farfetched. Since when, then Mayor Mario Hernandez disclosed his relationship with Councilwoman De La Torre during a city council meeting in November of last year, while his wife was present in the council chambers, his public pronouncment from the Mayor's chair attracted nationwide media attention for the City of San Fernando, the municipality seems to go from one scandal to the next.

Last year, former police cadet Maria Barajas revealed she had engaged in a sexual relationship with former chief of police Anthony Ruelas, sometimes, she alleged inside city vehicles. Ruelas was put on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted.

Hernandez, De La Torre and Esqueda later approved bringing him back to the post, to the surprise and dislike of many residents. However, Ruelas was not welcomed at police headquarters and he served the remainder of his term on "vacation."

The city has also been plagued with questions surrounding the death of Everardo Jaramillo Reynaga, an inmate who died while in custody at the San Fernando jail. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating the incident. Former police sergeant Nichole Hanchett filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city, claiming that officers did not follow procedures for checking inmates and that city workers falsified records to cover up the circumstances surrounding Reynaga's death. Hanchett also alleges she was fired for being a lesbian.

And Roy Esqueda, separated from Mayor Esqueda, spoke out about the extra-marital affair his wife has been having with San Fernando police sergeant Alvaro Castellon. Esqueda has also been accused of accepting personal favors from Castellon and using her influence to intervene on his behalf when he's faced disiplinary action. Esqueda has continued to vote on police matters despite her conflict of interest. Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez were also accused of interfering with a police investigation when Castellon's superiors attempted to place him on administrative leave for making an alleged criminal threat against Barajas.

Reaction To Ordinance

Newly-appointed city attorney Maribel Medina, said disruptive members of the audience would get two warnings before the Mayor can ask the Chief of Police or the police representative present to escort them out of the room. The unruly residents can also face a minimum $250 ticket.

"This is not intended to be punitive," Medina said. "This is not intended to chill public comment."

Medina also said the ordinance does not limit people's first amendment right to freedom of expression, but "balances the rights of speakers and responsibilities of you (City Council) the governing body to conduct a meeting without disruptions," she told the council members.

However, not all council members were in agreement.

"I oppose this 100 percent. The residents deserve better than this," Ballin said, before asking how many other cities have a similar ordinance (Norwalk, Medina responded) and whether there were any consequences to city council members who make accusations of the public (Medina did not specify if this would apply to council members).

"I wouldn't be able to support something like this where we fine the residents," said Lopez, who challenged whether the ordinance truly balanced the rights of residents and the responsibilities of the City Council.

For her part, council member De La Torre, said the actions of residents in the last few months "have been extremely disruptive" and "if people are not breaking this rule, they shouldn't be afraid of this."

However, residents voiced concern with the ordinance, which they described as "intimidating."

"They claim the ordinance is not intimidation, but with the threat of a fine, it's nothing but intimidation," said Julian Ruelas, one of the few people left in the chambers by the time the ordinance was voted on, which was at the end of a nearly four-hour meeting.

Resident Paul Luna said it was unfair to punish the public for their reaction to problems created by the Council.

"This whole thing came as a result of transgressions of three of the council members (Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez)," Luna said.

"What about the venom that they spew towards members of the community," Luna asked, noting how De La Torre had made allegations against a resident during a city council meeting claiming he had sexually abused a child.

"I'm glad to hear they want to control people who go berserk, but with this they're just increasing resentment of the residents towards their government," Ruelas added.

Doude Wysbeek, who served as Mayor of the city many years ago agreed, in essence, the ordinance is not bad, but he said people's behavior and comments in the past few months have been in reaction to the council's actions. "You get respect when you give respect," he said.

Stephen Kaufman of the Kaufman Legal Group, a law firm hired by the recall committee, released a statement opposing the council's edict.

"We are troubled by the actions of the Council majority to stifle public debate in the City of San Fernando," the statement said. "The California Constitution and the Brown Act protect the right of people to criticize their City government. The Council majority is seeking to silence public criticism in a manner that is both dictatorial and illegal. Their conduct is outrageous and unacceptable."

During public comment, Wysbeek read a letter sent to Mayor Esqueda, city attorney Maribel Medina and the rest of the City Council from the Kaufman Legal Group.

"We are writing to apprise you of what our concerns are as well as to put you on notice that you are taking the city down the path of serious legal liability if you persist such actions," the letter said in reference to the city's attempt to "silence" residents' speech by interrupting them repeatedly during the May 7th city council meeting.

"You took the even more extraordinary step of silencing any speaker making any statement that falls within the realm of criticism of the City, City Council members, the City Attorney, or the way the City is being administered. Your actions are intolerable in a free democracy and the City Council and City Attorney are well advised to cease behaving in such a dictatorial, intimidating and illegal manner," the letter states.

Ticketed Residents Complain

Residents along Griswold Avenue, who had received code violations tickets allegedly because of their support for the recall of Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez, as previously reported by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol also showed up at the meeting to ask those tickets be rescinded.

"I feel my rights were violated," said Noelia Prado, who said police went into their house without permission.

"I don't know how they can give me a debt," said Alicia Gonzalez, who said she and her son haven't been able to work for the past five months and were renting a room in the house to her cousin to help pay the mortgage.

"I had to return the rent money," said Gonzalez. "Now, who from the city is going to come to live and help me with the mortgage".

Recall Signatures Turned In

Two days ahead of the deadline, the San Fernando Recall Committee turned in more than the required signatures for a recall of Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez.

The Committee turned in 2,787 signatures in support of the recall of Esqueda; 2,816 signatures in favor of the recall of Hernandez and 2,825 signatures in support of the recall of De La Torre. They needed 2,029 signatures for each.

Julian Ruelas, chairman of the Recall Committee, said the signatures will be reviewed and validated by the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder's Office before turning them in to the City of San Fernando by the end of June. From then, the City will have 120 days to organize a special election, which Ruelas said could come in September.

Despite the long time, Ruelas said he doesn't expect people's support of the recall to wane.

"People are as angry with them (Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez) as ever," he said.

He added an effort by Esqueda to rescind signatures for the recall was not successful.

"They really didn't get any support. We heard they got 39 signatures. Brenda was asking felons to sign," Ruelas said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 24 May 2012 07:16