Lewis claims “a hidden agenda” joins in 2-2 split council vote
During their meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, the Los Banos City Council split on holding an appointment process for a new mayor, honored former Mayor Tom Faria for his almost 16 years of service to the city, approved Fire Chief Paul Tualla’s contract, recognized Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Los Banos Fire Department’s fundraising efforts to fight it.
Residents Complain About Homeless Encampment, One Opposes Appointment of Mayor
Mayor Pro Tem Kenneth Lambert led the meeting, again and opened the public forum in which two residents complained about the homeless encampment at the Rancho Mobile Home Park. Two other residents stated that the smoke has been a constant issue and someone lit a car on fire Monday. One speaker stated that homeless residents are throwing propane bottles into fires causing explosions. Another resident, who submitted a written comment, reiterated the other residents’ complaints, and also complained that she had heard gun shots from the homeless encampment.
Resident Kathy Ballard voiced her concerns about appointing an interim mayor until the election next month. She said it was “a farce” and didn’t see any reason to do it. Ballard argued that with Paul Llanez running unopposed, he would most likely win, and she doesn’t understand why the city can’t wait until then.
Council Splits on Appointing New Mayor
On the matter of appointing a new mayor to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Faria, Interim City Manager Greg Wellman explained the law requires that the council must fill any vacancy of an elected position within 60 days by either appointment or special election. The time between Wednesday’s meeting and the election was only 34 days, making a special election impossible. There is no legal requirement from the state or city dictating how the council appoints a mayor. In summary, the council did not have to appoint anyone because the election is within the 60-day window; but, the council can appoint anyone who is qualified with a simple majority. To be appointed, an individual must be 18 years old, a registered voter and resident of the city.
Lewis Claims Hidden Agenda to Rehire Pinheiro
The appointment effort proved to be controversial with the council being split on how they viewed the situation. Councilwoman Deborah Lewis said that she believes there is a hidden agenda behind the appointment, and that the vote was to “bring a certain public employee back” (referring to former City Manager, Josh Pinheiro, who was fired by Lewis, LLamas and Faria on June 15, 2022). In later comments, she stated that “the former employee wouldn’t listen to us”.
LLamas Reverses Course
Councilman Refugio LLamas had previously said, “The sooner we can get Mr. Llanez seated the better…We need someone there, right away”. He additionally stated, “The council should seek direction from the city attorney and act in accordance with all applicable laws and ordinances in filling the vacancy created by Mr. Faria’s departure.” However, during Wednesday’s meeting LLamas stated that he felt this vote was “to just reinstate a former employee who put us in this situation because they wouldn’t listen to outside ideas,” referring to the local homeless crisis. He stated that the homeless situation was dire and could benefit from having a mayor, but that this is the only urgent issue that can’t wait until December.
In a text conversation with a reporter for the Enterprise, LLamas mentioned his own appointment to the council in January 2021 to fill the vacancy created by Faria’s election as mayor the previous November. “There was a set of prepared questions, an interview with ability to ask secondary questions, then a vote. Longer notice to the public, not on a Friday evening,” he wrote. When asked if he had changed his mind about appointing Llanez and believed other candidates should be considered, LLamas responded, “The democratic process should not be undermined for the sake of expediency.” He was then reminded of what he had said two weeks prior. When asked again if he had changed his mind about appointing Llanez, he did not respond.
Lambert, Jones Supported an Appointment
Lambert said “we need a mayor not a pro tem” to give us the votes we need and pressing issues dealt with. Councilman Brett Jones called Lewis and LLamas “hypocrites” because they were “rushing” to hire a new city manager before the election and now claim appointing a mayor before the election to be “rushing”. He pointed out that Llanez becoming mayor is inevitable and that the council needs to deal with it and stop stalling.
The only candidate being considered for the appointment was Llanez, who is currently running unopposed for the position of mayor and is expected to win the election in November as a result.
Lewis and LLamas saw no reason to rush the process and to respect the democratic process even if the outcome is almost certain. Jones and Lambert said Llanez will be mayor either way and appointing him now will help assist with pressing issues instead of waiting until December. Both sides claimed to be acting in the interest of the citizens of Los Banos and accused the other side of having a personal agenda. Mr. Llanez was in attendance as the motion to proceed in the appointment process failed with Lambert and Jones voting in favor and Lewis and LLamas opposed. He was not interviewed.
If the council had appointed someone, that person would have only served until the new mayor is seated in December and voters would still have the final say as to who is the mayor. Appointing someone does not invalidate nor replace the election.
After the meeting, Councilman Jones provided an additional comment about the lack of action on the mayoral appointment. “The level of incompetence displayed tonight by council members Refugio LLamas and Deborah Lewis was detrimental to the residents of Los Banos,” he shared. “Another prime example of lack of succession planning. It’s clear these two city officials have a problem for every solution.”
Begonia Decries Lack of Appointment of Llanez
When asked for comment on his campaign opponent’s reversal, council candidate Douglas Begonia, Jr. said, “I am surprised, and I don’t see the purpose in going back on that. I don’t see the point of holding this up. Paul’s the guy. He’s going to be the guy. He will be the mayor the first meeting in December.”
Other Council Action
In other council action, on the consent agenda were a few notable items including the approval of an employment agreement with the Fire Chief Paul Tualla, $56,412.51 to purchase a new SUV for Public Works, and the approval of rezoning a 7.57-acre parcel into three parcels located at the Northeast corner of Mercy Springs Road and Overland Avenue. The council also approved the exemption from the California Environment Quality Act to Round Up Sports Bar, which will be located at 830 I St. The owners of the new restaurant also own Courtyard Mimosas on Pacheco Blvd.
During council comments at the end of the meeting, Lewis pointed out that the Project Home Key program ends on Oct. 31st. She formally invited County Supervisor Scott Silveira to answer questions as to what the county will be doing to help the city with its homeless problem. LLamas also emphasized the need to address the homeless encampment issue.
Allen D. Payton contributed to this report.