Stage set for recall showdown in Livingston

Accusations of conflict of interests, dysfunction fly among political foes.

07/08/2010 12:32 AM

07/08/2010 3:13 PM

LIVINGSTON -- With the pressure of a recall election mounting, Mayor Daniel Varela and Councilwoman Martha Nateras announced their "No! On the Recall" campaign Wednesday.

They targeted two political foes, councilman Rodrigo Espinoza and former mayor Gurpal Samra, claiming they have violated the law and continually lied to the community.

Adding more fuel to Livingston's political fires were charges and counter-charges in a previously released grand jury report that involved alleged conflicts of interest, illicit car towing, a dysfunctional administration, conspiracies, micromanagement, guinea pigs and circus workers cleaning up after an elephant parade.

The recent increase in water rates, a decision that proved to be unpopular with residents, was the result of Samra and Espinoza failing to address the issue the past 12 years, Varela said.

"They postponed the decisions and delayed the inevitable increase of the monthly water rates," he said in a statement on the steps of the Livingston museum. "Rodrigo Espinoza and Gurpal Samra, for their own individual benefit, have lied to the community and have distorted the truth. Check the facts."

Had Samra and Espinoza increased water rates in past years with small doses, the city wouldn't be in the position it's in now, Varela said.

Espinoza said he would have done the responsible thing and increased water rates in small increments, but never had the chance.

However, Varela said he, Nateras and Mayor Pro Tem Frank Vierra had to step in to fix the issue created by Espinoza and Samra.

"I want you to know that I take no pleasure in saying that enough is enough," Varela added. "I am here to ask the residents of Livingston to stand up for Livingston and say no to the recall."

Nateras agreed that Espinoza and Samra have distorted the truth.

"They have purposefully divided our community," she said in her statement Wednesday. "For whatever reason, Rodrigo Espinoza and Gurpal Samra are pursuing a vendetta, without regard to the economic cost to the residents of their community."

And the response from the city to the 2007-08 grand jury report on the city of Livingston paints Espinoza and Samra in an unfavorable light. The document was passed three votes to two and adopted June 16, 2009, by the City Council, with Espinoza and Councilwoman Aguilar dissenting.

The document states that concerns had been raised because of pressure applied by Samra and Espinoza on then Police Chief Bill Eldridge to tow more automobiles.

"The fact that Councilmember Espinoza owns a towing company did not seem to register as an obvious conflict of interest to the two gentlemen," the document reads.

Samra contacted Eldridge about nine times by phone and once in person in an attempt to influence the department's stance on not towing the cars of people caught driving with a suspended license, according to the grand jury document. Espinoza contacted Eldridge once in person to try to have him tow more cars.

"Mayor Samra stopped his contacts with the police chief only after the police chief threatened to file a complaint with the (state) Attorney General," according to the document.

Both Espinoza and Samra violated section 1-6-4 of the Livingston Municipal Code because their contact with Eldridge wasn't for "the purpose of compiling facts and data for possible future action by the council," according to the document.

Espinoza claimed the findings of the grand jury report were false and the city's response to it was nothing more than an effort by the city manager and a majority of the council to make him look bad.

"They conspired to try and get me," he said. "I have a business in town, and they were trying to use that against me."

Espinoza, who is challenging the mayor for his position, expects the recall effort against Varela and Nateras to succeed.

"They're just guinea pigs for the city manager and Frank Vierra," he said.

Varela said Espinoza and the people around him tend to focus on minor issues instead of important ones, distracting other city officials from doing their jobs.

"I'm not going to resort to name-calling," he said. "We're considered the guinea pigs because we're doing what's right and what needs to be done. They're abrasive, they're disrespectful."

The grand jury found that city employees have felt "threatened and fearful of their jobs" because of intimidation by certain members of the City Council, according to its 2007-08 report.

The culture created by the dysfunctional City Council has caused a poor work environment detrimental to public service, according to the city's response to the grand jury findings.

"Moreover, when members of a governing board serve the public only half as well as they serve themselves and insist on micromanaging the city, it is left to the city manager, who is the council's 'at will' employee, to tidy up after them" the document reads. "His position then becomes akin to that of the circus worker who dutifully trails after the elephant parade with a wheeled bucket and shovel."

As the buildup to the Aug. 31 recall election continues, City Council meetings, which are already heated events, will only become more intense.

"I'm worried about the recall," Varela said. "Because it's about the future of our community."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.

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