By Alfredo Santana
MONTEBELLO — The City Council will remain a five-member body after council members voted Feb. 13 to rescind a controversial ordinance that sought to add two temporary at-large posts until November 2024.
The votes, cast by Mayor David Torres and Councilwomen Scarlet Peralta and Georgina Tamayo aims to put an end to a tumultuous political period that set off accusations among elected leaders for a decision Torres has long decried as political backstabbing.
From the outset, Torres blamed the previous majority of council members composed of incumbents Salvador Melendez, Angie Jimenez and ousted Councilwoman Kimberlee-Cobos Cawthorne for orchestrating a scheme that he alleged put him and Peralta at a disadvantage for reelection last November in Districts 4 and 2, respectively.
Both Jimenez and Melendez were absent from the meeting.
At previous regular and special meetings over the last six months, Torres decried that the previous City Council majority failed to discuss the plan with him and Peralta and approved it with the intent to weaken their positions against two-would be council members in the November 2024 municipal election..
“This decision to move to a seven-member council back in June 2022 was an erroneous one,” Torres said before he voted. “It’s something that council member Peralta and I lobbied heavily against.”
Initially, the City Council had scheduled to conduct open interviews on Feb. 8 with at least six hopefuls who filed paperwork to be considered for appointments to fill the two vacancies.
However, unexpected illnesses from Torres and Jimenez and pushback from the community and an attorney to hold citywide elections forced the council to hold off.
Torres suffered a bout with diverticulitis and underwent surgery to remove the infected portion of his intestine Feb. 6, rendering him unable to attend.
And Jimenez received a text in the midst of a closed session confirming she resulted positive to COVID-19. She left the Feb. 8 meeting, forcing the remaining council members to adjourn.
Before casting the crucial vote, elected officials held several meetings throughout a span of eight months to weigh in on the matter, sparking a debate whether the temporary slots should be filled by appointment or to let voters do so in a citywide election that would cost between $300,000 to $400,000.
The issue also sparked debate at council meetings about qualifications and merits to fill the two positions.
San Francisco attorney Scott Rafferty, who was involved in the legal proceedings that prompted Montebello to switch from five citywide council posts to district representation, argued that the two-at large open seats should be decided by voters, and to resolve the matter with appointments ran counter to state election laws.
Rafferty warned the council that Montebello residents were seriously concerned about the process, and said he had never witnessed such political spectacle at the municipal level.
Fearing a backslash with potential lawsuits challenging the latest decision, City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman kicked off the meeting citing a municipal code, a state statute and case law that he said provided legal grounds for the proceedings to be valid.
Alvarez-Glasman also addressed the question whether three council members on the dais were enough to establish a quorum to conduct city business.
The city attorney said he consulted with Frederic Woocher, a lawyer specializing in elections laws who sided with the position that three members can form a quorum.
“The current Montebello municipal code states that three members constitute a quorum.” Alvarez-Glasman said. “Some may argue that that was constituted under a five-member council. That came back for the council for consideration.
“That item was tabled for the revision that with a seven-member council would have increased quorum from three to four members, and that was never acted upon.”
Councilwoman Tamayo apologized to applicants who had submitted forms to be considered for the canceled posts, and argued that her vote supporting a five-member City Council followed her belief that “a fair process had been compromised.”
“Based on a process that has been jeopardized and on pending litigations and for financial prudency, and with the fact that all districts are represented, I think we should move forward with the current five council seats,” Tamayo said.
She added that it was unfortunate not to see the entire legislative body working together to find solutions for Montebello.
For her part, Councilwoman Peralta said she had been torn about the entire process, and issued apologies to residents following the districting process and moved to a shortened period to receive applications for the botched appointments.
“At the very beginning, as mentioned by Mayor Torres, we both sounded the alarm and continuously expressed our concern about districting and the process that took place,” Peralta said.
She said the move to switch to five district elections in the same election, and leaving two at-large open seats created uncertainty and threw the city into chaos among its leaders and residents.
“This is something that no other jurisdiction in our state has ever done before, with an uncertain situation riddled with liabilities and threats of lawsuits we would be facing if we went down that road,” Peralta said.
With the vote, Torres vowed to rectify the path the city had fallen into, and restore local government to work to benefit the community.
“We really are beset on all sides by poor choices,” Torres said. “I think this is a legacy of the previous majority in trying to attain whatever goals they had.
“That this wasn’t taken seriously as a possible outcome is really a disservice to the residents, to our staff and to this council who is trying to chart a new way forward for our city toward great practices, raising the morale of our community and really just getting down to business,” he added.