By Alfredo Santana
MONTEBELLO — The City Council postponed the appointment of two at-large City Council members Jan. 25 after two council members decided to leave the meeting early, following a closed session to discuss a legal challenge to the process.
Council members Salvador Melendez and Angie Jimenez did not return to the dais to start a public review of six applicants for two seats after Mayor David Torres called for a recess to discuss city’s pending litigation.
However, during a public comment made before the closed session started, attorney Scott Rafferty, who offered legal assistance to Montebello during the process to switch to district elections, told the five-member panel that appointing two new council members may run against state elections laws.
Rafferty said the city made the right decision by switching to district elections in place of at-large seats, but that the two temporary posts should be decided by voters.
Both at-large positions will dissolve following the November 2024 elections for council members in Districts 2 and 4.
Torres represents District 4, while Councilwoman Scarlet Peralta represents District 2.
Rafferty said that Montebello took a big step backward when the previous City Council voted to make it to a seven-member body, dragging out a process that has become a platform for politicians and not for residents.
He said that voters are concerned, and that he has never witnessed a municipal process go to this extreme.
“It needs to be about the city.” Rafferty said. “And having two-at large members who are not elected is not consistent with the California Voting Rights Act. It is not consistent with Government Act,” Rafferty said. “You can’t expand the City Council without voters’ approval, which you have an attempt to get. It’s just wrong on so many different levels.”
He warned the council that state code indicates that if a City Council member resigns, and eventually votes for his or her own successor, they cannot be employed by the municipality for two years.
“I hope you consider that if you decide to vote this evening,” Rafferty added.
For her part, resident Margot Eisner said she was worried with the direction the City Council had taken to fill the two vacancies approved last June, and called for canceling the appointments and holding a citywide election.
“It’s important that we the people really have a say on this thing,” Eisner said.
Rafferty praised the five-district electoral setting for its intent to bring more competition to benefit minorities like the Asian-American community and poorer areas such as the city’s south side, long mired at an economic disadvantage.
According to City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, the lawsuit discussed behind closed doors was a complaint filed by the group Neighborhood Elections Now against the city of Montebello.
Public records indicate that the candidates who completed their applications for the two vacancies before the Jan. 24 deadline Jan. 24 are former Councilwoman Kimberlee Cobos-Cawthorne, attorney Abraham Lemoyne Lim, paralegal Marie Ledezma, Nelly Giselle Nieblas, a manager with the Utility Reform Network; high school teacher Rafael Gutierrez and realtor Edward Franco.
Supporters of the applicants complained that neighboring cities like Downey allow residents up to 60 days to file documents for the replacement of City Council members when they resign, and that Montebello’s less than six full days did not offer a wide window of opportunity.
Others speakers like Rosa Tamayo blamed city staff for loading applications on the city’s website only in English, while ignoring potential candidates eager to file documents in other languages.
“I did not find the applications in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or the various languages that we have in the community. And I ask you what is the diversity we have in this city?” Tamayo said. “You broke my civil rights by not having the application in Spanish.”
Ricardo Alonzo Ugalde also submitted an application that was labeled incomplete by city staff.
After the meeting adjourned, Mayor Torres underscored that the decision to grow the City Council to seven members was made last year by the preceding legislative body.
“There is only one more public meeting before Feb. 13. If the City Council decides not to appoint the two vacancies, an election will be conducted,” Torres said.
A document prepared by City Manager Rene Bobadilla estimates that it would cost the city between $250,000 and $300,000 for a special election and $100,000 more for service costs
Staff has estimated that projected salaries for two additional council members, plus operational costs and staff support may cost the city another $100,000.
When Torres and Peralta won their respective contests last year, they resigned their at-large posts they had been elected to in 2020, leaving the two seats vacant.
Alvarez-Glasman had previously said that there is no legal precedent or a code that addresses the current situation, and warned that the city may navigate in unchartered territory.
A second item discussed at the closed session centered on pending litigation levied by municipal employees against Torres and the city, following allegations of verbal and online harassment.
Torres has said in previous meetings that he only sought access to documents missing on city council packets related to payments made to contractors.
Montebello Mayor David Torres, right, and City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman at a recent City Council meeting. The council has postponed the appointment of two new council members.
Photo by Alfredo Santana