The Moreno Valley City Council—already plagued by scandals, recall threats and allegations of federal corruption—has found itself yet again in the crossfires of a self-induced political firestorm.
On August 13, Councilman Marcelo Co resigned from his post amidst charges of fraud. On September 24, the Council appointed one Yxstian Gutierrez to fill the vacancy. But the manner in which the appointment was conducted has left residents both confused and outraged.
Mayor Tom Owings, Mayor Pro Tem Jesse Molina and Councilwoman Victoria Baca voted in favor of appointing the political unknown to the post with Councilman Richard Stewart voting in dissent. Gutierrez was in the audience during the proceedings and was immediately sworn in after the vote.
According to the Press-Enterprise, the council failed to issue a call for applicants, hold public interviews or even discuss the appointment during public meetings. After the decision to hire Gutierrez had been made, the council did not even have a resume available for the new District 4 representative.
Gutierrez, 28, is a special education teacher at Sunnymead Middle School. He has no prior political experience other than a stint on the Moreno Valley College student council. Some are alleging that his sudden and unexpected appointment is linked to his ties with Councilwoman Baca.
According to the P-E, Gutierrez and Baca have a short, but relevant history. Gutierrez hosted Baca’s kickoff fundraiser for her 2012 council campaign and contributed a small amount of food and money to the cause. Baca has also previously tried to get Gutierrez to run for office, even offering to manage his campaign.
Baca introduced Gutierrez to Owings a few weeks prior to the September 24 appointment. With Molina inexplicably on board, residents and political observers alike are questioning whether a violation of open meeting laws has occurred.
The future of Guiterrez’ appointment is murky at best, considering the process by which the council filled the vacancy appears to have violated the Brown Act.
According to the P-E, Councilwoman Baca is pleading ignorance as to the official process of appointing council vacancies. However, earlier this year several members of her family and Mayor Owings himself led a petition to overturn the Moreno Valley Unified School District board’s appointment to fill a vacancy. They alleged that making such a decision without voter input disenfranchises residents of that district.
Residents of the city are also questioning whether or not Gutierrez even lives within the district.
When Councilman Co was elected to represent District 4 in 2010, Gutierrez’ house was included in District 3 given the boundaries at the time. However, the 2011 redistricting has since expanded District 4 to include Gutierrez’ neighborhood.
Talks of challenging the appointment in court have been underway since September 24. Several residents have sent letters alleging a violation of the Brown Act to both Acting City Attorney Suzanne Bryant and to the Riverside County District Attorney’s office.
Bryant issued a response to the boundary confusion last week stating that the district boundaries were immediately changed per a 2011 council resolution.
Residents have remained steadfast in their belief Gutierrez is ineligible based on his District 3 address, citing the city’s election codes. Election Code Section 21606a reads: “The term of office of any council member who has been elected and whose term of office has not expired shall not be affected by any change in the boundaries of the district from which he or she was elected.”
Fredric D. Woocher, a LA-based attorney who specializes in election law, agrees with their conclusion and put the council on notice last week.
In Sunday’s paper, the P-E Editorial Staff called for the City Council to clean up its act:
“The council majority’s sudden appointment of a new council member last month was a jaw-dropping example of contempt for public input, good practice and transparency. But the city’s ham-fisted response to the questions that hasty action raised has only cemented the public impression of a city government that is both arrogant and inept.”
More details about Councilman Co’s sudden resignation will surely come to light as he is scheduled for arraignment today. Co is charged with eight felony counts of fraud, grand theft of property and presenting false claims. The charges stem from Co’s claim that he was caring for his bedridden mother, who was in fact still overseas at the time and has since passed away.
According to the Press-Enterprise, the Riverside County DA’s Office have been investigating Co for almost two years. Prosecutors were first alerted by Medi-Cal on the suspicion that he may have been mishandling funds that were intended to support his ailing mother.
On August 13, federal investigators conducted a corruption probe and swept the homes of all five councilmembers. The controversy over Councilman Co and his vacancy aside, little has been said—but much has been speculated—over the ongoing federal investigation of the embattled Moreno Valley City Council.
Moreno Valley is a city located south of San Bernardino and just west of Riverside. The city boasts a population of over 190,000, making it the second-largest city in Riverside County. It has been officially incorporated since 1984.