23 Years Of Tranquility On Montclair Council Evaporates With Impasse Over Replacement

After more than two decades of little in the way of controversy or dissension in Montclair governance and politics, a snag has developed as the city council has been unable to come to a consensus on how it will fill the gap within its ranks following the elevation of John Dutrey from the office of councilman to mayor in the aftermath of last month’s election.
The situation was precipitated in July, when Montclair Mayor Paul Eaton was obliged by failing health to resign. Eaton had been mayor for 23 years running, having been appointed mayor in 1995 in the aftermath of a minor contretemps involving the previous mayor, Larry Rhinehart, and a misunderstanding of sorts between him, the Ontario Police Department and some decoys on Holt Boulevard east of the Montclair City Limits. During Eaton’s tenure he was elected mayor and reelected four times, as governance in the 5.52-square mile city of 39,000 on the east side of San Bernardino County’s border with Los Angeles County ran smoothy. The city council during that period was among the most politically stable of all 24 of San Bernardino County’s municipalities, with only limited turnover on its city council. The city was steadily minded by then-City Manager Lee McDougal during the first 15 years that Eaton was mayor and was thereafter guided by the equally unflappable Ed Starr in the eight years following McDougal’s 2010 retirement. The most significant threats to the city during Eaton’s reign came with the 2007 economic downturn and the lingering recession thereafter and an insurrection involving a handful of employees led by the city’s former assistant finance director who later ran unsuccessfully for city council.
Throughout that time, councilman John Dutrey and Carolyn Raft had gotten along famously, with nary a cross word between them and virtual consonance right down the line in their voting records.
When Eaton took his leave in July, the council moved at once to make a seamless transition to the future by unanimously supporting filling the mayoral slot with Eaton’s wife, Virginia, who goes by the name Ginger. Less than two week’s later, Paul Eaton died.
Ginger Eaton, at that point, had no political aspirations beyond finishing out her husband’s term, which was set to expire this year.
Raft at various points had been designated by her council colleagues as mayor pro tem, an honorarium that included the assignment of serving as mayor in the mayor’s absence, including presiding over meetings or representing the city at ribbon cuttings and the like. Paul Eaton had intimated to Raft that he believed her calm demeanor and ability to maintain her equanimity in the sometimes contentious rough and tumble of debate over public issues equipped her to succeed him as mayor when he was ready to himself quit the political game.
Dutrey, who was elected to the city council in 1996, four years after Raft was originally elected to the city council, is a creature of local government who works professionally as a housing project manager with the City of Rialto. He has both professional and political ambition that made, for him, his elevation to mayor desirable.
Accordingly, both Raft and Dutrey cast their hats in the ring when the filing period for this year’s election rolled around in July. Joining them in the race were Sousan Elias and Kelly Smith. Both Raft and Dutrey sought to retain a veneer of civility during the race, though both were making energetic efforts at winning.
The competition between them in a race where only one could win was in stark contrast to the 2012 election for city council when the two seats they both held were up for grabs and they ran as a team of sorts against two upstarts, Montclair’s former assistant finance manager, Richard Beltran, and his ally, Sean Brunske, who were pointedly seeking, ultimately unsuccessfully, to dislodge them.
This year, Raft campaigned hard and energetically door-to-door. Dutrey conducted a heavy signage campaign, with his people posting signs at spots where they had permission to do so and monitoring places where the Raft campaign was posting her signs and then placing Dutrey signs at those spots, often without permission. Eventually Raft chaffed at this. At one point, Dutrey went over the line in another respect. When two city employees made social media postings in support of Raft, Dutrey responded in a way that was interpreted as a threat to have them fired when he stated that they should not be getting involved in city politics. Ultimately, he apologized. The damage had been done, however. The collegial attitude that had long existed on the council was broken.
Meanwhile, Ginger Eaton was serving as mayor, but was uninterested in extending her time in office. She had not declared her candidacy for mayor and she did not vie for the two positions on the city council that were up for election this year, either. The council’s two incumbents, Bill Ruh and Tricia Martinez, did seek reelection, however. Vying against them were Omar Zamarripa, Benjamin Lopez, Remoushell Henry and Juliet Orozco.
The results of the November 6 election were a disappointment to Raft, who polled 2,623 votes, or 35.59 percent. Dutrey captured 3,681 or 49.85 percent, making him Montclair’s next mayor. Elias and Smith claimed the remaining 14.66 percent of the vote.
In the city council race, Tricia Martinez and Bill Ruh were reelected, with 3,709 or 33.21 percent of the vote and 2,571 votes or 23.02 percent, respectively. Running in third was Benjamin Lopez, with 2,205 votes or 19.74 percent.
As in the case of Raft and Dutrey, in which there does not appear to be a dime’s worth of difference in their voting records and to all appearances they seem to be on good terms, the once cordial relationship between Martinez and Ruh has soured, exacerbated perhaps because of the recently concluded election. With the election over, the council as it was previously composed – with Ginger Eaton serving in the capacity of mayor – on December 3 met to conduct business on action items for the last time. At that point, Eaton, Raft and Martinez voted to make an at-large appointment to replace Dutrey in the council seat that was soon to become vacant with his move into the mayor’s post, committing the city to using the appointment process as opposed to conducting an election to fill the vacancy. Dutrey and Ruh voted in opposition to that action.
At a special meeting of the city council held on December 10, 2018, Dutrey was sworn in as mayor. Thereafter, turning to action items, Raft nominated Ginger Eaton as the designee to fill the empty slot on the city council. When the vote was taken, the council deadlocked 2-to-2, with Raft and Martinez favoring Eaton’s appointment and Dutrey and Ruh opposed.
There is some irony to the impasse. Martinez believes that having Eaton on the council will preserve stability and amity on the council. The resultant disagreement with Dutrey and Ruh is prolonging the impasse and intensifying the recently-manifested confrontation. In this way, Montclair is now experiencing the first substantial clash of wills among its elected leadership in over two decades.
California law requires a city council, within 60 days of a vacancy in any of its city’s elective offices, to fill that vacancy by appointment or call a special election to fill the vacancy. Thus, because Dutry and Ruh are in favor of holding an election, circumstance favors them as they need only hold their current position and refuse to ratify an appointment to have the end they are advocating – holding an election – imposed on the city by default.
One available compromise to the council would involve introducing a proposal for an appointment that would find favor with all of the council’s members, such that Dutrey and Ruh would drop their insistence on holding an election.
Whether a personage who is mutually acceptable to all four council members exists is an open question. One obvious compromise candidate would be the third place finisher in the just-concluded council election, Benjamin Lopez. At press time, information as to whether Lopez, or any other alternative candidate, would past muster with all four, or even three, of the council members was unavailable to the Sentinel.
The council has until February 8 to use its authority to make the appointment, after which point the automatic election reflex will be triggered.
-Mark Gutglueck

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