No Respite & Rather Escalation In Montclair Dispute Over Council Replacement

Just as Yugoslavia was thrown into a state of chaos after the death of Marshall Tito, the City of Montclair seven months after the abrupt resignation and death of Mayor Paul Eaton is descending into a state paralysis. The full resolution of the leadership vacuum that ensued with the dissolution of Eaton’s leadership has yet to be achieved, and a conflict over otherwise seemingly minor differences among the city council’s members is now mushrooming into a bareknuckled power struggle.
Eaton, who had been a member of the city council since 1988, was appointed mayor in 1995 following the resignation of then-Mayor Larry Rhinehart. Eaton completed three years of that term and then went on to be elected/reelected to five more four-year terms. Throughout that time, the city and council maintained a state of placid stability, with very little turnover on the council over a series of election cycles during which City Manager Lee McDougal answered to the city council. In 2010, MacDougal’s right hand man, Ed Starr succeeded him as city manager upon his retirement and the air of tranquility sustained itself for another eight years.
In 2017, a storm cloud loomed on Montclair’s horizon when Eaton suffered a heart attack, which sidelined him for a while. He initially seemed to be bouncing back but his health again downgraded and he found himself growing more and more infirm in the winter of 2017-18. He last attended a council meeting on March 5, 2018, and over the next three months Councilwoman Carolyn Raft, the city’s mayor pro tem, filled in for him in presiding over council meetings. After having missed more than 60 days of the city’s regular council meetings, Eaton was obliged to step down from his elected position or, in the alternative, the council was required to act to remove him. Ultimately, on July 5, 2018, Paul Eaton tendered his resignation. The council, mindful that the November election in which the mayoral position would be up for election was at that point only four months off, unanimously voted to elevate Eaton’s wife, Virginia, who goes by the name Ginger, to succeed him. As it was then generally believed and considered that Ginger Eaton had no lasting political ambition of her own and that as such she would not vie for mayor, her appointment had the advantage of not conferring what some believed might amount to an unfair advantage of incumbency to any one of the possible candidates for mayor in the 2018 election.
Paul Eaton had confided to Raft, who was first elected to the council in 1992 and as such was the longest-serving member of the panel, that he considered her to be the logical and best choice to succeed him. Two weeks after Paul Eaton’s resignation, he died.
John Dutrey, who was the second-longest serving member of the council after Raft, having first been elected in 1996, had mayoral ambition. Thus, with Raft’s concurrent decision to vie for mayor, a rivalry that theretofore had not previously existed between Dutrey and Raft manifested. Indeed, in years past going back to 2000, a political alliance of sorts had existed between the two, as they both were bound to vie for reelection in the even-numbered years corresponding with presidential elections. Given the comity and consonance that existed between them, their nearly identical voting records, their coequal identities as members of the existing Montclair political establishment and common interest in maintaining the status quo, it behooved them both to make no criticism of one another and indeed laud each other and compliment Paul Eaton for their respective performances in office during the political season. In 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, all three were victorious in their reelective efforts. Indeed, in 2012 in particular, when two political upstarts – Montclair’s former assistant finance manager, Richard Beltran, and his ally, Sean Brunske – ran together as a reform-oriented anti-incumbent slate aimed at shaking up City Hall, Raft and Dutrey had practically campaigned as a team in defense of the conventionality that existed at Montclair City Hall. Their collective appeal to the voters to not change horses in the middle of the stream and to avoid rocking a steady rolling boat steaming unerringly to its destination appealed to the voters and the duo were retained in office by a resounding majority of the city’s voters in that year’s balloting.
However, in last year’s election campaign, in which Sousan Elias and Kelly Smith were also running to make it a four-candidate field, Raft and Dutrey found themselves facing off against one another. And while the election did not decline into anything approaching the mudfests that have typified some other bitterly-fought local, state and national campaigns, both made serious efforts to prevail. Earnestly, Raft set about using the traditional campaigning methodology of walking precincts and going door-to-door to speak with registered voters, augmented by a sign campaign. Dutrey proved more aggressive than Raft. He moved to secure the endorsement of the police officers’ and city firefighters’ unions, according to some reports by making commitments to them to enhance their salary and benefit packages. While Dutrey did not devote himself to as energetic of a door-to-door personal voter contact approach as did Raft, he conducted a heavier signage campaign than she did, 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, leading to what are believed to be the first cross words that had ever passed between them.
Dutrey proved more creative in yet another way, sending out a subliminal message that was calculated to corral him more votes. Of French Basque extraction, his actual name is Javier John Dutrey. Professionally and politically in years past, he had dispensed with using Javier. But in recent years the long dormant Hispanic political giant in all of California to include San Bernardino County and Montclair has been awakening. With 72 percent of the city’s population self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino, Dutrey redesigned his campaign signs to promote himself as “Javier ‘John’ Dutrey.”
To a minority of the city’s Hispanic electorate, those familiar with Dutrey who recognized that he had for two decades merely represented himself as “John,” the move came across as offensively patronizing and exploitative. A larger cross section of Montclair voters, including a significant percentage of its registered Latino voters, however, moved to precisely the conclusion Dutrey was aiming for. The ruthless intensity of his campaign involved Dutrey in another questionable tactic. 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. When those employees made an issue of what was occurring, Dutrey ultimately apologized. At the level where it counted, however, the impact had been achieved, as the intimidation of city employees in the crucial weeks leading up to the election curtailed or reduced a source of the logistical support to the Raft campaign that she might otherwise have counted upon.
Despite the criticism of Dutrey’s tactics and the ill-will it engendered within certain narrow quarters, it proved a successful strategy overall. In the four-way voting, Raft polled 2,623 votes, or 35.59 percent. Elias and Smith claimed a combined 14.66 percent of the vote. Dutrey walked off with the mayor’s gavel on the strength of the 3,681 votes he captured, equaling or 49.85 percent.
His victory was a costly one, as the collegial attitude that had long existed on the council was broken. Somewhat inexplicably, paralleling the falling out between Raft and Dutrey, council members Bill Ruh and Tricia Martinez at some point came to loggerheads. Ruh, who was first elected to the council in 1998 and was consistently reelected thereafter, was handily returned to office in 2014, the same year that Martinez was first elected. For nearly four years they appeared to have a more than cordial relationship, with Martinez on multiple occasions making indication of her admiration and respect for Ruh, his guidance, wisdom, dedication and generosity. Ruch had likewise been charitable toward his younger colleague. As the 2018 election season evolved, however, their camaraderie evaporated. In the November 6 voting, among a field of six, Martinez scored an impressive first place victory, with with 3,709 or 33.21 percent of the vote. Ruh retained his council post by placing second with 2,571 votes or 23.02 percent. Benjamin Lopez ran a respectable third, with 2,205 votes or 19.74 percent.
At the city council’s December 3 meeting, the last full convocation involving Virginia Eaton in the capacity of mayor, Martinez, Raft and Eaton voted to make an appointment to fill the vacancy that would exist on the council with Dutrey’s ascension to the mayor’s position, and scheduling a vote to do so on December 10, 2018, at a special meeting of the city council. Dutrey and Ruh were opposed to doing so.
At that December 10 meeting, with Eaton no longer a voting member of the council, Martinez and Raft sought to appoint Eaton to the council. Implicit in such a move, however, would have been the creation of a ruling coalition that would have left Dutrey on the outside looking in. He and Ruh gave indication that they favored filling the void through a special election, and voted against a second appointment of Virginia Eaton. The issue was brought back to the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting on December 17. Both Dutrey and Ruh remained opposed to appointing Eaton. Recognizing, as well, that virtually any nomination they might make would not meet with the support of either Raft or Martinez, they made no such nomination. Instead, they remained by their stated principle that the voters should be given a choice in the matter.
The matter was brought forward again this week, on January 7.
“The people have elected you to make tough decisions,” said Rob Pipersky, who then advised the council to make the appointment.
Shirley Wofford said she did not think that Dutrey and Ruh were “giving consideration to how [a successful elected candidate] will have to spend a lot of start of their [time in office] to start an organization for the 2020 election. They won’t have time. Regardless of who it is, that person has a year to do the job and decide if they are going to run for the 2020 election.” She said holding another election was not necessary. “We did elect all of you to make this decision for us,” Wofford said, noting that an election would entail tremendous expense “If you are passing 99 items and failing on one, you are failing. Do your damn job.”
Joan Lindhorst asked if “anybody has thought about the cost? This will be $200,000 our taxpayers will be paying on this when the residents of Monclair have already spoken. The one who had the highest number of votes should be appointed. Whoever that is should be appointed to the council seat. Special elections are time consuming and money consuming.”
Roger Lambert said something should have “been decided already.”
Benjamin Lopez, the top vote-getter among those who ran in November but were not elected, said the council should respect tradition and protocol in determining how to fill the gap.
As the top vote-getter in the just concluded election, Lopez indicated, he had previously been tempted to call for making an appointment based on the election results, which would vault him into the post. It was not that simple, however, he vouchsafed. “Forty years ago, we saw a council member resign from his seat, creating a vacancy,” Lopez said. “The city’s remaining four council members chose to appoint the next highest vote getter in the recent election it had, claiming that the next person earning the support of voters should be granted a chance to serve. That council member served only two years. Thirty-three years ago, the city had a sitting council member get elected mayor in the middle of his term. He resigned his council seat creating a vacancy. The remaining four council members also felt that the best decision was to appoint the next runner up in the last election they just completed and to hold a special election for the remainder of the term. They did just that. That council member served two years. Thirty years ago the city had a vacancy occur on the council. The remaining four council members decided to appoint a new council member, and call for a special election. But this new council member had to go through an interview process and those interested had to submit applications. Nearly 25 years ago the city had its mayor resign. This created a vacancy. The council at that time created an application and interview process. The person appointed only served two years. Montclair has a history of appointing the third place finisher in the most recent election and appointing a temporary council member and calling for a special election. It has been argued and said by one that ‘appointments have worked well for the city.’ Well, I’d have to agree that in most cases they have worked out well. But the person claiming that appointments work well needs to tell the whole story. Don’t give the impression that automatic and rushed appointments occurred. That has not happened. In fact, in 1988 Paul Eaton was temporarily appointed to the council to fill the seat vacated by the death of Billy Oldfield. The council then called a special election to determine who would fill the remainder of the term. Paul Eaton was not given an automatic, carte blanche appointment. There was a special election planned. Now, no one filed against Paul Eaton to run for that seat, so he was appointed to the term outright, but nonetheless a temporary appointment was made and special election called.”
Lopez said, “Today, to be consistent, to be fair…no other Eaton today should be given a seat just because the planned appointment is a ‘done deal’ like Carolyn Raft has posted. Calling something a ‘done deal’ is a backroom deal, and backroom deals violate the Brown Act. Since 1970, there have been seven times that previous councils have appointed to fill a vacancy, but they either collected applications, conducted interviews, appointed the next runner up and/or called a special election. All previous councils have done one or a combination of these things. John Dutrey’s initial call to seek applications and conduct interviews falls in line with Montclair precedent. What he asked for all along should have been done in the first place. That would have prevented the mess we are in today. Ramming through an appointment that benefits one, does not fit with Montclair’s history.”
Lopez said he believes the appointment “process is so tainted now, that no resident of this city has a fair and unbiased chance at being appointed to the council. The process is being skewed to favor one resident only. Anyone else not named Eaton, need not apply.”
Lopez acknowledged, “I initially called for an appointment and that you appoint the next highest voter getter in the last election.” However, he said that he is convinced “now the only fair option at this point is a special election to let the people of Montclair have final say on the vacant council seat.”
The input from the public did not sway the council either way. Raft and Martinez yet called for making an appointment and both continued to support Eaton being that appointment. Raft’s nomination of Eaton, seconded by Martinez was voted upon, resulting in a 2-to-2 deadlock.
Ruh reiterated his belief that principle dictated that an election be held.
This brought a testy response from Martinez. “[Who] made you the dictator of what’s appropriate timing?” Martinez said. “Who decided that you know what’s best for the city?”
Martinez then demanded to know why Ruh was unwilling to make an appointment nomination.
Ruh said he was unwilling to make a nomination of even someone he considered to be a qualified candidate because he did not believe making an appointment was proper.
“I have always believed in elections,” Ruh said. “Let the residents decide. If someone is interested, they will go door-to-door so people can see who they like and who they do not like. It is important you run for the seat. I have a lot of people approaching me, even at the grocery store, who say they want the appointment. Not a single one of them said they would be willing to work for it. That hard work is how a person gets into office and I believe democracy should be served by an election.”
Martinez pointed out that last summer Ruh had voted to appoint Eaton to succeed her husband. She wanted to know why Ruh was not willing to appoint Eaton now. Ruh pointed out that the vote in July was for a very brief interim. “Two years is different than six months,” he said.
Raft made the point that Eaton was more than qualified to hold the job, and that running for office would subject Eaton to the same type of obloquy that Raft had to endure during the recent campaign when she said she was falsely accused of being insensitive and hostile to the city’s Hispanic residents.
“I don’t think we want to spend $200,000 on a special election for someone who is going to be in office for only eight months,” Raft said. “It is time to get a majority vote of the council to agree to an appointment. Ginger Eaton should fill the vacancy so we can go on with the city’s business. She has given her time to the city. We need an appointment. Ginger is the best choice. No one else here can fill her place.”
Martinez said the council not being at full strength was putting a strain on her in her efforts to represent the city’s residents and attend the myriad of civic and community functions she felt it was the duty of the council to attend. She chided Ruh for not being at ribbon cuttings and other events. Ruh shot back that he had work commitments that prevented him from attending such events on weekdays but that he had served the city faithfully. “I have been on the council since 1998,” Ruh said. “I have done as much as is humanly possible. Many of these events are in the daytime. I have a demanding professional life. I have met my council obligation and met them fully. I am engaged with the city in the evening, not just council meetings but different boards and commissions.” He added, “I don’t look at it as a sacrifice. It is a privilege to serve our community.”
Martinez provided an encapsulation of seven highly public events she had attended as a city representative throughout the community over the last month. She said she was raising one daughter yet of school age and was assisting her older daughter who is now working in the legal profession and that she was also on the verge of becoming a grandmother. “I’m pleading,” she said, in making a pitch to have the council brought to full strength in the near term. “I need help. I’m not too proud to ask for it from my colleagues. Gentlemen, please!”
Dutrey, while indulging unbridled comment from all of the council, did say, “We have to temper our emotions. Let’s keep our emotions down a bit.”
To the suggestions by Martinez and Raft that the 3-to-2 December 3 vote required that the council make the appointment, Ruh responded, “City council is an elected position. The law is clear on that. The December 3 vote is not binding. This is a newly seated council. We’re not bound to that agreement.”
To assertions that the city could not continue to function with a continuous 2-to-2 deadlock on the city council, Ruh pointed out that on virtually every other issue beside filling the council vacancy, the council was in virtual lockstep. “I believe we can live with four members,” Ruh said.
Dutrey told his council colleagues and the audience in the council chambers, “This is not about who has been nominated. It is about the process of making an appointment or holding a special election. This seat does represent 40,000 people in the community.”
The mayor pointed out that the appointment process for non-elected positions such as city committees and the planning commission entailed a formal process of selection, and he said that determining who would fill an elected position should be no less exacting and formalized. While he said he believed an election was in order, he said he believed an appointment, if it is to be made, should at the least entail interviews that would allow “other Montclair residents to apply for the seat.”
Ruh’s proposal that the council schedule a vote at its next meeting to arrange for a special election hung on a 2-to-2 vote, with Martinez and Raft opposed. Ruh then sought to make a compromise proposal that would, in his words, entail having the council at its next meeting “consider all legally available options to fill the vacancy.” That, too, failed, because Raft and Martinez were unwilling to take up anything that might lead to an election.
With Dutrey and Ruh unwilling to support an appointment and Martinez and Raft equally unwilling to vote for an election, Dutrey lamented, “We’re definitely at a stalemate here.”
Upon another motion in which Martinez and Raft sought to take one more stab at making an appointment at the next council meeting, with Ruh opposed, Dutrey voted to bring such an item forward, in the interest of the city.
After the meeting, Dutrey indicated he was yet opposed to making an appointment in principle, but was willing to keep the discussion of an appointment in play to “progress toward some kind of solution.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply