Ramirez Ousted From Victorville Council In A 3-to-2 Vote

Victorville City Councilwoman Rita Ramirez, the Democratic political figure who has garnered solid success as the holder of nonpartisan elected offices in San Bernardino County over the last two decades and has been among the forefront of Democrats in their effort to break the GOP’s hold on county partisan offices, was ignominiously removed from the city council this week on a 3-to-2 vote of her council colleagues.
The ostensible reasons cited for bouncing Ramirez from the council were recent unexcused absences from city council meetings as well as an allegation that she was not actually residing in Victorville.
The move, however, was rich with political and racial overtones, and complicated by the consideration that neither the mayor nor the city attorney afforded Ramirez, during the course of the March 2 meeting, an opportunity to marshal evidence of her residence in the city nor acknowledged that the city had issued a notice of cancellation of the council’s convocation on February 16, the final meeting Ramirez was alleged to have missed, and that City Clerk Charlene Robinson indicated that Ramirez was in attendance at the February 16 meeting. At two separate points during the March 2 meeting when Ramirez’s colleagues either attempted to elicit from Ramirez documentation or evidence to refute the charges of non-residency that had been lodged against her or referenced the potential existence of such materials, the mayor pointedly foreclosed the inquiry and shut off the microphone of the council member who cited the documentation.
Throughout the meeting, which was conducted remotely and electronically as a video teleconference, Ramirez was not provided with a video link-up as were the mayor and the three other council members, along with the city manager, the city clerk, the city attorney, 11 other staff members and the police chief, who was acting as the virtual meeting’s sergeant-at-arms.
Ramirez’s removal now sets the stage for the Republican Party to reclaim primacy on the city council, just three months after, for the first time in Victorville’s 59-year history, its city council was composed of a Democratic majority. A key vote in ousting Ramirez came from one of the council’s Democratic members, an African American, who last month resigned from the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee because she believes the committee’s Hispanic members have, in her words, engaged in racist acts which disenfranchised blacks politically. Ramirez was an active and influential member of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee.
Councilwoman Liz Becerra, the primary advocate for Ramirez’s removal, who asked that City Attorney Andreas De Bortnowsky investigate Ramirez’s residency at the February 16 meeting, presented a prima facie case indicating that Ramirez has not for some time physically resided in Victorville.
“Since being elected and prior to being elected, I’ve been concerned about being represented by a council member who does not live in the city,” Becerra said. “I’ve done my own research, but I’ve also asked the city attorney.”
de Bortnowsky indicated that a case to remove Ramirez from office would come down to the issues of “residency in the city and extended absences.” He said the case against Ramirez was more clearly cut with regard to the issue of non-residency than unexcused absences.
“Basically, with respect to the residency requirement, there seems to be some evidence – in fact, yes her residency has moved out of the City of Victorville,” de Bortnowsky said. “With respect to absences of meeting, that’s a little bit more complicated. The complicated issue on that is whether or not there is absence without permission, and so that becomes an issue of fact.”
The entire circumstance is nuanced by the consideration that Ramirez had three amputations beginning in January 2020, first her middle toe, then her left foot and then her lower leg, followed by the spread of the coronavirus in the medical facilities in which she was recovering, then further complications late last year during which amputation of her right foot seemed imminent but was evaded by medical treatment that required another extended hospitalization. Throughout that ordeal and her multiple hospital and recovery facility stays, her sons repeatedly brought her to a family home she had built with her former husband in Twentynine Palms 47 years ago, where her grown children could better care for her and monitor her progress. Initially, at least, the city had accommodated Ramirez by installing communications equipment at the Twentynine Palms residence that allowed her to participate in the city council meetings remotely.
Citizens must go through a relatively elaborate process to remove a council member from office, de Bortnowsky said, one which provides the official being removed a formalized set of protections, including a court trial. In its official capacity, a city council need not adhere to that formalized process, but can proceed on its own authority to remove a council member, he said.
“If a private person wants to challenge the ability of a city council person to hold office,” de Bortnowsky said, the person doing the challenging goes to the California Attorney General’s office for a quo warranto finding, one that determines if the circumstances are such “to see if they have grounds” to remove the elected official from office. If the grounds exist, then the individual making the challenge can go to court to get a verdict that the official be removed from office, he said.
“With respect to city council’s [action to remove a council colleague] they don’t necessarily have to follow that same quo warranto proceeding. They actually can go right to a trial if they determine that’s appropriate,” de Bortnowsky said. Moreover, a city council can, if it chooses, de Bortnowsky said, simply apply its own authority to make the removal, which can be contested after the fact by the removed official in an appeal to the California Attorney General’s Office.
de Bortnowsky told the council it could “make a finding and determination based on statutory proceedings that the position is in fact vacated and proceed [with the removal from office], essentially then allowing the person that vacated the position to then seek a quo warranto action.”
Councilwoman Blanca Gomez asked about the city conducting a trial, her question seemingly aimed at what allowance Ramirez would be provided in presenting evidence to controvert the allegation that she was not a city resident.
de Bortnowsky told the council, “In order to essentially challenge a person’s right to hold office you have the ability to go into a Superior Court to initiate a trial.” A private individual without the authority of the government, de Bortnowsky said, “must first approach the attorney general’s office for the quo warranto proceeding. The city can go directly to make a determination in accordance and as a matter of law based on those statutes that the position is vacant, if the facts support a finding that there is no residency or that there has been extended absences.”
Gomez asked de Bortnowsky how his conclusion that Ramirez was not living in Victorville was reached. He said he “checked with the city clerk as to the extended absences. With respect to the residency requirements, I have been aware of the agenda postings where the address of Council Member Ramirez has been posted as a Twentynine Palms address. So I did a little bit of investigation myself and confirmed that in fact seems to be the address she has been attending the meetings from for almost the last year.”
Gomez asked why the Twentynine Palms home was the only property connected to Ramirez referenced in his report, seeking to explore if de Bortnowsky had sought any evidence to suggest Ramirez was living in Victorville. Mayor Debra Jones abridged Gomez’s input at that point, and foreclosed de Bortnowsky from explaining what effort he made to find support of the proposition that Ramirez was living in Victorville.
In her allotted time to address the subject, Ramirez said, “I have answered all the questions pertaining to my election. As to the question of my absence and the question of my legal residence,” she said her official domicile could be established as being in Victorville, “which can be checked with the registrar of voters.”
Then, apparently based upon de Bortnowsky’s assertion that he had carried out an investigation into her residency, she said, “The question that I have is [why is it that] only Liz Becerra is listed on the questionnaires or information pertaining to the absence and to the ownership of my home?”
The direction of Ramirez’s question, which suggested that the effort to unseat her was more broadly based than on Becerra’s inquiry, prompted a reaction from Jones which, observers of the meeting noted, betrayed that Jones was not merely presiding over a fact-finding proceeding, but herself angling to see Ramirez removed from the council.
She at that point asked de Bortnowsky.  “Is one of the tests of residency where you are claiming a property tax exemption?” Then, seemingly self-conscious over the impression her question may have made, Jones broke from her stated intention to follow precise procedure in allowing members of the council to provide their comment in a strict order, going out of her way to question de Bortnowsky and the city manager, in so doing seeking to dispel the notion that the hearing that evening was a set-up with a predetermined outcome. She asked de Bortnowsky, “Did you or Mr. Metzler in any way prompt Council Member Becerra to request tonight’s agenda item?”
“No,” said de Bortnowsky.
“No,” said Metzler.
Jones then allowed Becerra to move in for the kill.
Becerra said that Ramirez claimed her Victorville residency to be at 16893 Glennaire Avenue, property that is registered to Juan Romero as the owner. “This is the same address used by Ms. Denise Wells,” whom Becerra pointed out, was appointed to the planning commission by Ramirez. Ramirez, Becerrra said, was using Well’s address as her address. Becerra continued, “Rita Ramirez Dean is the registered owner of house on Two Mile Road in Twentynine Palms, acquired in January 1974. At this location, Council Member Ramirez claims a homeowner’s exemption, which is provided only to owners that use their property as a principal residence.” Dean is Ramirez’s married name.
Furthermore, Becerra said, “In December 2019, Council Member Ramirez was hospitalized and returned to her home, again in Twentynine Palms some time between March and April [2020]. Since April 21st of 2020, Council Member Ramirez has continued to live at [the] Twentynine Palms home [and] has participated in the council meetings from that location. Verification of this can be supported by public records showing her Twentynine Palms address as noticed in the April 21st [2020] council agenda as the location open to the public so she could participate remotely. Public records show Council Member Ramirez’s printed agenda is delivered by Fed Ex since May of 2020 to her Twentynine Palms home. Public records show the staff has traveled to her Twentynine Palms home since April of 2020 to facilitate her participation in our city council meetings here in the city of Victoriville. On February 3 of this year, Denise Wells submitted her letter of resignation from the planning commission, moving from the Glennaire address. That happened on February 28. Madame Mayor, we can only say that Councilwoman Ramirez has not lived in the city of Victorville longer than a year. We owe the public, we owe the voters the right to have Victorville representation.”
Thereafter, statements from members of the public were heard.
Miguel Soto, Jr. accused Ramirez of “not just lying to the public but really stalling progress within our city.”
Paul Marsh said, “We now have one council member who hasn’t attended one meeting – any council meetings – at least since the beginning of the year. This can no longer be ignored. What we have now in an incomplete government body.”
Romero Rodriguez said he believed the case made against Ramirez consisted of “hearsay. I understand Ms. Ramirez was ill. She was taking care of herself. Maybe she needed to take care of herself over there because she didn’t have the luxury of taking care of herself here. She’s an older lady. It’s a lot of lack of respect to treat her this accord… whether she lives part-time here, or whatever.”
Maggie Martin said, “It’s been known for a long time that she is not now or previously been a legitimate Victorville resident.” Martin also said that Ramirez had celebrated Thanksgiving at her home in Twentynine Palms.
Brandon Dixon said Becerra had provided a “germane and concise presentation” that was “definitely relevant and needs to be considered to make sure the best interests of the local residences (sic) is taken as a primary interest.”
DeAnn Hudgens said, I am concerned that Council Member Rita Ramirez has shown negligence in performing her duty and responsibility as an elected council member. She has not attended any meetings, either in person or electronically since December 15, 2020. I have not heard any reasons why she would be excused for nonattendance. Although she is not attending any meetings she is still receiving her monthly stipend and health insurance from the taxpayers of the city. We, the residents of Victorville, are entitled to full-time council members to conduct the business of the city.”
Ruth Cordova said “It is clear the council has met the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the elector, Council Member Rita Ramirez, has acted in clear violation of the law, oath of office and the United States Constitution, and has failed to represent the people of the city of Victorville. Council Member Rita Ramirez has imposed significant liability on the people in furtherance of compelling city employees and comrade council members to pose as actors and accomplices by harboring an elector for ten full months, nearly one full year.”
Denise Wells told the council, “I totally disagree with any actions to remove Rita Ramirez from her city council seat. She has been nothing but an asset to the City of Victorville, which I know personally, and will continue to be so. I suggest that before you take any legal against her, review your actions and what you have said against her before you try to enforce any actions that remove her from her seat.”
Angel Esparza said the council had “an obligation to remove Ms. Ramirez from this council. I believe Council Member Ramirez has vacated her position as a council member.”
Without any discussion of how the council was going to proceed with a determination of facts, or a comparison of the evidence or an opportunity for Ramirez to provide any response to, or documentation concerning, the assertions made or claimed evidence against her, Mayor Jones asked for a motion.
Becerra said, “I believe Council Member Ramirez has vacated her position as a council member and after hearing from the city attorney, his analysis and what I put before you, I motion and I hereby find and determine based on the evidence on record that Council Member Ramirez’s seat is hereby declared vacated for the lack of residency pursuant to Government Code 36502, 243 and 244.”
Immediately, Councilwoman Gomez made a substitute motion to table the matter indefinitely. No second was made to that motion.
Mayor Jones inquired of Becerra if, and confirmed from her that, her motion was intended to make the requisite findings that Ramirez’s residence was not in Victorville. Jones asked if there was a second of Becerra’s motion. When an extended silence ensued with no second to Becerra’s motion forthcoming, Jones seconded it.
Ramirez asserted, “I have been in Victorville since 2015. My address was Lennaire until the first of this month, when Denise Wells notified me she was moving to Palmdale. She is my former campaign manager and we shared a friendship. I have a domicile in Victorville. I also am an owner of the family home that was built in 1974. I have been going to that home for Thanksgiving. That is where my sons celebrate Thanksgiving. As for quote unquote unexcused absences, since January of 2020, my leg has been amputated and my life was saved. As of December 3 [2020], I notified the city manager, the city clerk and the mayor by text that I was in the hospital, trying to save my foot. My doctor said it would not be amputated, otherwise I would be a double amputee. I was sent by the hospital because of the fact 15 people tested positive [for COVID-19] and one died. They asked my son to bring me to the family home in 29 [Palms]. I did not go back to Victorville because I didn’t want in any way or form to bring the disease to my best friend, Denise Wells. I am totally isolated in my family home to protect all those that I love and to protect myself. I have not missed a meeting since the day you went on Zoom, and the only day I missed it, in December, was because I was requested by my doctor to go to Fontana on the 23rd of December. I celebrated Christmas in the hospital. New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve I had two surgeries that saved my foot from amputation, and I was put on a wound vacuum for ten days. Therefore, when I notified the city, the city manager, the city clerk and the mayor about my absence, I told them there was no reception in the hospital for a Zoom meeting and no one could come in, because only patients were allowed. I have done everything proper. I have an address that you can check with the registrar of voters that I have a domicile in Victorville. I am renting because I wanted to buy a house, but because of the pandemic it is very difficult. On the other hand, my home, which is my family home, was built when I got married, and I’m here to save myself and not to bring it [COVID-19] to anyone. This home belongs to my sons, and I have not lived in this home since 2015. When I won the [Congressional] primary in 2016, I also ran in 2018, and I was asked to run for the city [council]. I said that I would… because Victorville…”
At that point, Jones as mayor cut Ramirez off.
Gomez said, “The audience has been stacked against one council member. We have intent and action. How can a city council member or the city council determine intent? That’s a legal term. I did ask if any of you spoke with Rita. What laws, provisions or authority govern a local body of government to detect or interpret the mindset and the intent of another through interpretive means using a city attorney? How did a public record establish intent? Let’s address the elephant in the room. This council is making room to appoint Ryan McEachron, who can by no chance of his own be elected. If staff participates in the Twentynine Palms address, what presumes that there are no gaps, where there’s hospitalization, where there’s been a monopoly of information to direct the misinformation and gaps for personal interests? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of misfacts and a lot of facts that haven’t been brought up to balance the misinformation that has been presented to this council. It is the judges who are the triers of fact, not the legislators.”
Councilwoman Leslie Irving said, “This is a very awkward position as an elected council person for the City of Victorville I find myself in. I want to be fair to my colleague, Councilwoman Ramirez, but I also want to make sure that I do the right thing by the citizens of Victorville. So clearly, the question is… If I just looked at the evidence, it sounds as if my colleague has been away from the city of Victorville, even if I consider that she had two different residencies, places of residence, she’s been gone from Victorville for more than 51 percent of the time. More importantly, I zeroed in on the concept of domicile. The question is, you can have more than one residence but you can’t have more than one domicile, and whatever your primary domicile is is what your primary residency is, and there is a test.” The test is: Can you demonstrate clear[ly] and convincingly by documentation that tethers you, or puts you in a domicile in Victorville? Do you have documents or deeds for a home here? Do you have a rental agreement with utility bills? I don’t know that, but based on what I see before me, I don’t see those kinds of documents. Even if so, you mentioned in your correspondence to the council that you left your place of residency here in Victorville because it was not ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] compliant. At that time you went to your home, as I understand it. The councilwoman went to a place of rehabilitation and then she went to her place of residency, her domicile, which by virtue of what she said is her family home. I would say that probably lots of government documents… you received mail there, you paid taxes from that place, did you file your taxes for that place, all of your family heirlooms and pictures and things that are of value [are there], so when you decided to leave because the place where you were living wasn’t ADA compliant, you went back to your primary domicile. That’s what it sounds like to me based on your own comments, so I’m guided by that and I’m looking desperately to be wrong and I want to entertain that if I’m wrong, please correct me, but I have a duty to be fair to the citizens of Victorvillle, but I also want to be fair to you. So my question is: Do you have any of those documents – utility bills, tax returns, a rental agreement, something that legally places you in a domicile in Victorville?”
Mayor Jones cut short Irving’s inquiry at that point. “This is the time for comments,” she said.
“Those are my comments,” Irving responded. “It’s a question. I don’t hear a response, but I will stop there. That’s my train of thinking.”
Thereafter, Mayor Jones ushered the city council toward a vote without providing Ramirez with an opportunity to provide or make arrangements to provide any of the documentation Irving had referenced in her comments before she was cut off by Jones. This prompted Gomez to say, “She does have that documentation that was asked for. You just never asked for it.”
Mayor Jones then directed City Clerk Charlene Robinson to prevent Gomez from continuing. “Madam Clerk, will you please mute the member,” Jones ordered.
Jones then sought to provide a justification for not considering the documentation relating to Ramirez’s claim to residency at the 16893 Glennaire Avenue residence, including her driver license, voter registration documentation and utility bills, which Jones based on Gomez speaking out of turn. “The chair will explain why Member Gomez is out of order. She’s not gained recognition of the chair. It is the chair’s opportunity to comment. She has already commented, and we’re not at that place any longer where she can speak as to the pending motion,” Jones said.
Jones then read into the record a statement she had written or which had been written for her, one prepared prior to the meeting that presaged the vote she was about to make.
“I’ve listened carefully to every comment, every question, and taken into account differing views,” Jones read. “I’ve examined the information and evidence before us with the bright light of the law. Member Becerra has produced legal documents and Member Ramirez has produced a letter. On the issue of residency, I find the various documents produced by Council Member Becerra, especially the homeowners exemption, which was one of the tests of residency, and the other statements contained in the staff report to be persuasive, not so with the personal letter submitted by Dr. Ramirez. That correspondence in my view is problematic on many levels and characterizes or assumes as fact that which is not.”
Jones then had the council proceed to the vote. She did not give Ramirez an opportunity to make a showing of her rental agreement or any other documentation.
The council then voted 3-to-2, with Jones, Becerra and Irving prevailing and Gomez and Ramirez dissenting, to remove Ramirez from the council.
The vote was rife with political implication.
From the time the maiden Victorville City Council consisting of Mayor Willard Wade, Mayor Pro Tem Joseph B. Campbell, Dr. William E Oyler, Don Doran and Gladys Butts was sworn in on September 27, 1962, there had been majority Republican rule in Victorville until the December swearing in of Becerra, Irving and Gomez following the November election, when Becerra and Irving were elected to the council for the first time. Gomez, as an incumbent, was reelected. Gomez, a Democrat, and Ramirez, also a Democrat, prior to the election were outnumbered by the three Republicans who were previously on the council – Jones, Jim Cox and Gloria Garcia. Thus, Becerra and Irving replaced Cox, who opted out of running again, and Garcia, who finished ninth in a field of 22 vying for three council positions. Since Irving is a Democrat and Becerra a Republican, the Democrats picked up a net of one on the council, shifting the balance thereon to 3-to-2 in favor of the Democrats, an historic turnaround in Victorville.
Early last month, however, Irving, who was already a member of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, had a significant falling out with members of her own party when her effort to be elected to the California Central Committee failed in the face of a concerted and coordinated effort by Latino and Latina San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee members to promote Hispanic candidates for the prestigious statewide party position. In a huff, Irving tendered her resignation from the San Bernardino County Central Committee, in doing so leveling the charge that members of the party had engaged in racist acts.
While municipal elected offices are officially considered nonpartisan in nature in California, in San Bernardino County political affiliation is a primary consideration in any electoral context. With the removal of Ramirez, an opportunity now exists for the Republicans to reassert primacy on the city council and control over Victorville’s government. The question comes down to whether the city council, now equally divided 2-to-2 between Democrats and Republicans, can come to a consensus over an appointment, and whether that appointment will be a Republican or a Democrat.
Indications are that Jones and the Republicans are making overtures to Irving, who has burned multiple bridges with her former compatriots in the Democratic Party, to convince her to support either of two Republican former councilmen who ran in the November election, Ryan McEachron and Eric Negrete. McEachron, a one-time mayor of Victorville who served on the council for eight years before he was displaced in 2016 by Gomez, ran neck-and-neck with Irving in the 2020 race before finishing closely behind her in fourth place. He has solid Republican credentials. Negrete, who finished far off the pace in 14th place in November, was on the council for four years from 2014 until 2018, when he was toppled by Ramirez. Negrete at one point was being eyed as candidate for the state legislature with the eventual potential of being a breakthrough Hispanic Republican candidate for governor.
Informed speculation is that an appeal is being made to the highly politically ambitious Irving, who two decades ago successfully ran for city council in Compton but was never seated after allegations surfaced and a Superior Court Judge ruled that she had engaged in election fraud by registering non-citizens to vote and then casting their votes for herself. The overture to Irving is reportedly one which would elevate her to the post of mayor as early as next December in exchange for her vote in support of McEachron or Negrete. Sources once close to Irving say she is leaning toward returning control of the city to a Republican council majority despite her lifelong identification as a Democrat. On December 8, a month and five days after the November 3, 2020 election and one week after the results were certified, Becerra nominated Irving to the position of mayor pro tem and Irving was confirmed to that honorific in a vote of the council from which Gomez was locked out of the teleconference meeting and was prevented from participating.
During her now-abbreviated political career, Ramirez proved herself to be even more politically ambitious than Irving.
Prior to her election to the Victorville City Council in 2018, Ramirez was a member of the Copper Mountain Community College District Board of Trustees from 1999 until 2001 and again from 2008 until 2012. She vied for Assembly District 65 in 2004 and 2006, the 41st Congressional District in 2008 and Congress in the 31st Congressional District in 2012. She won the Democratic Primary for Congress in the 8th Congressional District in 2016, losing to the Republican incumbent, Paul Cook, in the November general election. She again vied unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District in the 2018 primary. That November, she successfully ran for the city council in Victorville. Last year, while she was yet hospitalized, she ran for First District county supervisor against Paul Cook, who opted out of running for reelection to Congress to do so. Ramirez finished second in that race, which featured four total candidates.

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