Victorville Council Likely To Remain At Four-Fifths Strength For 20 Months

Three weeks after a bare majority of the Victorville City Council removed Rita Ramirez from among its ranks, its remaining four members proved unable at a specially-called meeting this week to come to a consensus on how and with whom it would replace her.
The meeting, held on Tuesday, March 23, was the second meeting held for the specific purpose of filling the council gap.
Ramirez’s forced departure was predicated on the suspicion, and a prima facie case made by Councilwoman Elizabeth Becerra and City Attorney Andres de Bortnowski, that Ramirez is no longer living in the City of Victorville. Indeed, the predominant evidence presented at the March 2 regular city council meeting was that Ramirez has been absent from Victorville for some time.
In December 2019 Ramirez fell and severely bruised her left foot, an injury which lingered and grew gangrenous, necessitating her hospitalization. Over a several week period beginning in January 2020, while she was an in-patent at Kaiser Hospital in Fontana, her middle toe, then her foot, and eventually her lower leg were amputated. A recuperative period followed in which she remained at the hospital for more than two weeks. She was discharged, and returned to the Victorville residence she shared with Denise Wells, her appointee to the Victorville Planning Commission. Thereafter, Ramirez checked into a convalescent care home in Colton where she was to undergo further therapy and rehabilitation, and was to be outfitted with a prosthesis that would allow her to walk again. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered, however, as fifteen patients at the convalescent hospital tested positive for the coronavirus, and then one died. One of Ramirez’s sons insisted on removing her from that environment and took her to the family home that Ramirez and her ex-husband had constructed on Two Mile Road in Twentynine Palms in 1974 and at which they had raised their children. Ramirez, who was formerly both a professor and board member at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, had lived in that home until 2013.
It was at the Twentynine Palms home where Ramirez had engaged in a prolonged recovery following her hospitalization last year. The City of Victorville, including the other members of the city council, the city’s top management and administration as well as lower ranking staff members, facilitated her in that recovery effort. City employees sojourned the roughly 92 miles to the Twentynine Palms residence and outfitted it with teleconferencing equipment that allowed her to participate in the council meetings.
When Wells on February 3 of this year resigned her position on the Victorville Planning Commission, vacated the residence at 16893 Glennaire Avenue she had shared with Ramirez and moved to Palmdale, allowing the lease on the residence to lapse at the end of that month, Mayor Deborah Jones and Councilwoman Becerra acted at once to effectuate Ramirez’s removal from the council. Jones endeavored to insulate herself from the initial call for Ramirez’s ouster, utilizing Becerra as a cat’s paw, such that the council’s consideration of Ramirez’s continuing eligibility to hold council office in Victorville was officially requested by Becerra.
There clearly existed at the very least grounds for exploring Ramirez’s removal, as she had not consistently resided in the city for over nine months at that point. Becerra at the March 2 meeting made the case against Ramirez, which included reliable information originating with city staff indicating that Ramirez was living in Twentynine Palms at the Two Mile Road residence, where city staff has been regularly routing to her via Fed Ex the printed agendas for the city council meetings and proof that, Becerra said, “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 Victorville.”
The most damning evidence that Becerra presented was that Ramirez, under her married name of “Rita Ramirez Dean” is the registered owner of house on Two Mile Road in Twentynine Palms, for which she had applied and received a homeowner’s exemption, given exclusively to owners who certify under oath that the property is being used as the applicant’s principal residence.
At the same meeting, City Attorney Andre de Bortnowsky, dispensed with any pretense of being a disinterested legal advisor advocating neither for or against Ramirez’s removal. Instead, cued at multiple junctures by Jones, Bortnowsky systematically sought to provide a justification for removing Ramirez from office, giving no countervailing rationale that might establish Ramirez’s right to remain in office. de Bortnowski joined with Becerra in making a case for her removal, marshaling evidence that city materials and agendas were sent to her domicile in Twentynine Palms over a period of at least nine months.
At the March 2 meeting, which was held by teleconference, Mayor Deborah Jones attempted unsuccessfully to mask her intention to have Ramirez removed from office, ostensibly representing the hearing on the matter to be an impartial fact-finding undertaking. Nevertheless, when Councilwoman Leslie Irving asked in the course of the hearing if Ramirez could show evidence to establish she had a residence in Victorville, Jones interrupted Irving, and then did not give Ramirez an opportunity to respond. When Councilwoman Blanca Gomez undertook to question de Bortnowsky about whether he had researched what legal basis Ramirez could assert toward a claim that she could legitimately remain in office in addition to his exploration of the grounds for her removal, Jones precluded any answer from being provided. After Gomez made reference to documentation relating to Ramirez having established a residence in Victorville, stating “You just never asked for it,” Jones, using her authority as mayor, directed City Clerk Charlene Robinson to shut off Gomez’s microphone.
In this way, what was otherwise a relatively convincing case that Ramirez merited removal from office was marred by Jones’ unwillingness to consider any evidence which conflicted with that supporting the councilwoman’s removal. That evidence which was alluded to in statements made by Gomez, Irving and Ramirez herself was never given a thorough or even cursory public examination, and was neither tested nor confirmed nor discredited. Even among a significant number of those who were convinced that Ramirez should have been removed from office and who supported the council in its action in doing so, there was a recognition that Jones’ ham-handed conducting of the proceedings had given the meeting the appearance of a set-up in which the outcome was foreordained. Ultimately on March 2, the council voted 3-to-2, with Jones, Becerra and Irving prevailing and Ramirez and Gomez dissenting, to remove Ramirez from office.
Ramirez’s expulsion was tainted by political and racial overtones. From the outset of the City of Victorville’s existence in September 1962 and the more than 58 years that followed, Republicans had enjoyed majority control of the city council. In November 2020, for the first time in Victorville history, the city’s voters had put in place a Democratic majority on the city council. James Cox, the city’s longtime city manager who had first been elected to the city council in 2012 and was reelected in 2016, was one of three Republicans on the panel last year, along with then-Mayor Gloria Garcia and Jones. Ramirez, who was first elected to the council in 2018, has long been active in the Democratic Party, and was a member of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, as was Councilwoman Gomez. Cox opted out of running for reelection last year. Garcia, who was first elected to the council the same year as Cox, in 2012, did seek reelection. She was defeated, finishing in ninth place among 22 candidates. Gomez, first elected in 2016, was returned to office, finishing in second place behind Becerra, a Republican. Running in third place was Irving, a Democrat and a member of the Democratic Central Committee. Thus, the two newly elected members – Becerra and Irving, a Republican and a Democrat – displaced Cox and Garcia, both Republicans. The net gain of one Democrat on the council swung the previous 3-to-2 Republican majority on the council to a 3-to-2 Democratic majority, an historic first in Victorville, the High Desert’s largest city population-wise.
There has been a recurrent suggestion that the move by Jones and Becerra to rid the council of Ramirez was a calculated one aimed at reversing the city’s political swing in favor of the Democrats. Fueling that speculation was that a falling out between Irving and the Democratic Party that occurred in February seemed to present Jones and Becerra with the leverage to put the GOP back into ascendancy in Victorville.
In January, Irving, already a local Democratic Party leader as a member of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, had vied to become a member of the California Democratic Central Committee representing the 33rd Assembly District. But her hopes in that regard had been thwarted when a solid block of Latinos within the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee had worked assiduously during the January campaign season while positions on the California Democratic Central Committee were being voted upon as part of a mail-in election to exclusively promote Hispanic candidates for the state party committee posts. That campaign had proven largely successful, and Irving was unable to garner the appointment to the California Democratic Central Committee she coveted as a consequence of the strong showing of Latino and Latina candidates in that polling, the results of which were announced in early February. In a snit, Irving tendered her resignation from the Democratic Central Committee to the county party chairwoman, Kristin Washington, stating in her resignation letter that she was doing so in protest of “racist acts” by members of the county Democratic Central Committee.
This circumstance presented an opportunity for Jones and Becerra. While Irving was still smarting over her failure to get onto the California Democratic Central Committee because of the Latino show of solidarity within the local party structure, they struck while the iron was hot, calling for the removal of Ramirez, a Latina of long standing within the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee. Irving went along with that move.
It was widely circulated that Jones and Becerra were militating to replace Ramirez on the city council with Ryan McEachron, who had served on the city council from 2008 until 2016, when he was defeated by Gomez, or with Eric Negrete, who had served on the city council from 2014 until 2018, when he had been defeated by Ramirez. Both McEachron and Negrete are Republicans. The rumor was that, banking on Irving’s newfound hostility toward the Democrats, she would prove amenable to elevating either McEachron, who ran in 2020 and finished in fourth place just behind her, or Negrete, who also ran for council last year and finished well off the pace in 14th place, to replace Ramirez. This would have restored a 3-to-2 Republican ruling majority on the council. It was said that Jones and Becerra were prepared to induce Irving to go along with that scenario by promising her an appointment to the mayor’s position, perhaps as early as next December. In Victorville, the mayor is not elected directly by the city’s voters, but instead chosen by the city council from among its members to that honorific.
If, in fact, Jones and Becerra did seek to broker such a deal with Irving, it did not take. On March 9, the city council held a specially-called meeting at which it was to consider its options for filling the council post, including making an appointment or holding an election.
On a vote to undertake preparations to make an appointment, the panel deadlocked 2-to-2, with Jones and Becerra in favor of doing so and Irving and Gomez opposed. When Irving and Gomez indicated their preference for holding an election to determine who should replace Ramirez, Jones and Becerra balked, citing the expense an election would entail.
This week, Jones and Becerra came back once more, gunning to convince one of their colleagues to consent to an appointment process, suggesting that the top three also-ran finishers, then the top five and then all of the candidates who ran for city council in 2020 but did not achieve election be considered. At one point, Gomez suggested that if an appointment were to be made, it should be done by the governor. Current Governor Gavin Newsom is a Democrat. That overture made no headway and was brushed over.
There was a repetition, essentially, of what occurred on March 9, with Jones and Becerra championing the concept of making an appointment, and Gomez and Irving favoring holding an election. Jones and Becerra could persuade neither Gomez nor Irving to come across to make an appointment. Similarly, when Gomez and Irving promoted the concept of an election, both Jones and Becerra objected to that option as being too expensive.
According to a staff report, holding a citywide special election would cost $847,654.
“I cannot see us spending around $800,000 for a special election,” Becerra said, especially considering that “The voters spoke three-and-a-half months ago.”
“I’m in favor of special election,” Irving said. “I feel that there is no cost for democracy. In the manner in which we ousted Councilperson Ramirez, I think that the people elected her, and I think that the people should elect her replacement. I feel that this does have an air of or appearance of voter suppression.”
Alluding to the consideration that the $847,654 estimate for the cost of a special election in 124,000-population Victorville was extrapolated from the $700,000 cost of a special election involving polling during a special election at 66 precincts in 103,000-population Rialto, Irving said such information is “outdated” and likely inflated given that an election in the post COVID-19 world could be conducted by mail ballots at a fraction of the cost.
Irving’s reasoning did not sway Jones or Becerra.
After two meetings where no consensus could be reached, it does not seem likely that the council will meet the April 30 deadline by which an appointment has to be made or an election set under the Government Code. Missing the deadline, according to City Attorney Andres de Bortnowsky, means the city council will remain at four-fifths strength until after the November 2022 election, when the term to which Ramirez was elected in 2018 is set to expire.
-Mark Gutglueck

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