First Of Gomez’s Public Official Harassment Suits Against Victorville Dismissed

The first of two lawsuits filed by Victorville City Councilwoman Blanca Gomez alleging a concerted effort to undercut her elective authority and violate her civil rights has been dismissed. A second lawsuit remains in place.
Gomez’s suit dismissed earlier this month was not thrown out on its merits or lack thereof. Rather, the case expired because, in the words of the judge overseeing it, she failed to prosecute it. That circumstance came about, the Sentinel has learned, because the once accommodating bridges between Gomez and the two attorneys who had filed the suit on her behalf 14 months ago were burned. On her own, Gomez was unable to navigate the legal process that would have forced the City of Victorville, its former mayor, its current mayor, one of its former councilmen, its city manager, its city attorney and its city clerk, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and city manager of neighboring Hesperia to account for the manner in which she has been treated.
Nevertheless, some of the issues explored in Gomez’s first federal lawsuit are contained in a second lawsuit she filed six months ago. That case pertains to different but in many respects similar circumstances that informed the first. There is a much higher prospect that Gomez’s second suit will make its way through the judicial process, as Gomez is yet represented by an attorney in that matter.
Gomez was first elected to the Victorville City Council in 2016. In short order she grew crosswise of virtually all of her council colleagues. This was at least in some measure because of her somewhat imperfect understanding of the limitations of municipal authority and its procedures, parliamentary and otherwise. Within a month of her election, she traveled to Rialto to attend a rally calling for the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, wearing a shirt emblazoned with a City of Victorville logo. This put her at immediate odds with then-City Councilman Eric Negrete, who denounced her for associating the city with a cause he said he and the city did not officially endorse. Gomez repeatedly clashed with then-Mayor Gloria Garcia during council meetings, as often about procedural issues or ones pertaining to initiating, continuing or ending discussions of topics as about the substance of what was being discussed. Gomez’s challenging of Garcia’s authority at times grew heated, resulting in occasions where Gomez was expelled from some meetings, and escorted out of the council chambers by sheriff’s deputies at Garcia’s instruction. Beyond the testy relationship she had with Garcia and Negrete, Gomez did not get along particularly well with two of the other members of the council at that time, Jim Cox, who had previously served as Victorville’s city manager for more than three decades, and Jim Kennedy.
Gomez’s antagonistic and contentious style often involves provocative acts, as when she draped herself in a Mexican flag during a council meeting. This further alienated her from her elected colleagues. In her crusade against what she considers to be large-scale societal injustice, she comes across as having a chip on her shoulder, and she routinely takes recourse in accusing those resisting her efforts of having racist motivation. For many, this has been particularly galling, as her clashes have as often been with Latinas and Latinos as with Anglos.
On December 21, 2020, San Diego-based attorney Marc Applbaum and his La Jolla-based law partner Bryan Gonzales filed a civil rights lawsuit on Gomez’s behalf in Riverside Federal Court naming The City of Victorville, Victorville City Manager Keith Metzler, former Victorville Mayor Gloria Garcia, former Victorville City Councilman Jim Cox, Victorville Mayor Debra Jones, the Victorville City Council, Victorville City Attorney Andre deBortnowsky, Victorville Assistant City Manager Sophie Smith, Victorville City Clerk Charlene Robinson, Victorville Assistant City Clerk Marcia Wolters and Victorville Spokeswoman Sue Jones, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Hesperia City Manager Nils Bentsen. The suit alleged Gomez had been disenfranchised by current and former city officials “as a result of her alliances with pro-immigration and homeless nonprofit organizations.”
Victorville city officials were “systematically disrupting her from performing her duties” in her capacity as a city council member, the suit alleged, “by physically and electronically blocking access to meetings and to her city government emails for the sole purpose of keeping her silent and for asking questions about the fraud and corruption agenda being systematically and strategically coordinated” at City Hall, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleged that on February 6, 2018, then-Mayor Gloria Garcia “publicly stated that [Gomez] ‘was a criminal on welfare.’” The suit stated that Gomez “is not allowed to either object or cast her vote in favor or in opposition to city council matters.” To support that allegation, Applbaum and Gonzales cited the city council’s vote “approving $18,000.00 paid by the Victorville taxpayers for attorney fees paid to defendant Andre deBortnowski’s law office that represents civil litigation clients, including, local resident Joe Fekete that (sic) had filed a civil harassment lawsuit against the mayor.”
The lawsuit stated that Gomez had been “locked out of city council meetings and denied access to city business and documents in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”
The lawsuit further cited an incident that took place in Hesperia on August 2, 2018, when Gomez had gone to Hesperia City Hall to assist in registering Hispanic candidates for a city council run in that year’s election. Gomez was “wrongfully arrested as a result of a City Hall employee requesting a citizen’s arrest on suspicion of resisting arrest and trespassing at Hesperia City Hall for assisting local candidates running for public office,” according to the suit. ‘[Gomez] alleges the city clerk of Hesperia contacted defendant Bensen [sic] to coordinate the unlawful arrest of [Gomez]. On August 2, 2018, Blanca Gomez alleges that she was wrongfully arrested pursuant to Penal Code § 834 as a result of Hesperia City Manager, defendant Nils Bentsen, who used his personal cell phone to take plaintiff’s picture when she was requesting that [Deputy] Sheriff Crosswhite not videotape her arrest for purely political reasons, capturing and publishing her illegal arrest on the internet for suspicion of resisting arrest and trespassing at Hesperia City Hall for nothing more than assisting local candidates running for public office.”
The suit states that “[Gomez] alleges that defendant San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department commenced a legal action without probable cause solely to embarrass [Gomez] for political reasons as requested by defendant city manager that (sic) is intent on harming [Gomez] in retaliation for being independent and honest.”
In the aftermath of her arrest, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office did not file charges against Gomez on the trespassing nor on the resisting arrest allegations made by the sheriff’s office relating to the incident at Hesperia City Hall.
The suit further alleged an unholy alliance has come to exist between Victorville city officials and the Fourth Estate. “On September 9, 2020, [the] Victorville Daily Press leaked [sic] a story that defendant Keith Metzler sent a letter to the California Employment Development Department after his suspicion of employment fraud based on an unemployment claim filed on May 17, 2020 under the common and ubiquitous name, B Gomez.”
According to the lawsuit, “In Victorville, nepotism is rampant among the elected and appointed officials. Upon information and belief defendant Metzler is a cousin to the defendant mayor and also related to defendant Cox whose stepdaughter is married to defendant city attorney and that Elizabeth Becerra, the newly elected councilmember is a cousin to defendant mayor and that journalist, Rene la Cruz with the Daily Press, is a nephew to defendant mayor.”
No journalists were named in the suit.
Relatively soon after the lawsuit was filed there was a falling out between Gomez and her attorneys.
On January 11, 2021, Applbaum filed a request to withdraw as counsel of record for Gomez, leaving the matter to be handled by Gonzales. Gonzales filed the following day, January 12, to be released as Gomez’s attorney. On January 25, 2021, Judge Jesus Bernal granted the requests terminating both Applbaum and Gonzales as her legal representatives.
It then fell to Gomez to serve as her own attorney. She made no further filings and neglected to have a copy of the lawsuit served upon all of those named in the complaint. Nor were other notices of milestones and hearings in the case served upon the defendants.
Judge Bernal was serving as the presiding judge and would have heard the case if it went to trial. Judge Kenly Kiya Kato was the referral judge.
Last month, in response to defense filings, Judge Bernal ordered Gomez to produce documentation relating to the progression of the case and make a demonstration of why a motion of dismissal should not be granted by January 18. On February 1, in response to Gomez having made no filing, Judge Bernal dismissed the entire action, ruling that Gomez had “failed to file a proof of service to demonstrate she had served the summons and complaint on [the] defendants within 90 days after the complaint was filed.”
After her abandonment by Applbaum and Gonzales, Gomez made little adjustment in the way in which she comports herself publicly, yet acting provocatively in certain contexts. On three occasions near mid-year 2021, she and her political associate, Daniel Rodriguez, involved themselves in acts of controversy which resulted in criminal filings against the both of them. On June 2, 2021 Gomez was with Rodriguez at the Panera Bread bakery-café when Rodriguez became involved in an argument over his having vaped inside the café premises. The sheriff’s department was summoned, and he and Gomez were cited for interfering with the operation of the business.
On July 6 at the Victorville City Council meeting, Rodriguez was asked to leave when officials felt he was interfering with the conduct of the proceedings.
At the July 20 Victorville City Council meeting, he was arrested when his videorecording antagonized Mayor Debra Jones, particularly when he aimed his camera at her husband, Ernest Jones, who was also present.
Gomez was arrested along with Rodriguez on July 20 and charged with him on November 1. Rodriguez was criminally charged in connection with the June 2, July 6 and July 20 incidents. Gomez was charged with regard to her activity on June 2 and June 20 but was not charged in the July 6 matter. Rodriguez did not waive his right to a speedy trial and endured an 18-day jury trial between December 2 and December 28. Conspiracy to disturb a public meeting and two resisting arrest charges against him were dropped. The interfering with a business charge at the Panera Bread bakery-café was converted to trespassing and he was convicted on that charge. He was convicted on the charge of disturbing the July 20 meeting, but was acquitted on the charge of disturbing the July 6 meeting.
Gomez waived her right to a speedy trial. She was arraigned on Tuesday, January 4 with her attorney, Raj Maline, entering not guilty pleas for her before Judge Scott Seeley on six charges relating to the June 2 and July 20 incidents.
Before the criminal charges relating to the June 2, July 6 and July 20 incidents were filed, however, Gomez herself took legal action, this time through San Diego-based attorney Brian Pease.
On August 8, Pease filed a complaint naming the County of San Bernardino and Sheriff’s Detective Tyler McGee, deputies John Cahow, V. Quiroz T. Gagne and Sheriff’s Captain John Wickum, who heads the sheriff’s department’s operation in Victorville.
According to that lawsuit, after the July 20 incident, the sheriff’s department engaged in an illegitimate effort to justify the action taken at the council meeting in which Gomez was arrested. At issue, according to Pease, was that both Gomez and Rodriguez were videorecording the meeting, their videos demonstrated that neither of them had disrupted the meeting, and that the disruption occurred when the mayor called for the sheriff’s officers to interact with Rodriguez to prevent his videorecording of the meeting. The suit alleges that McGee, acting in his capacity as a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detective, obtained a search warrant from San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Kyle Brodie to search Gomez’s and Rodriguez’s homes, including “all rooms, closets, attics, garages, storage areas, patios, vehicles, RV in the back yard, including any safes, vaults, miscellaneous locked containers as well as all person’s [sic] present.” According to the suit, “The property to be searched for was listed as: ‘cell phones possessed by Gomez and Rodriguez.’”
The theory McGee used in obtaining the warrant, according to the lawsuit, was that Gomez and Rodriguez had conspired to interrupt and disturb the July 20 meeting. In actuality according to Pease, the disturbance at the meeting evolved as a consequence of the city’s action, specifically that of Mayor Jones, and no such conspiracy existed, a fact known and understood by McGee and the sheriff’s department when the warrant was being prepared. “This warrant was obtained on false pretenses, as it is legal to record city council meetings, and no crime was committed other than by [the] defendants,” the lawsuit states. “McGee and Defendants Quiroz, Cahow and [unknown] San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies then went to the home of Councilmember Gomez, where she rents a room in a home with several other roommates. Only the property owner and his brother were initially present, who speak only Spanish. Defendants held these two individuals at gunpoint while they searched all rooms in the house, and seized property belonging to everyone living there. The items [the] defendants seized, which [the] defendants left a receipt for, were:  a Nokia cell phone, an Apple watch, a Samsung Galaxy, a Samsung computer, a black/red USB drive, three iPads, a California driver license, a silver Apple laptop, three iPhone S series cell phones, four other iPhones, an Acer Chromebook, a Macbook Air, a Lenovo laptop, a white iPhone, a wallet with Robert Rodriguez’s California driver license, a black iPhone, Sky devices and a Microsoft laptop. [The] defendants also searched the home of Rodriguez and seized items from there as well.”
According to the lawsuit, “Robert Rodriguez was peacefully, unobtrusively, and legally filming the Victorville City Council meeting, when the Victorville mayor asked sheriff’s deputies who were present to search Rodriguez’s phone to determine if he was filming. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has a $29.1 million contract with the City of Victorville to provide police services. When the deputies complied with the illegal request from the mayor, Councilmember Gomez left her seat on the dais and approached the deputies and Rodriguez in the audience, while filming and livestreaming to Instragram on her cellphone as well. The deputies then arrested both Gomez and Rodriguez, and seized their cellphones. The deputies forced Gomez to the ground and handcuffed her hands behind her back. They then picked her up and paraded her around City Hall in handcuffs. When Gomez received her cellphone back, she saw that [the] defendants had not only deleted the videos of the incident she had taken, but had also gone into her Instagram account and deleted the videos there as well. When [the] defendants executed the search warrant, they took several items listed above that were not ‘cell phones possessed by Gomez and Rodriguez,’ which are the only items the search warrant authorized the defendants to take. Accordingly, the individual defendants were acting in their individual capacities as nothing more than common criminals and thieves, stealing these items from Councilmember Gomez’s and her roommates’ home without any legal authority to do so, although [the] defendants were acting under color of state law. [The] defendants even seized Gomez’s driver’s license, depriving her of the ability to drive, which she needs to do for work. [The] defendants also took Gomez’s computers, which contain materials needed for the online doctoral program Gomez is enrolled in at California Baptist University in Riverside. This seizure was also not authorized by the warrant.”
According to the lawsuit, “The County of San Bernardino has an unconstitutional, deeply ingrained policy or custom of holding onto people’s personal electronic equipment such as phones and computers for several months or more when seized as part of an investigation, despite having the ability to quickly copy the data and return the items, thus unreasonably depriving individuals of their property under the Fourth Amendment. The true purpose behind [the] defendants’ actions in seizing [the] plaintiff’s electronic devices was not to obtain information related to a legitimate investigation, but instead to deter and punish [the] plaintiff for exercising her First Amendment rights, as well as to control and tamper with evidence showing the illegal actions of sheriff’s deputies at the Victorville City Council meeting on July 20, 2021. The county also has an unconstitutional, deeply ingrained policy or custom of unlawfully seizing personal electronic devices containing evidence that is incriminating to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which the county desires to control the dissemination of, and/or tamper with, as [the] defendants did in this case.”
Unlike the previous lawsuit, which languished while Gomez failed to act in accordance with the court’s orders, the milestones in the case have been met so far while Pease has been representing her. Cahow, Gagne, Quiroz McGee and Wickum were properly served on August 13, 2021.
The case is being heard by Judge Bernal. Judge Bernal ordered both parties to seek mediation of the case by February 27. If mediation does not result in a settlement, the matter is to proceed toward trail, with amended pleadings due by April 4, 2022. The discovery cut-off date is February 6, 2023, with all pre-trial motions due by April 17, 2023. The last date to conduct a settlement conference is set for February 27, 2023, one year after the last date those mediations are to begin. A final pretrial conference is set for May 22, 2023, with trial set to being on June 23, 2023.
-Mark Gutglueck

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