Woman Contesting Weed Abatement Citation With The Upland City Council Narrowly Avoids Arrest

A woman denied the opportunity to address the Upland City Council at that panel’s meeting on Monday night, June 12, narrowly avoided being arrested by Police Chief Marcelo Blanco when she grew insistent that she be allowed to present the evidence supporting her case that a code enforcement citation she was issued earlier this year was invalid.
City officials, concerned to the point that Blanco’s action in confronting the woman and using his command presence and intimidation tactics to escort her from the council chamber crossed the line into an assault under the color of authority, have excised the footage and part of the audio of the police chief’s interaction with the woman from the video of the council meeting.
The city council on Monday night had scheduled to hold and then held a hearing during which it considered the approval of the list of parcels around the city deemed by its code enforcement inspection crew to be in violation of the Upland Municipal Code relating to excessive vegetation growth and weed abatement and authorizing city staff to place a lien on those parcels.
According to the city, 22,603 property inspections were conducted beginning in February and continuing throughout March, April and into May. As a result, according to the city, there were 193 so-called courtesy notices issued in which no administrative fee was attached and the resident/landowner was give 15 days to comply. Another 42 notices to comply, sent via certified mail, were issued in cases where the city alleged the property owner or resident had gone more than 15 days without complying, entailing the levying of a $108 administrative fee. Thereafter, upon the landowners or residents in question failing to comply, another 15 notices to abate were issued, sent by certified mail, which signaled the imposition, in addition to the $108 administrative fee, another $416 administrative fee for a total levy of $524. This is to be in addition to the cost of the actual weed abatement, which the city says is competitively procured, and will be applied and charged by the city to the property owner along with a special assessment the San Bernardino County Tax Assessor’s Office charges for affixing such liens. If last year’s model holds through this year, the precise cost of each individual weed abatement job will be determined and specified at some point in July.A handful of residents who had been hit with the fines were present in the council chambers on Monday night.
Among those in attendance at the meeting was Swann Li, who has property in the 1300 block of Fifth Avenue. She had come prepared to take issue with the weed abatement citation she had been issued, which, she told others in attendance, was based not on the proliferation of weeds on her property, per se, but because of what the city maintained was excessive vegetative growth which she had failed to trim. In her possession was a folder in which, in addition to the citation and notices she had been issued, were photos of her property. That photographic evidence showed, what to a layman appeared to be a relatively well-kiltered yard. She displayed, to some of the other residents and attendees in the council chambers, in particular a photo of what she said was the offending plant. The city’s code enforcement division had cited her, she said, on what looked like one trunk or branch ascending from the relatively spherically-shaped foliage of a plant near the ground. There were two horizontal branches or stems coming off of the vertical trunk or branch well above the low-lying verdant growth of the plant. She indicated that florescence toward the extreme end of the branch or stem would bloom later. Nevertheless, she said, the city’s code enforcement division was not willing to exhibit the degree of patience she feels is appropriate and want the trunk or branch removed.
One interpretation of the situation might be that Li had indeed run afoul of the city’s code and weed abatement standards and the city was absolutely justified in the imposition of a fine.
Another equally plausible interpretation is that the city has imposed on Li at least a $108 cost or a $524 cost or a perhaps stiffer financial penalty for having a more thorough knowledge about the plants growing in her yard than the city’s employees.
The council did not give Li the opportunity to be heard out on the issue nor itself an opportunity to examine the circumstance or evidence in Li’s possession nor that potentially to be presented by the code enforcement staff to make even the semblance of an informed determination with regard to that question.
In considering the weed abatement item on the agenda, the council heard a presentation by the city code enforcement division in which, among other information, the data regarding the 22,603 inspections, 193 courtesy notices and 42 follow-up notices were provided. The public hearing was opened whereby citizens were supposed to be provided with the opportunity to address the council. The council was addressed by a resident, Geraldo Ramirez, who focused on the timelines of inspection, notice issuing and abatement deadlines, noting that the notices had actually been mailed out, based upon their postmark, the day after they were dated and the actual delivery of the notices by the post office, including his own, were delayed for another six days beyond that. Ramirez’s point was that the city was proceeding with levying the $108 fines/administrative fees and then the additional $416 administrative fees/fines not in accordance with its stated 15-day noticing period but in as little as eight or perhaps fewer days from the time that those cited actually received the notices. During the course of Ramirez’s input, Councilman Rudy Zuniga inquired about how many others present were contesting the compressed margin of notification. At that point, Li, who was sitting in the front row of the public gallery of the council chamber closest to the council dais and was therefore clearly visible to the council, gestured with the raising of her arm and hand to indicate she wanted to take up that issue as well.
Ramirez was followed by a second city resident, Mark Smith, who, as Li intended to do, used photos of his property to make his pitch to be excused from having to pay the fine levied on him because of his efforts to redress the issues for which he had been cited.
Throughout the input offered by the first two residents who came forward to speak, Mayor Bill Velto signaled, both visibly and verbally to his council colleagues, what appeared to be a growing impatience with the proceedings. While the hearing was yet ongoing during Smith’s presentation, in an exchange between Velto and Assistant City Attorney Thomas Rice, Rice said, “Mayor and council, could I suggest we allow Mr. Smith – He’s got four minutes left remaining of his comments – we allow him to have his four minutes uninterrupted, an opportunity to proceed with his case, and then we can close the public hearing and proceed with deliberation, asking questions of staff and the like? Thank you.” This appeared to set the city council and the city staff present on a course by which Li and any others present who intended to address the council with regard to the weed abatement program were to have their opportunity to speak publicly that evening foreclosed.
At the conclusion of Smith’s presentation, Velto, ignoring Li’s earlier indication of her intention to contest her fine, checked with City Clerk Carrie Johnson, asking her if there were any further speakers. Johnson informed him, in error, that there were no others who wanted to address the city council with regard to the weed abatement citation issue, and Velto immediately closed the public hearing. In doing so, he preempted Li and any others who were present who wanted to do so from contesting, or registering their protest with regard to, the citations they had received or the grounds upon which they had been issued. Thus, Ms. Li was provided no opportunity to present her case nor the photographic evidence in her possession. Thereupon, the council discussed the requests made by Ramirez and Smith, voting 4-to-1, with Councilman Carlos Garcia dissenting, to grant Ramirez’s request for his fine to be rescinded and voting 5-to-0 to enforce the fine levied against Smith. The council thereafter voted 5-to-0 to enforce the remainder of the fines/assessments.
Velto adjourned the meeting into what he said was a “three-minute” break.
Velto and several of the council members then departed from the dais and went behind the curtains that are the background to the dais. City Attorney Rice stood and moved westward behind the dais, coming around its west side, where he walked to the west side of gallery to engage with members of city staff. As he did so, Li stood up from her place at the front of the gallery and approached him. Somewhat disdainfully, however, Rice did not condescend to speak with her and she then returned to the eastern side of the dais, where she approached City Clerk Johnson. She asked Johnson when she would have the opportunity to be heard with regard to her weed abatement citation and fine/administrative fee. Johnson told her that the public hearing was closed and the matter concluded. Li stated she had come to the council meeting to be heard, expressed consternation and importuned Johnson to speak with some higher authority to see if her case could be considered. Johnson went behind the curtains, emerging no more than two minutes later, telling Li that the public hearing was not going to be reopened.
While the break was yet ongoing, Li then addressed herself to the two members of the city’s code enforcement division who had presented their case to the council as those employees were making their way toward City Hall’s east entrance/exit and went behind a glass partition separating the council chamber from the eastern civic offices. She remained behind the glass partition in conversation with them for roughly four minutes, the ultimate upshot of which was that they told her they had no authority to reconsider her matter, which was up to the city council to adjudicate.
In the meantime, the council had fully returned to the dais and reconvened, hearing a two-minute-and-15-second report from Councilman Garcia with regard to the city’s most recent economic development committee meeting.
The council was just moving into a preview of the 2023-24 budget being presented by Assistant City Manager Steven Parker when Li came away from her impromptu meeting with the two city code enforcement officers. She approached the dais from the its eastern side, that is from the right in considering the perspective of the public or generally from the left considering the perspective of those seated at the curved dais.
She attempted to address the council.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, seeking at that point to address Rice for the second time. “I need to talk to the lawyer.”
Police Chief Blanco, who was seated among the city staff members in the front row on the west side of the gallery, launched himself out of his seat and made his way toward Li, making a dynamic show of presence as he approached her.
“I did not get a chance to speak,” Li said.
Excuse me, Ma’am, you’re disrupting a public meeting and if you continue to do so I will arrest you..” he began.
“You intrude my rights…”
“I understand that,” Blanco spontaneously acknowledged, but continued straightaway toward Li.
“This isn’t fair,” protested Li.
“You already had an opportunity to speak,” Blanco said, contradicting what he had said just seconds before.
“I don’t know the rules,” Li said directly to Blanco, talking over him. “Nobody ever talked to me. Okay? Let me finish. First of all…
Marco interrupted Li, and she uttered, “Let me finish. This is not fair…”
At that point, the city’s videographer, who had assiduously avoided capturing any footage of Li in her attempt to address the council, cut the sound from the video.
Those present at the meeting, however, were able to see the uniformed and armed Blanco using his command presence to usher Li, against her will, from her position at the front of the dais, where she had set the folder containing her citations and the photographs she had brought to present as evidence to support her case.
Li continued with her protestations as Blanco forced her to accompany him to the back, or south, of the council chamber, without her folder or the evidence to back up her contentions that it contained.
“This is not fair,” she said. “You are not letting me speak.”
The city’s videographer reinitiated the sound just as Blanco was about to take Li out the front entrance/exit at the back end of the council chamber, at which point Parker continued his presentation.
A few minutes later, Blanco returned, walking toward the dais where he retrieved Li’s effects, including her folder, and then headed back out of the chambers with them.
Questions in writing were posted to Velto and councilmembers Shannan Maust, James Breitling and Carlos Garcia with regard to the treatment Li was accorded on June 12, including whether Li’s slighting was deliberate or inadvertent, why she was not afforded the opportunity to be heard and why Mayor Velto closed the public hearing before Ms. Li was given the opportunity to speak.
Attempts to reach all five council members by phone were made. At issue in the Sentinel’s inquiries were upon whose authority, other than her own, City Clerk Johnson informed Li she would not have the opportunity to be heard and whom the city clerk conferred with on that issue when she went behind the curtain during the council break on June 12, as well as whether city staff was aware, prior to the meeting, of the case Li was set to present to the council during the meeting.
The Sentinel further asked as to whether city staff had seen, prior to the meeting, the photos Li intended to display as part of her presentation and if they had been shared with the city council.
City officials were unwilling to discuss whether the mayor and council purposefully disregarded Li because of the recognition that giving her a forum to display those photos would shed discredit on the city’s code enforcement division.
The Sentinel further sent written questions to City Attorney Rice and Police Chief Blanco, asking about their action in curtailing Li’s effort to be heard by the council.
Of note was that later in Monday night’s meeting, after the hearing with regard to the weed abatement issue, the city council was slated to consider and in fact took action with regard to granting Blanco, as police chief, a raise from his current before-benefits annual salary of 232,206.46 to $279,912.93 as of June 25 this year, $291,109.44 as of June 23, 2024 and $299,842.73 as of June 22, 2025.
Neither Rice nor Blanco responded to the Sentinel’s inquiries. Neither did Breitling, Maust or Garcia.
It is the city’s position that Li failed to fill out a speaker card, and it was for that reason that she was excluded from participating in the public hearing.
Councilman Zuniga fielded the Sentinel’s call.
He indicated he was not entirely comfortable with the short shrift Li had been given on Monday night.
“I was going to be reaching out to her in the next day or so to find out what actually happened and if she was done wrong,” Zuniga said. “I want to look at evidence on both sides, what the city has and her yard and photos. If we overstepped, I would be willing to pay her fine, the $108, out of my own pocket, if she has a strong case that her property was truly in compliance, and if that is appropriate.”
Zuniga said when he asked how many of those at the meeting like Ramirez wanted to raise the issue of the city not living up to the 15-day deadline for residents to comply with the notice for weed abatement, he had been looking toward Velto to see if he, too, was sensitive to that issue and did not himself see Li’s hand signal to that effect. The video of the meeting posted to the city’s website bears Zuniga out in that contention.
There is a question, Zuniga said, as to whether Li was given a fair opportunity to provide her input to the council. He positively responded to the suggestion that Mayor Velto could or should, in the future, tell those in attendance that he is going to close the public portion of the hearing and ask if anyone present wishes to come forward before he does so.
“Perhaps that would be something he could do,” Zuniga said. “It is up to the mayor how he wants to run the meeting. He presides over the meetings and I am not in a position to assert myself as a councilman in the mayor’s role and put words in his mouth or tell him what the right thing is to do. I can say that the mayor is open to suggestion.”
Zuniga was unwilling to be critical of how Blanco had reacted by getting Li out of the council chambers.
“She was yelling, and we can’t have that,” Zuniga said.
With some persistence, the Sentinel reached Velto.
“I have nothing to say, really based on what occurred,” he said. “I asked if there’s any more speakers and when I was told no, we closed the public hearing.”
Li was refused the right to speak after she made clear she wanted to participate, Velto said, “because the public hearing was closed,” adding, “She can appeal this if she feels she was not treated fairly.”
What occurred Monday night, Velto said, was “nothing major.”
The city has a protocol and processes that have long been established and it is the citizenry’s responsibility to abide by that protocol and the city’s responsibility to provide due process, Velto said.
“Personally, I don’t know whether she understood the process or not,” Velto said. “Some people are challenged by the process. Some people don’t know what the process is, and they need to learn what it involves. It’s not my role to teach them. That’s not my role. The process isn’t anything other than what it is. We were not, are not trying to prevent anyone from expressing anything. The hearing was closed. We never had a chance to know that she wanted to speak. I didn’t see her raise her hand. We are not responsible for something that happened to someone who didn’t follow the process. I don’t see how this was anything other than that.”
Velto said, “She has a right to appeal. I will take into consideration that she didn’t hear when I asked if there were any more speakers. We followed the rules. She failed to follow the procedure. There is nothing more you can say.”
Velto said the public hearings conducted by the city council have to be closed at some point.
“We have to follow the process of how you hold a meeting,” he said. “If we let people come back after we have concluded the public hearing, people would criticize us for constantly allowing people to come back and talk when the hearings are closed.”
Velto said he had seen Li in the audience early in the meeting but that “I wasn’t sure what she was there for. He said he understood, after the council had returned to the dais after taking its break, that Li was intent on addressing the council.
“We couldn’t hear her at that time because the hearing was closed and it couldn’t be reopened,” Velto said.
Velto said he was unaware of the audio of the exchange between Li and the council and Li and Blanco being silenced on the video as the incident seemed to be escalating and that the video broadcast and posted to the city’s website contained no visual footage of Li’s effort to address the council.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Velto said.
Velto was in no way willing to second-guess Blanco for the way in which he handled Li.
“The chief has to do his thing, because they [the police] are there for that reason,” Velto said, “People have to follow the rules. We didn’t know what her intentions were. I could see it wasn’t going to go well with her getting all upset.”
Velto offered his assurance that Li will be given a chance to be heard.
“If she appeals, she can come back and we will hear it,” he said.
Mark Gutglueck

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