Santa Paula Times

DOJ vs SP: Tempers flareat City Council meeting

April 14, 2000
Santa Paula City Council
The frayed thread connecting the City Council snapped during Monday's special session when the councilwomen hurled accusations in a bitter exchange after a majority of the council voted to allot $100,000 in funding for legal expenses through June 30th, the end of the city's fiscal year. The special session was called to address the lawsuit filed against the city by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) containing allegations that the city’s form of council elections are biased against Latinos. The DOJ is demanding that the city change it's form of at large elections in favor of district voting to afford Latinos a better chance of representation.Before going into closed session, there was about 30 minutes of public comment from six of the over 30 people in attendance.Ofelia de la Torre said if the council “fights, where will the money come from?. . .none of us know if district voting would be good, but the present way is not good for all. Latinos also would want what is the best for Santa Paula; who would it hurt?” She asked that councilmembers “not bankrupt our town; make us proud to be Santa Paulans.”The issue is dividing the once close-knit town, said Eric Barragan, president of the Santa Paula Union High School Board of Trustees. “. . .it scares me to the point when I'm asked for my opinion I'm afraid to give it; it might offend somebody.” The DOJ doesn't file lawsuits it isn't sure of winning he added, and the issue is destructive. “When you have division on the council it means you have division in the city.”Most of the speakers alluded to the city's cash-strapped coffers, the cost of special legal representation and questioned council priorities; one noted the lack of city services and maintenance in the city's largely Latino east side.Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa was rebuffed in her attempt to hold the discussion in open session, and the council adjourned to a closed session.When the council returned about 45 minutes later, John McDermott of Los Angeles, the voting rights attorney hired by the city, said the DOJ still refuses to supply requested documentation and evidence backing their claims; entering into agreement with the federal agency would be a violation of the voting act based on racial preferences, he noted. Latinos represent a majority of eligible voters, he added, destroying the need for districting.Although all five councilmembers voted to answer the DOJ's complaint, Espinosa voted against the $100,000 expenditure in closed session.Espinosa said she had been “royally chastised in closed session” and read a three-page statement that included acknowledgement of proactive city elders, both Latino and Anglo. But, she noted, “There is no room for a silent majority. . .we must level the playing field.”
Espinosa also said Councilman Don Johnson, owner of the Santa Paula Times, has printed letters to the editor ghostwritten by councilmembers, but the brunt of her remarks concerned Councilwoman Robin Sullivan, who Espinosa said tried to “skew the findings” of a report issued by the city to the DOJ listing the names of Latinos elected to the council and Latino-dominated school boards.“To claim one-quarter Latino heritage may make for good dinner conversation but Ms. Sullivan has never identified with the Latino community nor have they ever identified with her,” said Espinosa, as Sullivan became furious.Sullivan chastised the audience, and then turned to John Wisda, a former candidate for and critic of the City Council, leading to a shouting match between the two. Mayor Rick Cook asked to have Wisda ejected from the chamber. After sitting quietly for a few minutes, Wisda left the chamber, followed by about half of the audience.“I'm proud of my Mexican heritage,” said Sullivan. “Don't try to insult me or my parents for political reasons. . .that's where I draw the line.”Espinosa said she was not insulting Sullivan and the exchange continued to deteriorate. “I'm very nervous and scared about her emotionally stability,” Espinosa said. “I fear for my safety.”She has been threatened by Sullivan in the past, she added, a charge that Sullivan vigorously denied. “That's baloney! I don't even talk to the woman. I can't believe you. . .it's insane!”Sullivan criticized the media - as did Vice Mayor Johnson and Councilman Jim Garfield on reports of Espinosa's attempts to place items on the agenda - and Sullivan threatened to sue if they printed that she had threatened Espinosa.“This another lie and another game and I'm sick of it,” said Sullivan. “It's ridiculous and abusive. . .we go through this council meeting after council meeting.” Espinosa's comment that Sullivan had threatened her in the past is “inflammatory,” she added, and “I can take action against you for it and I will, that is the threat. . .this is not a game anymore.”