Los Banos city councilmembers Brett Jones and Douglas Begonia Jr. were served with recall notices last week, starting a process that could result in both losing their seats in the Nov. 5 election.

“They’re not upholding their most critical duty, which is to be the voice for their citizens,” said businessman Graciano Rubio, who frequently attends council meetings.

“With Mr. Begonia, it’s because he has no contact with his district,” said Kathy Ballard, a Los Banos businesswoman. “He doesn’t return calls or emails or anything, so he should be recalled. The people in District 2 need representation.”

Douglas Begonia Jr.

There was no answer at the number obtained for Begonia, who was elected in November 2022. Jones, who was elected to the council’s District 3 seat in 2018 then re-elected in 2022, confirmed he had been served but blamed the Express.

“You guys pick and choose (facts),” said Jones. “You’re not a newspaper, you’re a tabloid. … You guys are a fricking joke.”

Asked what facts the Express had gotten wrong in previous coverage of the city’s problems, Jones did not explain.

The recall was sparked by the council’s actions surrounding city manager Josh Pinheiro. With no experience in government but strong local ties, Pinheiro was first hired as city manager in October 2021. After several employees left the city and others complained about mistreatment, he was fired the following June on a 3-2 vote with Jones and councilmember Ken Lambert loudly dissenting.

Josh Pinheiro

Five months later, in November 2022, Begonia and Mayor Paul Llanez were elected to the council. In February 2023, they voted with Jones and Lambert to rehire Pinheiro. Then they voted 4-1 to give him $1.8 million, a payment the city’s employment liability insurer refused to cover. Finally, the majority voted to require a unanimous council vote to fire Pinheiro.

Councilmember Deborah Lewis was the lone “no” vote on all three issues.

Requiring that unanimous vote to fire Pinheiro “made this (recall) inevitable,” said Ballard. “That and paying out the $1.8 million.”

Since Pinheiro’s rehiring, there have been allegations of Brown Act violations, harassment of staff, departures of more than 50 of the city’s 180 employees, a secretive budgeting process, irregularities in how city business is conducted, and numerous angry council meetings.

Last October, the city’s unions signed a statement of no-confidence in Pinheiro.

The rules for recalling elected representatives are arduous, starting with a 200-word statement explaining why the official should be recalled. Next, at least 50 voters in the district must sign the statement before it can be served to the official. Once served, those being recalled have seven days to draft their own statements to be included on a petition circulated in their districts.

The next step involves more signature gathering. If 25 percent of each district’s voters sign the petition, the recall goes onto the ballot in the next election. In November, anyone voting “yes” is also asked to choose a replacement. If the recall is successful, the new councilmember is seated at the next meeting.

This year, Districts 4 (Lewis) and 1 (Lambert), along with the mayor, are already on the November ballot. If the recall is successful, all five council seats will be voted on.

Asked why he would be recalled, Jones angrily blamed The Westside Express.

“You only publish what you want,” said Jones. “You’re trying to ruin people’s lives.”

Then he blamed others: “You aren’t going to put that this is being funded by a local developer in the paper, are you. This is all from a well-known local developer who is not going to get his way.”

Asked to identify the developer, Jones refused: “No, I’m not going to answer that. You guys are scumbags.”

Homebuilder Greg Hostetler, who has been doing business in the city since the 1970s, very much wants to see change on the city council.

“It’s not about me, but most definitely I am involved with numerous people in the community” in the recall efforts, he said. “There’s a lack of transparency, a lack of leadership in the city. … They spent money out of the general fund to hire this guy – the two-million-dollar man. It was reckless. It was inefficient and it was negligent. It was financial illiteracy. These people are going to put this city into bankruptcy either through the way they run it or from the way they treat people who will someday sue.”

He’s not alone. That became clear in the March 12 election as Measures H and G – both pushed by Mayor Llanez and Jones — were crushed.

Measure H would have lengthened the mayor’s term from two years to four, making it impossible to elect a new city council majority every two years. Measure G would have made the city clerk an appointed position, answering to the council.

Measure H got only 23 percent of the vote; Measure G 38 percent.

 “Seeing a 77% vote (against H) – that was an historic loss,” said Rubio. 

Other troubles loom on the council’s horizon. There are indications the Merced County Civil Grand Jury is looking into the council’s conduct; another group of residents is considering a legal challenge to Pinheiro’s $1.8 million payment, and an online petition is demanding Pinheiro be fired.

“I want to see a functional city,” said Ballard. “I want to see a council that is concerned about the city in the same way the public is.”

Mike Dunbar