LOS BANOS – Rather than respond to charges brought in certified recall petitions, Los Banos city council members Brett Jones and Doug Begonia Jr. blamed a housing developer for the growing public dissatisfaction with their performance.

The petitions, served April 23, listed multiple reasons for the recall:

  • The $1.8 million payment made to previously fired city manager Josh Pinheiro;
  • Voting to require an unprecedented 5-0 vote to fire Pinheiro, tying the hands of future city councils;
  • The loss of roughly a quarter of city staff, including several department heads;
  • An attempt to “grasppower through two ballot initiatives that voters thoroughly rejected in March.

Similar charges were detailed in stories published in the Westside Express from September through October 2023. In October, the city’s five unions delivered a vote of no-confidence in the city manager.

In their responses to the recall petitions, Jones and Begonia characterized themselves as victims of a plot “orchestrated”  by a “local developer” attempting to “prioritize profit over the safety and sustainability of our community.”

Neither Jones nor Begonia named the developer.

“There’s no reason they need to hide who they’re talking about,” said Greg Hostetler, who is both a developer and farmer in Los Banos. “I support the recall 100 percent because of the wrongdoing by the city council, wasting taxpayer money and the disservice they have been doing – and they’re continuing to do – to the citizens of Los Banos.

“I’m not ashamed to tell people who I am and what I’m doing.”

After reviewing the strikingly similar responses from Jones and Begonia, Hostetler suggested it “wasn’t written by either one of them. That was written by someone who has a higher IQ and a high billable-hour rate.”

Jones has hired a Sacramento-area public relations firm and created the “Stop the Developer Recall of Councilmembers Jones and Begonia” committee to fight the recall campaign against him.

Hostetler said he is angry over a council that gets nothing done. He pointed out that the city collects roughly $45,000 in fees on every house built in Los Banos, then asked: “Where is that money?”

“They have collected almost $17 million for parks but they haven’t built one park,” he said. “What happened to the $8 million in traffic-mitigation fees?

“Why can’t parks be maintained? Where is the money for landscaping and maintenance? The town is a wreck in landscaping … I’m just asking questions and they don’t like it that I ask questions because they don’t have any answers.”

Hostetler repeated some of the questions and claims he has asked at recent council meetings.

“With Josh, they’ve raised the (amount of) money he can spend, and he spends money like it’s water,” said Hostetler.

Last year, the council raised what the city manager can spend without prior council approval from $5,000 to $200,000 – an amount far higher than that authorized for city managers in most Valley cities.

Recalls are complicated procedures. Having already served Begonia and Jones with the recall petition, proponents next must gather signatures from at least a quarter of the residents in each district. When those are certified, Jones and Begonia will be placed on the November ballot.

Those who vote to remove Jones and Begonia will be asked to choose a replacement to fulfill the final two years of their terms.

With councilmembers Ken Lambert and Deborah Lewis and Mayor Paul Llanez already up for re-election, it would mean all five city council members would be on the ballot.

The hiring, firing and rehiring of Pinheiro is at the heart of the city’s dissatisfaction.

Pinheiro was first appointed city manager in October 2021. Following accusations of mistreatment by some city staffers, the council voted 3-2 to fire him effective in June 2022. In October 2022, Pinheiro’s San Jose lawyer sent a letter alleging mistreatment. Four weeks later, Llanez and Begonia were elected to the council and in February 2023, they voted with Jones and Lambert to rehire Pinheiro. Then they voted 4-1 in favor of the $1.8 million payment.  

Then they changed city rules to require a 5-0 vote to dismiss Pinheiro.

In March, the council tried to consolidate its power through two ballot measures. Measure G would have made the elected city clerk an appointed position; Measure H would have extended the mayor’s two-year term to four, meaning voters could not choose a new council majority every two years. Both were overwhelmingly defeated.

Other residents are taking different approaches to affect change. One group is considering a lawsuit to “claw back” the $1.8 million payment to Pinheiro as a gift of public funds. There is a petition circulating demanding Pinheiro be fired. The Merced County Civil Grand Jury has made inquiries into the city council’s conduct; the grand jury’s annual report is expected within weeks.

“This is an uprising by the people of Los Banos,” said Hostetler. “The mayor’s (measure), they lost it by 76 points; that should tell you what people think of this bunch.”

Mike Dunbar