Under questioning from Los Banos City Councilmember Deborah Lewis, new finance director Vanessa Portillo said she has been forbidden by City Manager Josh Pinheiro to speak with Lewis and other councilmembers.

Knowing that such prohibitions are not enforceable during council meetings, Lewis brought up the gag order during the May 15 council meeting.

“I’ve always been able to go into the office and talk to staff about what checks are on the register – who they are paid to, what they paid for and the amount,” Lewis said during the council meeting. That is no longer the case.

Lewis said that earlier on May 15, she kept an appointment with Portillo to go over the city’s check register. Upon her arrival, that plan changed.

“She informed me that the city manager had indicated that she was not to talk to me,” said Lewis. “That was a shocker. But on the dais, she cannot refuse me.”

Lewis believes this is part of ongoing efforts by Pinheiro and other members of the council to deny her access to information necessary to her performance as a councilmember.

“How long has it been that I’ve been complaining about this,” asked Lewis rhetorically. “No one is admitting it, at least the city manager never admits it. But he pushed out an edict when he came back as city manager, that no one was to talk to councilmembers. … I believe it was directed at me.”

Pinheiro and Mayor Paul Llanez are in Washington, D.C., and missed the council meeting, as did councilmember Brett Jones. Pinheiro has not responded to repeated requests for comment on Westside Express stories.

The antipathy between Lewis and Pinheiro goes back to 2022, when she voted to fire the inexperienced city manager after eight tumultuous months on the job. After an election that saw two additional Pinheiro supporters seated on the council, he was rehired on a 4-1 vote — with Lewis dissenting — in February 2023. That same majority — with Lewis voting no — voted to give Pinheiro and his attorney $1.8 million from the city’s general fund to abandon claims of mistreatment. Lewis called the council’s decision to require a 5-0 vote to remove Pinheiro “nefarious.” 

Since his return as city manager, Pinheiro has been unresponsive to Lewis during meetings and refused to answer her calls or respond to her emails. Mayor Llanez and councilmember Jones have berated Lewis when she has spoken of this treatment during council meetings, once sarcastically asking if her phone and email were working properly.

Meanwhile, the city shifted an enormous amount of its business onto the “consent agenda” — a time-saving procedure meant to allow routine city business to proceed without discussion on a single vote. Since 2022, the Los Banos consent agenda has been packed with expenditures of millions of dollars, change-orders to major contracts, appointments to county boards and other important public business.

Believing such issues deserve a public airing, Lewis removes several items from each meeting’s consent agenda. On May 15, she pulled five, starting with the check register Portillo had been forbidden to explain in person.

Lewis wanted to know why the city wrote three checks to former acting finance director Brent Kuhn totaling nearly $50,000 even after Portillo’s hiring in March. Kuhn’s previous pay had been $26,500 a month, including expenses incurred in traveling from his Southern California home.

“Can someone tell me what those (checks) were for?” Lewis asked.

Portillo deflected, saying she would “go back and tie up what that was for,” adding that Kuhn is now filling in for the vacant finance manager’s job.

Lewis noted that payee names were not fully visible on the register, which “makes it hard for people who want to know where our dollars are being spent.”

Lewis also questioned the purchase of a vehicle in Elk Grove for $67,000 and $7,500 paid to a videographer. She now wonders “what else is out there that’s over the $5,000 that the council hasn’t approved.”

Such irregularities have led Lewis to support the recall of councilmembers Jones and Doug Begonia Jr. – which could mean all five councilmembers will be on the ballot in November.

“I want to see all of us up for re-election or recall. Let the voters decide.”

Mike Dunbar