Thousands of Los Banos residents have signed petitions putting councilmembers Doug Begonia Jr. and Brett Jones on the path to recall.

On May 28 proponents delivered 2,005 signed petitions calling for the removal of Begonia as the District 2 councilmember. If 1,359 of the 2,005 signatures are verified by the Merced County Registrar of Voters, Begonia’s name will likely be on the Nov. 5 ballot.

As of Friday, signatures were still being collected to recall Jones in District 3. Last Tuesday, organizers estimated they had over 1,600 signatures – well over the 1,364 needed to recall Jones.

“That’s an amazing number,” said Mike Amabile, who served as Los Banos mayor for 12 years. “I’ve been here my whole life and been involved in a lot of politics, and I can’t remember anyone ever being recalled. This is a big deal for Los Banos.

“It sends a message.”

That “message” conveys citywide frustration with the four controlling members of the city council – Jones, Begonia, Mayor Paul Llanez and Ken Lambert. 

In January 2023, they voted 4-1 to give former city manager Josh Pinheiro $1.8 million after he claimed he had been unjustly fired six months earlier. The city’s liability insurer refused to pay the claim and urged the city to contest it in court.

“One-million, eight-hundred thousand dollars,” said former Mayor Tom Faria when asked why the recall campaign has been such a success. “Everything else is just government being government. But $1.8 million, that lights people’s ire. That is the story; that is the driving force behind (the recall).”

Also on a 4-1 vote, the council rehired Pinheiro, gave him a raise and then voted 3-1 (with Llanez absent) to put the terms of Pinheiro’s employment into a contract – removing it from the city’s general-law rules. Those changes included requiring a 5-0 vote to fire Pinheiro and only “with cause.” No other city manager in California has such protections.

Pinheiro was originally hired as city manager in October 2022 then fired in June 2023, eight months later. A friend of both Jones and Begonia, Pinheiro had no experience in government and a checkered resume that was kept hidden from the public. One company hired to recruit a city manager refused to include Pinheiro on its list of suitable candidates. During Pinheiro’s tenure, several department heads and more than 50 employees left city employment, and there were complaints of harassment. Most city business was moved to the consent agenda where it gets little discussion;  major projects were canceled and others were commissioned through “change orders” rather than the state-mandated competitive-bidding process. The city manager’s ability to transfer funds between city accounts without council approval was expanded from $5,000 to $200,000.

In October, the city’s five unions issued a statement of “no confidence” in Pinheiro’s leadership, read into the record by a local business owner who later publicly complained that Jones tried to intimidate her.

Included on the petitions were strikingly similar official responses in which neither Begonia nor Jones addressed the $1.8 million payment or any issues arising since Pinheiro’s hiring. Instead, they blamed public dissatisfaction on an unnamed developer.

“People feel they’ve been lied to; they feel there has been too much stuff happening behind the scenes,” said Refugio Llamas, who lost to Begonia in 2022 and is now running for mayor. “The majority of council members are not being open and honest. I think that was also reflected in the Measure H outcome.”

Placed on the March 5 ballot by the city council at a cost of around $14,000, Measure H would have lengthened the mayor’s term to 4 years from its current 2 years. With Measure G making the city clerk an appointed rather than elected position, power would have been consolidated in the hands of the council majority. Both measures lost overwhelmingly, with Measure H being the most unpopular measure on the entire countywide ballot.

Double recalls are rare in California.

“I’m trying to rack my brain, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen two recalls at once,” said Merced County Registrar of Voters Mel Levey.

Levey and two staff members drove to Los Banos on Tuesday to assist city clerk Lucy Mallonee when the petitions were submitted. After sealing the containers, the Registrar’s staff drove them to Merced.

Some residents feared retribution from the city manager if it becomes known they signed a  petition. But that was not the reason Levey came to Los Banos.

“It was easy for us to support the city and bring those petitions back immediately and reinforce the integrity of the process,” said Levey, who added he hopes that “helps lighten those concerns.”

Levey said local and state recall processes differ. For statewide offices, voters are asked to vote yes or no on the recall then only those who vote yes are asked to select a replacement from a list of candidates. The top vote-getter on that list then takes the seat – as Arnold Schwarzenegger did in supplanting Gray Davis in 2003.

For local jurisdictions, voters will be asked only to vote on the recall. If the recall is successful, choosing a successor is a separate question governed by the city’s election rules.

Santa Cruz had a successful double-recall of two city councilmembers in 2020. There, voters first voted on the recall. Then, in another area of the ballot, all voters in those districts were given the opportunity to choose from a list of candidates – each of whom having qualified to run under existing election rules and protocols. In Santa Cruz, both councilmembers were voted out and their successors placed on the council a short time later.

Levey’s office will have 30 business days to verify the eligibility of each petition signer. If there are enough valid signatures, he notifies the city which then has eight business days to schedule an election within the next 125 days. If the city’s date is too close to an already scheduled election – such as Nov. 5 – the registrar’s office can consolidate the two.

Because there is so much leeway in election rules, Los Banos has hired San Francisco-based elections attorney Chris Skinnell to advise the city on the process. 

Begonia and Jones were originally elected in 2022 and have two years remaining on their terms. If enough recall signatures are validated, it is likely all five city council positions will be on the Nov. 5 ballot. The mayor comes up for election every two years and districts 1 and 4 are scheduled for election this year.

The number of people wanting to dismiss both Jones and Begonia appears to be at least as many as those who elected them.

In 2022, Begonia got 1,056 votes — about half as many as those who now want him recalled. Jones, in 2022, got 1,744 votes with no opposition, roughly the same amount who have signed petitions to remove him.

The reason for so much frustration, said Llamas, was clear: “They haven’t fulfilled their responsibilities to voters.

“The projects such as the walkway from the city to the college, they rescinded that even though it was already paid for. Then you have the homeless issue. For a year and a half, people have been asking if the city had a plan, but there was never a plan. Now we have this grant of $11 million, and even though the grant specifies there will be public hearings and community meetings, we’ve had no meetings, no public input and they’re doing everything behind closed doors.”

On the agenda for the June 5 council meeting, posted Friday, is the unveiling of the city’s 2024-25 budget. Just as last year, there have been no public workshops or hearings or public participation in assembling the budget.

In the original version of this story, it was stated the city manager has a $200,000 spending limit; that is the limit of how much he can transfer between city accounts without council authorization. 

Mike Dunbar