Another 2,200 petitions from disgruntled residents were scheduled to arrive in the Los Banos City Clerk’s office Monday, as the city’s registered voters made it clear they intend to remove councilmember Brett Jones as well as Doug Begonia Jr.

Late last week, Merced County Registrar of Voters Melvin Levey confirmed to City Clerk Lucy Mallonee that Begonia’s name will be on the ballot on Nov. 5. Of the 2,005 signatures gathered in District 2, Levey’s office says that roughly 83% of those checked so far are valid, and that the threshold of 1,359 signatures required to put Begonia’s name on the ballot has been surpassed.

Just as he did in accepting the petitions to recall Begonia, Levey and members of his staff agreed to make a special trip to Los Banos on Monday to pick up the 2,200 petitions to recall Jones in District 3. The petitions will be stored in a secure location in Merced until enough are validated to continue the recall process.

“I’ve never seen signatures for a recall election gathered so fast,” said Mike Lynch, a long-time Valley political consultant associated with the campaign.

“In terms of Jones’ recall,” said Lynch, “we have submitted to the city clerk and county registrar over 2,200 signed petitions, and we fully expect the 1,364 necessary to put that measure on the ballot to be approved shortly.”

If the signatures from District 3 are validated, it will mean all five of the city council seats will be on the Nov. 5 ballot – not just the normal three (two councilmembers and the mayor) who appear every two years.

“That,” said Lynch, “will be a great opportunity for the people of Los Banos to decide if the city will get a fresh start going into the next year.”

That thousands of voters petitioned to recall Jones and Begonia is a clear signal of the city’s anger with the four-member council majority.

Many are outraged over the council’s 4-1 vote in January 2023 to give 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.  But the council ignored that suggestion and paid the $1.8 million from the city’s unallocated general fund – turning over a tenth of the city’s spending cash to its former city manager and his lawyer.

Pinheiro has never publicly discussed why he deserved the $1.8 million payment.

After rehiring Pinheiro on a 4-1 vote, the council gave him a raise and then voted 3-1 (with Mayor Paul Llanez absent) to require a 5-0 vote to fire him. No other city manager in California has such protections.

If the recalls prove successful, and both Begonia and Jones are removed from the council, election attorney Chris Skinnell told City Clerk Mallonee that the city will replace them in one of two ways.

The first could be through interim appointments by the council until the next election. The second would be through a special election to fulfill the final two years of their terms.

Meanwhile, it has been shown through a public information request that another 9 employees have left the city since the first of the year. That brings to about 80 the number of people who have left the city staff since Pinheiro’s arrival as city manager. Among them have been popular police and fire chiefs, the city’s finance director, treasurer and public works director.

Major projects have been canceled while other projects were commissioned through “change orders” rather than state-mandated competitive bidding. Most city business has moved to the consent agenda where it gets little discussion and is approved on a single vote.

Such irregularities have provoked public anger, the recall campaigns, an online petition to fire the city manager and a grand jury investigation, the results of which are expected to be released within the month.

Mike Dunbar