It was trial-by-fire for Omar Ornelas when he first took his seat on the Lathrop City Council.
For one, he was only 19-years-old when he was appointed to fill the first two years of the four-year term vacated by Lathrop Manteca Fire District Chief Gene Neely – who missed the deadline to remove himself from the ballot and was elected anyway. Ornelas finished second in the election.
He also had to deal with the fact that the mayor at that time was unhappy that he was chosen by the council to fill the term, and was met with open hostility both during that transition and during the first two years that he represented the people of Lathrop.
But now – five years after his appointment was openly challenged and one year after he won reelection for a full four-year term – Ornelas is saying goodbye as his resignation date nears (Dec. 31) and he prepares for a career as a teacher in Sacramento.
“It was a very difficult decision to step down,” Ornelas said. “For about two years now – since graduating from college – there have been a lot of really good offers coming from Sacramento and I ultimately decided that it would be much better to stay in Lathrop and be with my family.
“That was actually one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made, but eventually you have to make some of those decision that are a little bit more selfish when you have to start thinking about yourself and your family and what’s the best decision for your future and for theirs. Everybody’s time on the council will come to an end eventually and then they have to ask those same questions, but it was a hard one for me to process.”
Last week Ornelas announced that the meeting would be his last as an elected official representing the community in which had been raised.
But despite being elected at only 19-years-old – a move that made regional headlines at the time – he wasn’t a political novice.
As a member of Lathrop’s Youth Advisory Commission, Ornelas poised himself as a leader who understood what was best for the youth at large and spent his five years making sure that Lathrop’s younger residents are taken care of.
He was instrumental in making the push for funding for what would become the Lathrop Generations Center – made possible by a $5 million grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation – and touted its opening as the addition of a jewel into the community profile.
And while he hasn’t yet reached the halfway point in his second term on the council – one that he milled about before deciding to run again – Ornelas has emerged not as a wet-behind-the-ears kid but somebody who immerses themselves in issues and stands up for what he believes is right for the community.
Just last month Ornelas stood relatively alone in representing medical marijuana users in the community who were being faced with the prospect of being barred from growing their own medicinal plants. While he cast the lone dissenting vote on an issue that was decided initially when no vocal opposition for the community was present, a man later approached the council about how this matter will affect him and his afflicted wife significantly since purchasing from out-of-town dispensaries in Stockton and Modesto is nearly impossible with his budget.
Standing firm in what he believed was best for constituents, he said, was learned through the trials and tribulations that came with the position – events that started almost immediately when his legitimacy was called into question by then-mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos.
Even that experience, Ornelas said, served as a valuable learning lesson.
“That whole experience definitely played a role in making me a little bit more outspoken and taught me to speak up and get all of those things out,” he said. “What I really tried to do was pause for a second, think about what I’m really trying to say or the point that I’m trying to make, and then bring it across, which was really beneficial.
“When I first got on the council I felt like I was in a really unique position because of my age and I wanted to do really great things and make sure that the chance that I had before me wasn’t wasted. The mayor at that time showed me what it would be like if I came in with that attitude, and the way that he operated – being demanding and taking control of everything around him – showed me a lot. If you look at all of those actions, nothing really came from it and there wasn’t really anything to point to as a key project – it showed me that you operate that way, then people aren’t going to respond to you. The way that he acted with me and staff and others didn’t get anywhere and that shaped my perspective on the best way to interact with the community and the people that I worked with. It was a good example of how not to do things.”
But stepping away from the limelight won’t be without its perks.
As part of his dual role as a teacher thorough the “Teach for America” program in Stockton and as a councilmember Ornelas hasn’t had much time to pursue any sort of dating life or furthering his own personal goal of having a large family like the one he came from.
There are people that will he definitely miss, he said, and people that taught him a lot about the ways of government and the ways of carrying himself like a professional – something that he imported into his chosen career as a teacher.
But at the end of the day Ornelas said he felt it was time to take advantage of the life opportunities that were before him even if that meant walking away from the title that has defined him for the better part of his adult life.
“I was talking to my mother about this, and as being part of a Mexican family when you’re 24 you’re supposed to be already married by now or at least in a serious relationship,” he said laughingly. “That’s something that I haven’t really had the time to do, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I’ve never had the chance of living away from Lathrop and pursuing that part of my life, and while I’m going to miss everything about this community and everything that it has done for me, there’s a part of me that’s excited about the future. It was definitely one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever had to make and I hope that Lathrop that continues to thrive.
“But it’s time to get a different point in my life.”