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Chaka tries flip flop on Omar
Lathrop mayors power play sparks backlash
Omar Ornelas takes the oath of office before taking his seat on the Lathrop City Council Monday night. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL
LATHROP – Omar Ornelas is now the youngest person to ever sit on the Lathrop City Council.

But while his formal appointment seemed like a sure bet after the council voted 4-0 to appoint him to the seat made vacant by Fire Chief Gene Neely’s resignation on Dec. 6, a curveball from recently elected Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos caught Ornelas and the packed council chambers completely by surprise.

Santos – who declared during December’s first meeting that he wouldn’t vote for Ornelas but ultimately sided with the remaining council members during a roll-call vote – opened Monday’s council meeting by calling for the pending appointment to be null and void because it was a violation of parliamentary procedure.

To back up his position, Santos went so far as to have a parliamentarian in the audience that backed up his position, and called on Neely – who was formally elected even after declaring that he wouldn’t seek the seat because of a conflict of interest – to inform the council that he favored choosing a different method for determining the successor to the seat.

“I don’t want anyone to take this as a criticism of Mr. Ornelas,” Santos said. “I’m standing by my pledge to not open up the city to any more lawsuits.”

City Attorney Sal Navarrete, however, saw things different.

Since the item was noticed and distributed in the agenda in plenty of time before the meeting, Navarrete said that there was nothing that could hold the city liable since no infraction occurred.

“There is no violation of the Brown Act as posted,” he said. “In my opinion, proper procedures were followed by the council.”

Santos made two attempts to nullify the pending appointment and table the discussion until the next regularly scheduled meeting. Both motions died due to the lack of a second from the other three elected council members.

“I think that you’re undermining the council,” Vice Mayor Christopher Mateo said. “This is not a dictatorship, this is a democracy. The vote stands – that’s all I have to say.”

Councilman Sonny Dhaliwal echoed Mateo’s sentiments.

“The council made a decision, and whether you agree or disagree you can’t undo that,” he said. “The council voted in favor of – or unanimously for in this case – that appointment and you can’t go back on that.”

Ultimately Ornelas did raise his right hand, take the oath of office, and take his place on the five-member panel that governs the operations of the City of Lathrop.

But not without facing what he called “the scariest 20 minutes” of his life.

“Today shows that we’re willing to work together to get things done,” he said. “There is one thing that I do promise, and that is to work as hard as I possibly can to create a wonderful place to live right here in this community.

“I make that promise today, I’ll make that promise tomorrow, and I’ll make that promise four years from now and hopefully for many years to come after that. Thank you.”