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Council picks 19-year-old to fill vacancy as councilman
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Omar Ornelas
LATHROP –  Omar Ornelas is not just Lathrop’s newest council member but at age 19 he’s the youngest ever to serve on a City Council in the South County.

The lifelong Lathrop resident and San Joaquin Delta College student was appointed by a 4-0 vote by his soon-to-be colleagues to serve on the Lathrop City Council.

Ornelas finished third in the Nov. 2 election with 12.8 percent of the overall vote. Finishing ahead of him in the race for two council seats were front-runner Sonny Dhaliwal and recently appointed Lathrop-Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely. The fire chief was elected even though he withdrew his name just days after his final election paperwork was filed because of the potential conflict of interest that comes with the job.

The options the council had Monday during their meeting was to either accept the next person in the line of succession based on the election results, accept applications from those interested in the position, or hold a special election. While the option to hold a special election on June 7, 2011 was on the table, the idea was shot down because of the six-month wait and the $43,000 estimated price tag.

With a large contingency of people supporting him in the audience, Ornelas was thrilled with the sitting council voted to unanimously add him as the fifth member. He’ll be sworn in at the next council meeting on Dec. 20.

“I’ve always known that this is something that I wanted to do. I’ve wanted this ever since I was 13, and I knew that eventually it was something that I was going to do,” said Ornelas of his motivation for running. “I think that the way the budget crisis has been hitting Lathrop really motivated me, especially when it comes to the layoffs. I wanted to do my part so I’m not the person who just sits back and angrily complains about everything.

“I wanted to be the person who actually did something about it.”

While he had half-a-dozen people get up and voice their support for him, not everybody in attendance thought that he was the best person for the job.

Former Lathrop Mayor Glorianna Rhodes said that even though she had respect for Ornelas, she didn’t believe that he had secured enough votes to warrant a community mandate that says he should definitively be a part of the council.

“You have a tough decision to make tonight. When you go for the next runner up, you’re looking for the will of the people,” Rhodes said. “I looked at the last 10 years of elections, and not once in that time did the runner-up or sometimes two of them drop below 22 percent. With that, I have to wonder if 12.87 percent is the will of the people.”

And Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos – who was sworn into his position Monday night – was even more straightforward with his words.

“I’m not here to walk a kid across the street,” Santos said. “Don’t get me wrong Omar – this is just business – but you’re still being walked across the street, son. Mrs. Candelaria said you accomplished all of these tasks, and I commend you for that, but I believe you need to have more under your belt.”

Santos then said that he’d be voting against it, but was the final member to approve the measure made by re-elected councilman Sonny Dhaliwal.

“I think one of the best things about America in general is that people are able to say what they feel. That’s what Chaka does, and that’s what he’s always done,” Ornelas said. “I can’t get angry at him for saying what he said, but I disagree with him completely and plan to show that with my actions. As he said it, somebody else is thinking it, and I need to prove that wrong.”

Ornelas’ appointment means Lathrop will have a full five-member council for the first time since March when Robert Oliver resigned for the second time.