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Lathrop council piles on criticism of conduct by Mayor Santos
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LATHROP – Having it resolved that your actions are a detriment to the city that you’re sworn to represent is one thing.

But the verbal lashing that Lathrop Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos got inside of the Lathrop city council chambers Monday night was something that only seemed to magnify the charges that Santos brushed off as a political attack.

He’s seeking reelection in November.

Taking the brunt of the criticism from his colleagues on the dais and a healthy helping from some in the audience, Santos – who was the subject of an investigation earlier in the year for workplace harassment and reportedly made retaliatory statements to a city staffer who participated in that investigation just recently – rocked back and forth in his chair and held eye contact with those that told him to drop the persona and take responsibility for the actions that were verified in a pair of independent reports.

Santos contends that the biggest reason for the resolution that was before the council – which was akin to a censure motion – was because he was unwilling to be interviewed without first knowing what it was that he was accused of and when the alleged actions took place.

Both of his political advisors and his legal representation, he said, advised him against it.

“We wanted to know when, where and who and I wasn’t going to come in and be blindsided,” he said. “This is nothing but a political ploy. First it was (neighbor Rick) Cavaco and then (former City Manager) Cary (Keaten) and then the harassment and now this. This is all political – they’re trying to control me but I have a free mind and I’m not going to be anybody’s puppet.

“I’m going to continue moving forward. This is Councilman Dhaliwal’s ploy. What does it have to be political?”

But not everybody saw it that way.

His biggest critic was Councilman Omar Ornelas – whose appointment to the council Santos tried to block as his first official action as nayor.

“Nobody told you to say those things. Nobody directed you to do those things – you did it all on your own,” Ornelas said. “This is nobody’s fault but your own. Take responsibility for your actions. You make it difficult for people to come to work every day here at City Hall, and to say that all of this is just a political ploy is a cop out – plain and simple.

“I respect the office you hold, and to a degree I respect you, but you have to realize that you have gone over the line. Everybody else sees it but you. You have to grow up and take responsibility for your actions.”

Ornelas wasn’t done.

In response to the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury report that Santos read at the beginning of the meeting – one that was marked “confidential” and that City Attorney Salvador Navarrete instructed the members of the council not to release or publicly discuss when it was made available – in which he claimed exoneration from the initial investigation, the hip-firing Ornelas said that the mayor was wrong in his interpretation. He contended  it actually said that it was up to the public to decide at the ballot box whether his conduct was acceptable or not.

Navarrete – the recipient of the Grand Jury report – said that while he couldn’t comment on specifics, it appeared to him that it didn’t appear to be appropriate use of the grand jury’s resources to investigate the possible removal of an elected official a month before an election when that person might not earn another term.

It was fellow mayoral candidate Sonny Dhaliwal, however, that made the most telling comments of the night Santos specifically claimed that it was his opponent that had brought about the charges and a “witch hunt” in an attempt to discredit him.

Navarrete cleared the subject up outright when he said that he acts on behalf of the council and would never launch any sort of investigation at the behest of a single member. It was Dhaliwal, though, saying that his campaign doesn’t even mention Santos that seemed to drive the point home even further.

“You blamed me with the restraining order, you blamed me with the investigation and you’re blaming me again now. I can tell you that neither myself nor anybody associated with my campaign had anything to do with this,” he said. “Your behavior isn’t our issue. Your performance as mayor is our campaign issue.

“Like you’ve said before, whatever happened, happened. But our duty is to protect our employees and our taxpayers, and as a taxpayer it’s something that we have to do. And I take issue with comments that you made that “his own people won’t even vote for him.” My people are the 19,000 residents of this community and I believe that your comments were borderline racist and that should stop right now. As long as those people give me the chance I’ll continue to look after their interests.”

Councilwoman Martha Salcedo continued the assault.

“I take great offense that you’re blaming somebody else for your actions,” she said. “It’s just plain wrong and I think that it shows a lot of your character.”

The council voted 4-1 – with Santos dissenting – to pass the resolution disapproving his conduct. By doing so, at the urging of the Employee Risk Management Authority, the city would more than likely only be responsible for the $25,000 deductible if a lawsuit or any additional claim were to come as a result of the previous actions.