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Ornelas, Santos clash verbally over committee oversight in Lathrop
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LATHROP – Committees, oversight, and personal attacks. Oh my.

The issue that arose during the last agenda item of the night Monday at the Lathrop City Council meeting should have been, by all rights, routine. In an attempt to update the language of the council handbook on rules and procedures, however, things turned heated when the issue of who should oversee the committees appointed by Lathrop Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos.

Councilman Omar Ornelas quickly pointed out that he didn’t like the language that Santos was using when referring to the committees – calling them “his” since he has the power to select which applicants to place on them.

Ornelas’ comments drew reaction from the remaining members of the audience and temporarily derailed constructive discussions about how to proceed with the matter at hand.

“With all due respect, they’re not your committees,” Ornelas said to Santos – who had sunk back in his chair and placed his hand over his mouth. “And I don’t think that one person should have the ability to interfere into a committee that’s established to serve the community and not one person.”

Longtime Lathrop resident Bennie Gatto then approached the lectern. He told the council that they did have to decide on some method to make sure that the actions of the committees were being followed and monitored to ensure that everything was being done above board.

He referenced an incident that occurred last year during the Mayor’s Art Show – not specifically naming names but hinting about the physical altercation between former Mayor Kristy Sayles’ husband Thomas and Dan McNeilage that led to a lawsuit filed against the city – that he felt wasn’t handled properly.

Whether it was the council that provided oversight or the mayor himself, Gatto said there had to be some sort of policy that prevented those sorts of things from happening again.

But when Lathrop-Manteca District Fire Chief Gene Neely stepped up to the lectern to speak not in his professional role but as a concerned citizen of Lathrop, the exchange and the comments started to become tense.

“I’m sure not everybody is happy with the way some mayors have run their committees. I know that I’m not happy with some of the things that have been done in the past,” Neely said. “But they’re on a committee for the mayor – they work on special projects like parades and things like that. They have to be held accountable, but now you’re saying that they have to be held accountable to the majority of you.”

Neely pointed out that with a majority required to act on any matter, the meeting needs to have an agenda that is posted. That, he said, would take away valuable time that could be used to handle the problem the committee is handling.

Ornelas, however, wasn’t buying it.

“No one person should be able to run a show,” Ornelas said. “ The committees are going to have a chair, a vice chair, a secretary and a treasurer – everybody is a voting member but they’re going to have four people that can help guide them so that no one person can take the ropes and make the decisions. I think they’re appointed there to make decisions and not just serve one person.”

After Neely dropped examples of the President of the United States and the Governor of California being able to make decisions on their own – with veto power – Ornelas fired back with a miniature civics lesson pointing out that both positions have to answer to their respective legislative bodies who can override a veto.

Neely – who received the most votes in the November election for one of the available City Council seats but announced he wouldn’t pursue the position after being named fire chief – fired back with a dig of his own.

“If we’re going to identify all of the council members as being elected, we need to point out that Omar is appointed,” he said. “Don’t identify that he’s an elected official because he’s not.”