Omar Ornelas is moving on.
Before a relatively packed audience at Lathrop City Hall Monday night, two-term Lathrop councilman Omar Ornelas announced that he would be resigning his position early next year in order to further his teaching career and take a full-time job in Sacramento.
The announcement marked the end of a six-year career as an elected official in which Ornelas transitioned from a well-known youth leader into a councilmember unafraid to stand up for his convictions – digging his heels in against his own colleagues and audience members who were skeptical about his young age and his outlook towards a growing community rife with opportunity.
Even some of his harshest critics bid him farewell.
“It’s been fun,” said Dan Doyle – who regularly traded barbs with Ornelas and got into several heated discussions from the lectern about things that he has said from his seat on the dais. “We’ve had our moments. We’ve had good times and we’ve had bad times, but just know that you will be missed.”
As a 19-year-old city council candidate few gave Ornelas a chance of actually getting elected. That was despite his working knowledge of the City of Lathrop and the programs specifically pertaining to the youth as a longtime member of the city’s Youth Advisory Commission.
But when current Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely announced after the ballot deadline that he would not be seeking a seat in order to serve as the district’s highest ranking fire official, the door was opened somebody who was not elected for the vacant positions to serve out the full four-year term that Neely ended up winning.
And after a harsh battle – which featured then Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos vehemently opposing him – Ornelas, as the next-leading vote getter in the election, was appointed to serve out the remainder of the term. His age and his appointment made regional news.
The turbulent years under Santos – when an unfavorable report about his actions with city staffers and general disposition around City Hall – played itself out with the interactions between the youngest council member, Ornelas, and the more well-known, Santos.
And his passionate approach to the job ultimately led to Ornelas getting the final word – reelection.
While Santos ultimately lost his position as mayor in a landslide to then-councilman Sonny Dhaliwal, Ornelas snuck out another four-year term by a razor thin margin. He was trailing when he went to bed was all but guaranteed a departure from the council. By the time the dust settled, he was once again representing the community that he grew up in.
“You’re respected by not only your colleagues but all of the people of Lathrop,” Dhaliwal said to his departing colleague. We thank you for all that you have done in the last six years. There have been some good times and some bad times but at the end of the day we’re all on the same team and here to serve the people that elected us – and you’ve done that.”
It will now be up to the council to determine how to proceed with the vacancy.
Because Ornelas still has two years left on his term, whoever is selected – either through an appointment or a special election – will serve the remainder of the official term before facing a general election when the seat comes back up.
Traditionally Lathrop has favored the appointment process based on the next leading vote getter in the election, but hasn’t faced a scenario in which a significant amount of time has passed since that election. A special election would likely cost the City of Lathrop a sizeable chunk of money depending on how many other municipalities would be holding an election at that time – becoming costlier with the fewer participants.