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Fresh air gives way to same old, same old at Lathrop city hall
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When Joseph “Chaka” Santos raised his right hand, took the oath of office and sat behind the dais as the Mayor of Lathrop, he did so as anything but your run-of-the-mill politician.

His off-the-cuff remarks are the stuff of legend. Shorts and flip-flops representing a laid-back approach seemed fresh and new. And most in the community knew him either as the bald-headed and grinning mugshot that graces the marinade bottles bearing his nickname or the guy that barbecues chicken and ribs for everybody on National Night Out.

A stuffed shirt he certainly wasn’t.

But when his City Council counterparts voted Monday night to have the Civil Grand Jury of the San Joaquin Superior Court look into allegations that he harassed a female city worker and created a hostile work environment as detailed in a 48-page fact-finding investigative report prepared by a Walnut Creek attorney , the quirky nature of his personality suddenly took on a dark and ominous tone.

And once again the conversation in the council chambers at city hall was focused not on the projects on the horizon or the multi-million dollar grants secured by staffers but the viscous negativity that has plagued Lathrop’s governing body for the better part of the last decade.

The same old song and dance.

What makes this scenario both encapsulating and disturbing, however, are the details in the charges being levied against Santos and the attempts that were made by administrators to head off problems before they gained momentum.

He supposedly pretended to lick rubber bands taken out of the hand of the unidentified female employee just outside of City Attorney Sal Navarrete’s office. Numerous attempts were allegedly made to get her to meet him outside of Lathrop so that he could give her an unspecified “gift.” Other employees reported that he typically heads straight to her office when he enters the building.

On the surface, the charges – which were revealed to an independent third-party that appears to have exercised due-diligence in obtaining the story from all parties involved – seem damning.

He maintains that the grand jury will allow him to clear his name. I’m not sure, given the polarizing nature of his figure in the community, that’s something even possible anymore.

It has to be asked, irrespective to whether there was any wrongdoing – wasn’t there a point where as a trusted representative of the community he realized that what he was doing was being viewed in a negative light?

Santos isn’t shy to proudly proclaim his service as a United States Marine, nor should he be. But situations like this – which have to be handled with kid gloves – are exactly the sort of thing the military had in mind when they came up with anti-fraternization policies. For somebody who claims that he’s the subject of a political witch hunt, he certainly didn’t heed at least a handful of warnings which should have been obvious.

And if this is something that has been under investigation since February – something that the council has met in closed session on at least once prior to Monday’s meeting – was the only option that the rest of the council had to send it up to the grand jury?

I’m by no means advocating the “family, in-house” approach that some suggested the city take in regards to the matter – if I was the complainant I’d be offended and disgusted at the very suggestion – but if something like censure was a possibility did a long, drawn-out legal process like the one that’s coming really need to be exercised?

There are some in Lathrop that feel that Santos shouldn’t have ever been elected.

Had it not been for a rocky political climate surrounding the previous occupant of the position, some said, he never would have stood a chance with voters that finally agreed it was time for a change at City Hall.

Then there are the staunch supporters that seem to hang on to his every word and believe that he can do no wrong when it comes to conducting the business of the city. They are the people who have showed up at meetings whenever the outspoken and overly sociable elected official has needed support.

And somewhere in the middle are the regular Joe and Jane Sundays of the community – the people who work during the week and raise kids full-time and get their news about the happenings in their community whenever those two things don’t overlap.

Those are the people that Santos needs to convince that he’s innocent if he is to stand any chance of keeping his seat for another term. This very well could have been a blow too severe to recover from.

All that should matter here is the truth. The only people who truly know that are Santos and the woman who filed the initial complaint.

She laid everything out in a detailed report that will likely be part of the record for the grand jury. Santos maintains his innocence despite making a bizarre “whatever happened, happened” comment at Monday’s meeting.

The harshest judge of character in the world is the person staring back at you at the end of the day in the mirror.

Lathrop residents deserve better.