Porterville Looks Forward After Proclamation Debate

Porterville Council Member Pete McCracken, Mayor Cameron Hamilton and Councilmember Greg Shelton. Photo by Tony Maldonado
Porterville Council Member Pete McCracken, Mayor Cameron Hamilton and Councilmember Greg Shelton. Photo by Tony Maldonado

Following the last few months of controversy, Porterville’s City Council and those in its LGBT community are looking ahead to the future.

Proclamation Debate and Controversy
Beginning in June, the council placed itself in the middle of considerable controversy over its LGBT Pride Month proclamation and the actions following it.

In June, then-mayor Virginia Gurrola signed the proclamation and presented it to Brock Neeley, the man requesting it; Neeley and his husband, John Coffee, were the first same-sex couple to marry in Tulare County.

The events that followed through the June, July and August meetings, would see the proclamation repealed, the process for proclamations changed, a protest inside the council chambers and photos, videos and the entire story amplified throughout social media and the traditional press – stories were published/broadcast in the New York Times, Sacramento Bee, The Atlantic, MSNBC and the Huffington Post.

The opinion pages of the local newspaper, the Porterville Recorder, were alight with letters to the editor from both sides; the conversations in its Facebook comments were even more active.

The story seemingly spread worldwide — for many outside of the state, or even the Valley, it would be the first time they would hear of Porterville.

Rescission and Replacement
The proclamation was rescinded and replaced with a “goodwill to all” resolution during the council’s meeting on July 16, on a 3-2 vote; Council Members Greg Shelton, Brian Ward and Cameron Hamilton for, and Mayor Virginia Gurrola and Vice-Mayor Pete McCracken dissenting.

College of the Sequoias professor Robin McGehee at the July 16 Porterville City Council meeting. Photo by: Jordon Dean
College of the Sequoias professor Robin McGehee at the July 16 Porterville City Council meeting. Photo by: Jordon Dean

“I could not vote no on rescission and yes on the resolution. I was forced to vote yes to rescind [the LGBT proclamation] and issue [the new resolution] or no against rescission,” McCracken told the Voice. “Because they were tied together, I had to vote no on the replacement resolution.”

Immediately following the vote, the meeting was called to recess after three were arrested for interrupting the meeting, shouting “Shame on you!” to the council and waving protest signs.

“The resolution that took its place was exactly what they’re asking for: inclusion. And they were livid that it would be replaced with something other than the resolution that spoke to them as an LGBT community, which is separate of the rest of the community,” Hamilton said.

Changes to Proclamation Process
At the same meeting, the council also voted along the same 3-2 lines to change the way that proclamations are reviewed and granted.

The new process requires a council member to sponsor it and the approval of at least three council members to grant a proclamation, alongside stricter time limits for sending requests to the council.

“It’s going to take a lot longer to get proclamations now, but that’s what we’ve got to do,” said Shelton, during the meeting in which the process was approved.

“I think that it’s actually a better process – it does slow it down a little bit, but all it means is that people who are asking, they’re going to have to be on their toes and ask a little earlier than normal,” Hamilton said.

Previously, a mayor could simply grant proclamations at will. In recent times, mayors have sought to include the signatures of the council on these proclamations as a show of support; one of the points of controversy for the rescinded LGBT Month proclamation was that no council member signed it.

“Before I came on council, the proclamations were just signed by the mayor, and very rarely did the council sign the proclamations,” McCracken said. “We did have — when Ron Irish was mayor, he pretty much instituted the practice of all of us signing on the proclamations, and that became an accepted practice. It was never voted on or discussed by the council, it just happened.”

“I just didn’t feel comfortable at the time of signing it, especially the procedure that was followed; it was put in late, I didn’t feel I had adequate time to read and understand it before it was presented. That’s why I didn’t sign it.”

Council Reorganization
The council, on September 17, voted to rotate the mayoral positions on the council, removing then-mayor Virginia Gurrola and then-vice mayor Pete McCracken on the same 3-2 lines as previous votes.

They were replaced with Cameron Hamilton and Brian Ward, respectively.

Citizens at the meeting took the coincidental timing of the reorganization as a sign that the rotation was not simply to give other council members a chance to serve in mayoral positions, but as a sign of discrimination – either for their voting positions, or something else.

“What bothers you so much about Virginia Gurrola? That she’s a woman, that she’s a Latina, and that she’s strong?” asked Teresa de la Rosa during the meeting.

Cameron Hamilton, Mayor of Porterville.
Cameron Hamilton, Mayor of Porterville.

“Prior to the proclamation, Council Member Ward had already brought up rotation to the city manager to put it on the agenda, and then it kind of got dropped,” Hamilton said. “After the proclamation, he said he wanted it on the agenda, and so his request looks like it’s in correlation to the proclamation.”

“I can guarantee you the proclamation was not why he called for the reorganization.”

“I think that Councilman Ward might have brought it up in June or July, had not the proclamation come forward. I don’t think it would have happened at that time,” McCracken told the Voice. ”Subsequent to the proclamation, my viewpoint is that Ward held off until he thought the furor had died down, and I question whether anybody really believes it was strictly rotation.”

Coming Out Day Proclamation
At its Tuesday, October 1 meeting, the Porterville City Council summarily rejected a proclamation that would mark Thursday, October 11 as National Coming Out Day, on a 3-1 vote; Shelton, Hamilton and Ward against, McCracken for. Council Member Gurrola was unable to attend the meeting.

“I was in hopes, but not high, [that they would accept the proclamation] because I figured that’s exactly what they’d do. They performed exactly to expectations,” said John Coffee.

“There are a lot of good people in this town, and unfortunately the extremely vocal, extreme minority are the ones that are being heard from. At some point, in my opinion, the ‘good people’ will rise up and the scoundrels – and I include, at least in my opinion, Hamilton, Ward and Shelton – they’ll be dealt with. I have every confidence in the world that if good, qualified candidates come forward, they will prevail.”

The proclamation was rejected, according to members, on the grounds that it was not inclusive of the entire community.

“I’m not seeing it being for everybody,” Shelton said during the meeting.

“It’s hard for me to understand how they want to identify themselves by one identifier,” Hamilton told the Voice.

Neeley said that he will continue to push the council on LGBT issues — he plans to bring forward a World AIDS Day proclamation in the near future.

Looking Forward
“I really want to get over this, because we need to move on,” Gurrola said. “I need to be focused on how we can stimulate our economy.”

The community has seen a new boon in the newly-opened South County Justice Center Courthouse, she said.

The courthouse replaces an older one that was often crowded and required residents to travel to Visalia’s courthouse for jury duty and other matters.

In addition, the city hopes for an expansion of Walmart, currently mired in a lawsuit.

“There’s an economic boom just waiting for the lawsuit to get over with Walmart – once that’s landed, we will see that entire area grow with the type of retail and eateries that the citizens have been crying for forever,” Hamilton said. “We want to have competition, because it’s good for everybody.”

“We’re open for business, and we’re a very caring community, and want to work on stimulating our economy,” Gurrola said.

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