The normal quiet, steady flow of small town politics in the city of Dinuba, tucked away in the rural northeastern reaches of Tulare County, has taken on an ugly face that threatens to rip the fabric of the once-tranquil community.
Many in this community of approximately 24,000 residents are shocked and angry over what they see as a no-holds-barred, gutter-level mentality spreading throughout their community as a determined recall drive targeting the city’s mayor and two city council members moves forward.
Citing what they allege as repeated examples of fiscal mismanagement and chronic over-spending by city leaders, cronyism, lack of transparency and city leadership isolated from the people they serve, the dozen or so members of Grassroots – Citizens for Dinuba are going door to door, district by district, collecting the signatures needed to force a recall in a community where no one seems able to remember one before.
The three targeted council members say they are stunned as they have watched the tone of the recall campaign quickly descend to what they regard as a level of viciousness quite unlike anything the community has known.
“The citizens group is going door-to-door spreading outright lies and saying anything just to get the signatures they want,” said Dinuba City Council Member Mike Smith, “going as far as changing their stories and lies from one door to the next. It’s totally crazy the things they claim the council has done.”
Smith said that the group has passed out flyers alleging that council members have voted themselves and upper-management city workers 4% pay raises for three consecutive calendar years, flagrantly violating rules set forth in the city’s charter. Smith said he still banks the same $257 take home pay each month that he has been getting for a number of years as a part-time city employee serving on the council. He said he receives no health benefits through his employment with the city.
Smith has worked for over 20 years as a construction salesman at a private corporation not connected with the city he serves as a council member. With 13 years on the council, Smith is far and away the most veteran member of the city’s five-person council.
He has attempted several face-to-face discussions with the group in order to convince them to come to the table for a civilized discussion of their concerns, but they repeatedly refuse to talk with him or to state clearly or coherently what their concerns are.
Smith said he refuses to stress over any eventual outcome of the recall drive, which he has no control over, and “if anybody has any legitimate concerns about the way I carry out my duties on the council, they have every right to voice them publically in a civilized manner, but not the way that members of Citizens for Dinuba is going around spreading lies and intimidating city residents in an attempt to persuade them to sign the petitions.” Smith ran unopposed in his past two council elections.
The founder of Grassroots – Citizens for Dinuba spoke with the Valley Voice about his reasons for forming the group and masterminding the current recall drive.
Robert Cervantes, who gives his occupation as a real estate investor, moved to Dinuba from the Bay Area in 2003 and “immediately started noticing injustices going on here,” he said. He alleges instances where city property was sold in secret deals to family members, letters sent out by the city in English-only to the city residents, of whom 85% are of Hispanic heritage, and according to Cervantes, two-thirds of them speak no English. Large pay raises (4% annually in each of three consecutive years) were given to the council members themselves as well as to city employees making over $100,000 annually, along with lifetime health benefits packages Cervantes claims. He said that the city purchased property from a former golf course at $15,000 per acre and was now selling off parcels in a hush-hush deal to a developer at less than what the city paid.
The developer dealing with the city has refused to divulge who his investors are, Cervantes claims, insinuating that city employees are likely among that group. Cervantes said the local daily newspaper, the Dinuba Sentinel, is biased in its coverage of local news in favor of the council and won’t print anything about council wrongdoing.
Council Member Aldo Gonzalez, in his first term on the council, was shocked when a flyer began circulating with his picture on it that had been lifted from the city’s website. Text surrounding his picture was in the form of a letter informing the public that he (Gonzalez) had voted for sizable pay raises and expensive health benefits packages for city employees, along with utility tax increases for residents throughout the city, and through the letter on the flyer was letting the citizens of Dinuba know what he had done in light of the fact that the citizens would be paying off the heavy financial burden for his actions long into the future.
The picture was his, Gonzales said, but he had no personal knowledge at all as to the origin of the flyer and its contents. He did not give anyone permission to use his likeness for their own purposes, he said.
“I’m not into name calling, finger pointing, or none of that stuff,” Gonzales said with a frown, “and I’m very concerned with the direction this whole thing seems to be heading.”
When contacted for his response to questions concerning the origin of the mysterious flyer, Cervantes readily acknowledged responsibility for the flyer and its contents. The picture of Gonzales, he explained, was on the city’s website and therefore in the public domain and a legitimate tool for his purposes.
The text on the flyer, Cervantes explained, was merely a recounting of Gonzales’ actions that Cervantes knew him to be guilty of. Thus, according to Cervantes, the text should be properly viewed as a confession and apology from Cervantes to the residents of Dinuba, despite the fact that Gonzales had taken no part in the flyer or its contents. Cervantes said that he felt in light of these circumstances that what he had done (to Gonzales, as well as deliberately misleading whoever read the flyer)was completely justifiable under the circumstances.
Mayor Janet Hinesly, winding down her four-year term on the council, is up for reelection in November, as is Gonzales, as his own initial stint on the council faces a termed end, should he survive the current recall effort. Hinesly has served as mayor for the past two years, having been elected to the post by her fellow council members.
She is proud of the council’s careful fiscal stewardship that somehow managed to steer the city through the financial tempest of the recession years and emerge into a slowly strengthening economy. The city, says Hinesly, is its best fiscal shape than at any other time in the past 25 years.
“It is hard for me to understand the accusations that are being thrown around so harshly,” said Hinesly reflectively, “There is simply just no reason for them to be so dissatisfied with the way we have handled things for the city. We’re in much better, sound fiscal shape than so many of the surrounding communities.”
Hinesly has received threatening, anonymous calls at odd hours, with a voice warning her to “watch your back” and “we’re going to run you out of town.”
Hinesly, whose husband, Jim, recently retired as a sheriff’s captain after a long career in the sheriff’s office, said that the two of them had long planned for retirement years spent traveling around and taking life easy in their motor home.
“But this vicious recall, and the threatening phone calls intended to scare me and somehow get me to run…that’s getting my dander up a bit,” she said. “And it’s causing me to think a little deeper, like maybe I don’t want to run, or to let them scare me away.
“I might even give it some more thought and maybe decide to run for reelection,” Hinesly said with a wide smile on her face, her brow furrowed in thought.
Hinesly’s district, the smallest of the three engaged in the recall effort, has only 962 registered voters. The verifiable, valid signatures of 30%, or 289 of those registered voters must be turned in by the deadline.
Mike Smith has 1,539 registered voters and 25%, or 385 valid signatures, must be turned in by the deadline of Jan. 13.
District 4 representative Aldo Gonzales has 1,496 registered voters among his constituents and 25% of their valid signatures, or 374, will need to accompany the petition against him when it is submitted no later than January 13.
The Valley Voice will continue close coverage of the recall election in Dinuba as it continues to unfold in the small, pleasant community on our county’s northern fringe.