Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones had a chance to explain his controversial social media comments on Thursday night — and hoped to ignite a wider conversation in the community through a privately-held town hall forum. He hopes to hold more, and encouraged the audience to host their own and invite him.
Jones told the public that his Facebook comments were taken out of the context of a larger conversation — described as a chess match — but said he was “totally wrong” in the way that he expressed his views.
He had invited Tulare residents and farmers to come to the forum to ask him questions and debate and discuss agriculture in the Central Valley. Approximately eighty to one hundred people attended the forum.
“There’s three things: there’s what was said, who was saying it, and the way it was said,” Jones said. “I was totally wrong in the way I was saying it. I was totally wrong in having a chess match with another dude — I don’t even think we were focusing on the information, we were just taking shots at each other. And the goal was: oh, you took a shot at me, I took a shot at you.
“Now, what was said is what I would love to get an understanding of here today. If I said something that anyone disagrees with, that’s what we can talk about, and explain these concerns. Now — who was saying it, some people have an issue with me saying those things. And that I’ll never apologize for.”
He spoke at the Tulare Senior Center to a gathering of farmers, farmworkers, and community members. Jones invited Xavier Avila, a Land O’ Lakes Board of Directors member — and member of the Tulare Local Healthcare District and Tulare Cemetery District boards — to speak as a counterpoint from the agricultural community.
Jones’ comments, posted on the My Job Depends on Ag Facebook group by Erik Wilson, whom he was having the conversation with.
Wilson is a co-founder of the My Job Depends on Ag group, and his post sparked intense interest in the agricultural community. More than 500 concurrent viewers watched the Voice’s live stream of the forum, and his comments were a focus of the group’s posts since they were originally revealed.
“This isn’t a public event. This is money that I took out of my own pocket to pay for this event. I took off of work because I really wanted to give people an opportunity to hear what my truth is and to answer any of your concerns as your representative,” Jones said.
An emailed RSVP was required to attend the event, but Jones noted that he hadn’t turned away any attendees who emailed him.
“Anyone who sent me an email — I didn’t turn you away, you’re more than welcome. I asked you how many people you wanted to bring,” Jones said. “My only concern is they told me I could only fit so many people in here.”
According to the Tulare Park and Recreation department, the Senior Center can host a maximum capacity of 400 people.
Avila grew up on a dairy farm in Tipton, has worked as a fieldworker, and is a minor partner in a Fresno County dairy, he told the audience.
“I don’t have any issues personally with the mayor. I read all those comments and I understand it’s a private conversation — I’ve had those conversations not too much different than the mayor himself. I’ll admit that,” he said.
He said that Jones, as the “spokesman for the town,” had an outsized impact with his comments, given Tulare’s reputation as an agriculture-focused town.
“I’m not going to judge the mayor on his intent — I don’t know what’s in his heart, and he seems like he as a good heart, but I want to tell him and you that when you say those comments, and when people here ‘ag causes cancer’ — think about the person making ice cream, or making cheese, or the person hauling a load of beef, or the silage truck, or the guy pruning some trees, or the guy hoeing the weeds, or spraying herbicide.
“When he hears a spokesman of the town say that, it hurts. It’s almost like being indicted personally — like my job is causing cancer, like my job is causing pain and suffering and even death,” Avila said. “It doesn’t feel good.”
All human activity involves some level of pollution, but the ag industry is actively looking for ways to reduce its environmental footprint through research and innovation, Avila said.
Jones agreed — stating that improvement could never come “if you say you’re perfect.”
Avila told the crowd that “agriculture is under attack” from “extreme” environmentalists that would like to see agriculture taken out of the Central Valley — and Jones’ comments may have added fuel to the fire
“Probably, the mayor didn’t realize that his comments were almost on the same talking points as those people. Now, I’m not saying he wants to get rid of ag like they do, I’m just trying to tell you what struck the nerve and got this thing blown up — is [that] we are under attack,” he said.
Impact on Tulare
Lionel Pires, the owner of TF Tire & Service — which has locations in Tulare, Visalia, Exeter, and Porterville, amongst others — noted that his clientele told him they would take his business away from Tulare and to his other locations in the wake of Jones’ comments.
“I have two farmers that farm on the west side, and one that farms on the east side of Tulare. They aren’t going to do business in Tulare. They’ve told me that,” Pires said. “They told me that they would go to my other locations. They just won’t come to Tulare.”
Pires noted that he’s not the only one being told that.
“If Sturgeon & Beck doesn’t mind, I’ll make comment about them. They’ve had customers call and say the same thing, that they aren’t going to buy their vehicles in Tulare,” Pires said. “You’re talking 50, 60 thousand dollars in sales tax revenue lost.”
Jones admonished those that would take business away simply because of his comments.
“That’s more of a slap to your face and to their connection to this community. That is such a horrible thing to say or do. I apologize that you guys would even have to go through that,” Jones said. “I wish they would have came here, just to get a better understanding. We have questions on both sides of this argument.”
Pires said that those two examples weren’t isolated cases either — that farmers were organizing, saying they wouldn’t support Tulare through their tax revenue.
“I hope everyone here hears that. Because they disagree with one person or disagree with my conversation, the context of my conversation, and they have every opportunity to come talk to me about that or be here to get a better understanding, as we all are,” Jones said. “The answer isn’t to say, my intent is to show you that you depend on me, and by doing that I’m going to try to destroy you. That’s such a bad way to operate.
“We will survive. I hope people know that we are a beautiful city with beautiful businesses, and if someone wants to leave or not do business with us, then that’s just — what a sad tactic.”
The Ag Perspective
Tony Correia, president of Western Milling in Goshen, told the public that farmers have the most interest in protecting their land and conserving resources, noting that many Central Valley farmers come from a long lineage of agriculturalists.
“There’s nobody that has more of a desire to protect the dirt on which they farm than the farmer himself,” he said. “It’s his livelihood and the legacy of his family, and maybe his future children or grandchildren.”
He added that farmers had no desire to use “one drop more water than the minimum required to produce an optimum crop” — because of the price of water.
Brendan Black, a Tulare Western High School student, also hosts a podcast called “Talk Ag to Me.”
He told Jones that one of the largest issues is “agriculture literacy” — helping the public understand where their food comes from.
“This tends to lead to large logic gaps in arguments,” he said. “You have people saying that farmers are intentionally using pesticides that cause cancer, and it makes no sense to say that farmers are trying to hurt the consumer, when the farmer relies on the consumer for their living.”
A US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance survey found that 72% of consumers know “little to nothing about farming or anything,” he told Jones.
Black interviewed Wilson on his podcast. He told Black that if Jones’ original statements were rephrased, they wouldn’t have been nearly as bad.
“It more should have been phrased in the sense that — yeah, these are the issues agriculture’s facing, but my farmers back in my hometown are the ones trying to fix them,” Black said, to applause from Avila and the crowd.
Jones said what Black saw was a small portion of his larger conversation with Wilson, noting that he defended California farmers by stating that agriculture in the state wasn’t “obliterated”.
“Obliterated means totally gone,” Jones said. “I defended that statement. I get it — they were going after one elected official, and that’s fine, but my defense was don’t throw ag under the bus to go after your one political official.”
“You’re definitely the future of ag,” Jones added.
While Jones has had many detractors since his comments were revealed, multiple Tulare residents spoke up to support and defend him.
One of them was his second grade teacher, Ethel Shaver.
“I came to this meeting because I just found out about it — I’ve been extremely busy this week; but, however, I didn’t come here to go against the mayor, because I think he’s doing a very good job,” she said. “He’s a young man who’s trying to learn some things, and he’s still learning. But he’s on top of his solutions and what he’s trying to do.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to accept you trying to oust out our mayor, because he’s a very, very good man. And you know what — we all are in a learning situation. I support the ag, and I support the mayor,” she said. “He has a right to speak out what he feels. I wouldn’t dare put down the ag, but I have some concerns about the ag as well.”
She said that many in agriculture were doing good things — but that there were some issues, like food waste, that were concerning. Previously during the forum, an attendee had brought up the issue of nearly 40% of food being wasted.
Jones also noted that he had received an email from a beekeeper praising his remarks.
“I am a commercial beekeeper, and you are 100% that ag is killing bees,” Jones said, reading from the email, noting that his comments had said ‘ag is killing bees.’ “They want them to pollinate, but they spray them at will. Keep up the good fight.”
Jones said he told the beekeeper that he was not “going against ag,” but that there were issues that shouldn’t be ignored.
Avila noted that part of that surplus is because government needs to ensure more than enough food is available for all of the country’s citizens and a growing population
“There’s a reason why government is involved in agriculture, and that’s because people need to eat — and the government needs to make sure that there is more than enough food, because when food gets scarce, prices go up,” Avila said. “Wars have been started over food — the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. Wars have literally been started over food.”
He added that he was a hobbyist beekeeper, and that the Tulare County Ag Commissioner went so far as to warn him when fields were being sprayed to ensure that bees were not affected by pesticides.
“There’s a coordinated effort. The fact is, there’s accidents, just like cars get in wrecks,” Avila said. He added that pesticides help save bees from varroa mites, a parasitic mite that can destroy bee colonies.
Jones’ words at the meeting weren’t enough for many of his critics.
Frank Lorenzo, an 83-year old retired farmer, said he’s lived in Tulare for 12 years, before that working 55 years on a family farm six miles west of Tulare.
“After reading and hearing the comments that Mr. Jones made about farmers, my soul is still bleeding. For those reasons, I am asking the City Council, city officials of Tulare, and whomelse it takes to do exactly what I would do if anyone that I had hired made the comments that he made and say anything contradictive to the farmers and the farming community of Tulare,” Lorenzo said. “That would be to fire him immediately and send him down the street, out of the business immediately.”
Lorenzo’s remarks received some applause from the crowd.
Jones said he had to be “more responsive, and less reactive” as a representative, a remark that some in the crowd seized on later.
Heather Warwick Christiansen, a Tulare resident, praised Jones’ efforts to hold the forum, but said Jones has “spoke off the cuff” on many different topics.
“To me, I’m a manager of my store. I am the head of my store. I have to watch what I say and think about what I say before I say it out in the community, on social media, or wherever else. My comment to you is — please think before you say,” she said. “I understand he might have taken a jab at you, but you’re the mayor. You should be above that.”
Art Cabello, a Tulare resident, agreed.
“You, as the mayor, should be the most apologetic — you, as the mayor, should show the most humility, and be humble, and say: ‘hey, look, I made a mistake,’” he said. “‘Now I want to try to fix it through these conversations.’ And I hope the conversations go on and that there’s dialogue.
“But I hope you’re not missing the underlying message. You are the mayor. You are Tulare; and, as that position, you will represent all of us. Doesn’t matter rich, poor, farmer, businessman, whoever. You’re still the representative of this community.”
Avila attempted to bring up comments previously posted by Jones and shared to the My Job Depends on Ag group by Raquel Garcia Joaquin.
“I’m gonna challenge you a little bit — this is not from Erik Wilson, this is from a screenshot taken not quite a year ago from a Raquel Garcia,” Avila said.
Jones stopped him.
“She just left. If they want to — see, you’re doing the let me count the punches that you’ve thrown at people, I’m gonna add them up — if someone wants to comment on something I’ve said, let them do that,” Jones told Avila. “If you have an issue with something I said to you, let’s answer that.”
Recall Efforts Taking Form
On the street near the Tulare Senior Center, multiple men had Recall Carlton Jones signs and handed out stickers.
One of the men, Mike Mezyck, said that he was spurred to action after Jones’ comments.
“We’re a farming community, and being our mayor, he’s supposed to speak for us — and then when he speaks about farmers, which is our community, I’m going to voice my opinion,” Mezyk said.
He added that the town hall was private.
“This is an invite by Carlton himself only — you have to email him personally to get invited to this. People I know emailed and he denied them, so we decided to stand on public property and do our thing,” he said.
There are residents working on a recall petition, he said, but the legalities are still being explored.
“Attorneys are getting involved first right now to make sure everything is on the up and up, and we should be starting by next week,” he said.
He encouraged citizens to vote.