The appointment on June 3 of political neophyte Amanda Saltray to the Hanford City Council generated positive buzz about the infusion of new blood into the council and having a majority of women on the board.
But the honeymoon was short lived as accusations of impropriety swirled around the city council’s selection process.
Three independent sources contacted the Valley Voice hours after Saltray’s appointment to express their belief that her selection had been decided before the interviewing process even started.
The final vote was 3-2 with Mayor Francisco Ramirez and Council members Kalish Morrow and Art Brieno voting for Saltray to replace retiring Vice Mayor John Drazler. Council Members Dianne Sharp and Draxler voted for Travis Paden.
Draxler announced his retirement at the council’s April 20 meeting but wanted to be involved in choosing his replacement. From the original group of 11 applicants, the council reduced the number to four finalists who were interviewed at a special meeting on June 3.
The finalists were Kings Gun Center owner Todd Cotta, Planning Commission member Travis Paden, Coalinga Fire Captain Ruben Veliz and homemaker Amanda Saltray.
Immediately after the June 3 special meeting to select the replacement for Draxler, Candidate Todd Cotta expressed his bewilderment over how someone with so little experience as Saltray could be chosen to serve the city. Cotta, with 12 years experience serving on a public board, owner of a successful private business and 16 years as a deputy sheriff, was hoping his extensive resume would count more towards his candidacy for the seat.
Cotta was suspicious there was more than met the eye during the interviewing process.
“I have been contacted by officials in Hanford that said the outcome was predetermined,” said Cotta.
Jim Carpenter, a former Hanford teacher, told the Voice that after Council Member Kalish Morrow came to his house (they are neighbors) to discuss the pickleball controversy he felt the outcome was predetermined.
“I think it was already decided before the interviews,” said Carpenter. Carpenter added that Saltray worked on Morrow’s campaign for the city council.
A third person involved in the selection process who requested the Valley Voice not print his name said he knows for a fact the outcome was predetermined.
“I witnessed first-hand after the June 1 meeting … Amanda Saltray entering the council chambers to practice at the podium. At that time Mayor Ramirez, council members Morrow and Brieno approached Amanda asking, ‘are you ready for Thursday.’ Referring to her interview and continuing to chat. … It is my thought the three council members had their minds made up.”
Saltray confirmed that she did in fact work on Morrow’s campaign but that’s where their stories diverge.
“Are you kidding me?” was Saltray’s reaction when questioned about possibly being coached by Ramirez, Brieno and Morrow.
Saltray said that after the June 1 meeting was adjourned she went up to the podium and said something like, “Thank you for coming,” just as a joke. A large part of the meeting had been spent arguing about pickleball and Saltray wanted to defuse some of the tension.
Saltray said that after the meeting all the city council members walked towards the podium on their way out of the building along with members of the public and one of the other four finalists.
“I went up to the podium as a joke to lighten the mood,” she said. “I like to lighten the mood.”
Ramirez’ top two choices to represent District A were Paden and Saltray. Before the meeting, he was leaning towards Paden because of his overall experience with government. During council comments after the finalists had finished their interviews Ramirez revealed he was struggling with his decision.
“I wish we had two seats,” he said. “But I have to go with my heart and my heart has never been wrong. I don’t want someone who is polished because when you have someone who is polished, for me, you have to think outside that box.”
Ramirez said what ultimately drew him to vote for Saltray was, “how she talked about issues regarding kids, issues regarding the park, issues regarding the simple things.”
When asked if the selection was predetermined Ramirez said, “That is absolutely not true.”
Not surprisingly, the three council members that are accused of colluding to vote for Saltray were the three who voted for her to replace Draxler.
After the interviews were done council members were encouraged to nominate their choice to replace Draxler and give a few reasons. Sharp and Draxler outlined their reasons for voting for Paden and Ramirez was very specific why he was voting for Saltray and encouraged Paden to run for office in the November 2022 election.
Morrow gave no specific reason for supporting Saltray, and Brieno, though given several opportunities to speak, declined to nominate anyone nor comment.
Though Ramirez commented when nominating Saltray that she blew some of the questions and may not have the most experience, all of the applicants at one time during their interview gave incorrect responses or flatly said they weren’t prepared to answer a question.
And though Saltray was portrayed as a homemaker, she indicated that being a stay-at-home mom was a recent change in her life due to COVID. During her interview she said she had worked since she was 13 starting at the bottom and always working her way up. Her professional qualifications include accounting, balancing budgets, leadership and customer service.
“I have both served and led, and I do well in both,” she said.
Saltray said her first foray into politics was when the city rezoned the undeveloped 18 acres of Hidden Valley Park to residential. Saltray feels that Hanford needs more parks, not less, and started coming to city council meetings and talking to the community.
She said she discovered through the process that, “I have a voice.”
Past Allegations of Fraud
Either by coincidence or a coordinated effort to discredit Morrow, Brieno and Ramirez, the same three council members were implicated in a case of alleged fraud in 2020.
A complaint filed with the State Department of Justice said, “On July 7, 2020 and July 8, 2020, we allege City of Hanford Mayor Francisco Ramirez and City of Hanford Councilman Art Brieno demanded and received bribes of $400 each from Hanford resident and businessman Richard Aguilar. …” Marrow was also named in the complaint.
Details of the State Department of Justice complaint were reported by Mark Pratter in the Hanford-Lemoore Future earlier this year.
The two accusations of fraud are independent of each other. The three Hanford residents accusing Morrow, Brieno and Ramirez of colluding in the selection of Saltray are not the same individuals who filed the State Department of Justice complaint.
Also of note is the fact the three people making the accusation that the selection of Saltray was predetermined did not know each other and approached the Valley Voice independently, making the likelihood of a conspiracy against the three council members unlikely.
The State Department has not indicated when or if they will start an investigation into the complaint and as of now, Morrow, Brieno and Ramirez have not been proven guilty of any wrongdoing, including collusion or fraud.
According to the Hanford-Lemoore Future, a source close to the State Department complaint said that a Kings County Grand Jury report based on the State Department complaint will be released soon.