Merriam-Webster defines consecutive as “following one after the other in order” and it defines absence as “a state or condition in which something expected, wanted or looked for is not present or does not exist.” Simple concepts warranting simple definitions, right?
Not so simple, though, for the city of Salinas, where Mayor Joe Gunter has asked City Attorney Chris Callihan to examine the legal ramifications of those words in the city charter, and whether or not they apply to an elected official who isn’t planning on seeking a second term in office and whose track record of showing up for meetings has, as of late, become spotty.
According to the charter, any councilmember who is absent from three consecutive regular meetings automatically forfeits their seat unless the absence results from city business or illness. And according to data collected by City Clerk Patty Barajas, District 6 Councilmember John “Tony” Villegas missed five meetings in 2019, was late to three others (one by almost two hours) and also missed the first meeting of 2020 (although city officials say he was present for the last 20 minutes of a closed-session portion of that meeting). By comparison, District 1 Councilmember Scott Davis missed one meeting in 2019; District 2 Councilmember Tony Barrera and Gunter, the mayor, missed no meetings; District 3 Councilmember Steve McShane and District 4 Councilmember Gloria De La Rosa missed two meetings each; and District 5 Councilmember Christie Cromeenes missed five meetings – she spent a portion of the year undergoing treatment for cancer.
The need to define consecutive, Gunter says, comes because when the city charter was created, the council met weekly. Now it meets every other week. As for the need to define absence, the city is trying to determine whether being significantly late to meetings constitutes absence.
Here’s why it matters: If the city is trying to pass an ordinance, it needs a full council to do so, otherwise that business gets punted to the next meeting. And as 2020 gets underway, Salinas will be dealing with negotiations with its bargaining groups and also has its midyear budget review coming up.
“I’ve had several constituents say ‘He doesn’t call us back,’” Gunter says. “They don’t feel there’s anyone representing them because they see an empty chair.”
Life interrupts. Changes in jobs cause changes in schedules and availability. But his fellow councilmembers say Villegas’ absences, resulting from a job change that now places him outside Monterey County, aren’t just being noted by them, but by constituents as well – and they’re making their displeasure known.
Davis says in the past year he’s been contacted “no less than 20 times” via social media, email, phone and in person.
“The residents who live in the Creekbridge area are frustrated and aggravated about the lack of representation they’re seeing and they’re lashing out at other councilmembers,” Davis says. “I’m doing my best to address issues, but when a councilmember has abdicated their responsibility, it makes it harder on everyone else.
“I get [that] things come up,” Davis adds, “but when it’s negatively impacting an obligation you have voluntarily taken on, you need to step down. We owe it to the people who elected us to represent them as best we can.”
If the city determines Villegas can be removed from office, it will be up to the council to appoint a replacement. His term ends in November; candidates can begin to file papers to run for the seat in July.
Villegas sent a statement saying, “The city charter is very clear on absenteeism; three consecutive missed meetings. If you need more information, you can speak with the city attorney, Chris Callahan. I have nothing else to add other than if you or the Weekly are doing a story on me, I'm sure it'll be slanted and biased.”
Council isn’t the only city body where absenteeism has become a problem. The oversight committee for Measure G – the 1-cent sales tax to fund general services – was supposed to meet three times in 2019; one meeting was cancelled due to lack of a quorum. The oversight committee for Measure E – another sales tax – was supposed to meet three times in 2019; it met just once because of lack of a quorum.
“They all got a lecture,” Gunter says. “Outside eyes are really important and I want someone in there to make sure we’re doing the right thing with the public’s money.”