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Echevarria remains defiant, vows to continue as city leader despite official censure, calls for him to resign

‘I’m not going to resign,’ he tells colleagues on Merced City Council

I’m not going to resign. I represent south District 2, and we are a tough group of people.
We have been through a lot of hardships. I am District 2. If nobody likes it, I don’t care.
I really don’t care. And for the UC students, who are acting like a lot of brats,
I don’t even care about that. I represent District 2.
I’ve done many things for District 2, and I’m going to do more.

Fernando Echevarria,
District 2 representative
on the Merced City Council

 

In an astonishing City Council meeting marked by forceful statements and sometimes confusing assertions, Merced leaders on Monday night made a rare move by deciding to censure one of their own: District 2 representative Fernando Echevarria. 

The motion passed 6-1, with Echevarria voting No. 

But even before the vote, Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Serratto and Council member Anthony Martinez told Echevarria that he should resign. Other council members were less direct, but suggested they agreed with the sentiment. And there were several residents who spoke up as well and called for the embattled leader to step down.

In response to all, Echevarria declared: “I’m not going to resign. I represent south District 2, and we are a tough group of people. We have been through a lot of hardships. I am District 2. If nobody likes it, I don’t care. I really don’t care. And for the UC students, who are acting like a lot of brats, I don’t even care about that. I represent District 2. I’ve done many things for District 2, and I’m going to do more.”

City leaders began to take action against Echevarria earlier this month after witnessing unsettling behavior at a June 1 public meeting and during a June 7 protest rally over police use of force and the death of George Floyd. At the latter event, Echevarria was caught on camera demonstrating a police chokehold while repeating Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe.” He was attempting to denounce the dangerous physical restraint, but many observers said the scene was upsetting. The councilman ended up in a shouting match with residents before storming away from the gathering. Later, he reportedly sent some disturbing emails to residents who decried his actions, and at least one email was laced with an allegation against Mayor Mike Murphy, claiming Murphy has created a hostile work environment at City Hall and faced a harassment charge from a city staff member. The charge remains unsubstantiated; however, Echevarria brought it up again on Monday night.

The approved censure proclamation means the City Council’s voice of disapproval is forever in the public record, and Echevarria is removed from all committee assignments for violating the council’s code of conduct.

Monday’s meeting was also the first Echevarria attended since June 1. If he had not shown up on Monday, his fellow council members had indicated that they would have forced him out of his seat for breaking attendance rules. 

The little bit of precious time that we have, we could be spending that doing something productive, and coming up with productive ideas. But instead we are dealing with this.

Matthew Serratto,
Mayor Pro Temp

“Frankly, you are making it about a thousand times harder for us,” Serratto told Echevarria on Monday night. “At this point, you are only thinking about yourself. You have to think about your team as well. And you have to think about the city. With the amount of time we spent with the issues that you have caused, we could have been working [for the city] … We do this because we love this city. We do this because we want to benefit the people. … The little bit of precious time that we have, we could be spending that doing something productive, and coming up with productive ideas. But instead we are dealing with this. You are not just hurting yourself, but you are hurting all of us, and you are hurting the city acting this way.”

Said Martinez, “I’ve tried to bite my tongue. And I’ve tried to reach out. And I’ve tried to give advice. And I’ve tried to help. We are all grown men. We can make our own decisions. And nobody can tell anyone else what to do. Everybody has to make their choice. If the contrary route is to be taken, other than what I asked, OK fine, fair enough. But it’s like every time you try to say something council member, you just blow it. … If you want to defend your actions, or apologize, or whatever, please do that. If you are going to try and descend into something else, it’s just not going to work. … I think it’s gotten to a point where you need to resign, otherwise you are not going to be really effective.”

Monday night’s meeting promised drama from the start, and sure enough, Echevarria appeared on the dais moments before the start of proceedings. Muttered words of controversy soon began to spread as members of the audience noticed that Echevarria was not wearing a protective face mask while all the council members were wearing face coverings, as was everyone else in the chamber. Echevarria could be heard stating that wearing a mask was not mandated, and he didn’t care for wearing one. The mayor countered that indeed mask wearing was a state directive and part of the rules for the city meeting. Nevertheless, Echevarria did not put a mask on until well into the meeting — right after a 10-minute break called by the mayor in an effort to reset a meeting that appeared to be spiraling out of control.

You are being so immature and it really shows.
Not even trying to wear a mask is a clear reminder that you do not care about our community.

(Public comment made during the meeting)

Many of the residents who showed up appeared to be young adults, several among them having spoke up and criticized Echevarria before at recent meetings and rallies. While Echevarria did call out UC Merced students as being in attendance, no one who spoke identified themselves as such.

“You are being so immature and it really shows,” one young woman said. “Not even trying to wear a mask is a clear reminder that you do not care about our community.”

Gabriela Spiva, a member of the group Merced People of Color, told Echevarria: “You have not only disgraced your name, you have disgraced the ‘Latinx’ name. When we have one good leader who is vocal and stands up for us, it takes us forward a step. But when we have one bad leader like you it takes us 500 feet behind.” 

An older gentleman dressed in a suit, identified by the city clerk as Steven Graham, calmly addressed the Echevarria: “You have hurt a lot of people. I’m going to ask you to take this as a teachable moment.  Hear the pain in the crowd. … I’m asking you to take a moment and consider the hurt that many of these people are feeling and make a proper apology.”

When council discussion turned to the censure issue, and Echevarria was given a chance to speak, he made no apology except to Council member Jill McLeod for something that sounded like a personal matter, but neither Echevarria nor McLeod offered an explanation regarding the apology.

Then Echevarria appeared to double down on his own feelings, and renewed his attack on the mayor.

“This is something a lot of the public doesn’t understand as well,” he said. “There are a lot of issues Mike has brought up before I got the seat. … He intimidated me.”

Echevarria turned to Murphy and started demanding he answer questions to which Murphy replied, “This is not an inquisition … You are not running the meeting.”

Echevarria pressed on, asking: “Was there any allegations of you creating a hostile work environment that was swept under the rug with taxpayer money, and coming into the closed session and being part of that closed session, on your on disciplinary actions, and trying to hide them? … Did you use public money to sweep these allegations under the rug?”

Murphy replied, “We have gone through this in the newspaper … We are not gong to rehash this here. You are trying to deflect.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Echevarria fired back. “Tonight I’m going to sign the complaint, and it’s going to litigation. Now you are going to have millions and millions of dollars that are going to be used to defend your actions when you use public money to sweep the allegations under the rug. … I stand by the allegations, and you are the liar.”

 

How the trouble started

Councilman Echevarria’s trouble began at the June 1 council meeting after he criticized public comments about city leadership, including those of an outspoken local homeless woman named Monica Villa, who also happens to be running for the second time to become mayor of Merced.

That night, Villa had actually made comments in support of her former rival Mayor Murphy. Later on, however, Echevarria spoke out in a fiery defense of the city manager who was being called out by the mayor for not reporting actions taken during the first months of the pandemic. His words quickly turned into a diatribe directed toward the members of the audience and Villa who had criticized what they were seeing from leaders.

“If you continue Monica, I’m going to ask you to leave,” Echevarria said loudly. “This has angered me. And I’m not going to tolerate the public because they are angry that they are homeless. They are angry they don’t have money in their pocket. I’m not going to have them come up here and have us as a punching bag. We are here to make policy, not to take direct hits.”

Some of the residents at the meeting later admonished Echevarria for his statements, saying they were offensive and threatening.

And that was the start of a series of events that has led to the censure action.

Less than a week later, during an informal town hall meeting outside the Merced Courthouse Museum to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and police use of force, Echevarria was filmed on the cellphones of many onlookers as he demonstrated a “carotid control hold” in an attempt to show the potential harm that can be done if police were to use it on a person in custody. However, the display didn’t go well with those watching, especially when the leader started to say “I can’t breathe” over and over just like Floyd did before his death. After Echevarria was called out for his behavior, he exchanged heated words with protesters before abruptly walking away.

Later, through social media, emails and public meetings, residents demanded that Echevarria resign. While Echevarria failed to show up at the last two City Council meetings, he did email various constituents, and those exchanges appear to have put him in further hot water. Some of the emails have been highly critical of Mayor Murphy, and in at least one, Echevarria said the mayor had created a hostile work environment, and a claim of sexual harassment has been made against the mayor by a city staff member. There is no evidence of any truth to such claims, and the city manager and the rest of the City Council have said the statements were completely false. Murphy has vehemently denied them as well.

Councilman Echevarria was elected to the District 2 seat on the Merced City Council in 2018. It was a historic election in the fact that it was the first-ever district election for an area representing southwest Merced. This came about after two years of negotiations, public meetings, and even threats of lawsuits to change Merced’s electoral process from “at large” elections to district elections.

Despite all the previous hard work for district elections, only one candidate — Echevarria — collected paperwork, filed on time, and made it onto the ballot for the District 2 seat in 2018. There was a write-in candidate, Ronnie DeAnda, who had an organized campaign effort, but it was late getting started, and his name was not on the ballot. Echevarria ended up winning the election by a wide margin.

Echevarria has more than two years remaining on his term which goes through 2022. Some residents have mentioned the possibility of a recall election, and that would require signature gathering and other requirements for a special election for District 2 residents. The recall process could take months of organization if there was enough interest to carry it out.

Mayor Murphy: ‘We are all going to have an opportunity to speak. It’s not a time to call out from the crowd, or to shout out to the crowd. … That’s the format.’
‘Our community means nothing to you,’ a resident says to Councilman Fernando Echevarria.
Gabriela Spiva, a member of the group Merced People of Color, told Echevarria: ‘You have not only disgraced your name, you have disgraced the ‘Latinx’ name. When we have one good leader who is vocal and stands up for us, it takes us forward a step. But when we have one bad leader like you it takes us 500 feet behind.’
‘When I see people like him, why should the people behind me follow the directions of what our city is telling us to do?’
A member of the audience at the Merced City Council meeting on Monday night shows a city warning sign that was posted to make people aware that face masks were required. She asked why City Councilman Fernando Echevarria wasn’t wearing a mask at the time.
Merced City Councilman Fernando Echevarria points at Merced Mayor Mike Murphy as he calls the city’s top leader ‘a liar’ during a meeting at City Hall on Monday.
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