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Emotions rage during an epic Council meeting

More than five hours into the longest Merced City Council meeting of the year, Mayor Matthew Serratto on Monday night appeared as if he had the weight of the local world on his shoulders.

It was exactly a year ago this week when Serratto was elected to the Merced’s top post with a desire to bring the city together. His rise came along with the success of three newcomers to leadership positions at City Hall who joined two first-term council members. They would become the most diverse City Council the city has ever seen.

Part of the mayor’s role is to set the course of the public meetings, manage the proceedings and try to build consensus on the most pressing issues. And so there sat Mayor Serratto on Monday night, in middle of it all, after two hours of pure public comment on how to spend $27 million in federal relief funding sent to Merced to offset the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic (and that’s on top of two previous public hearings on the subject and a citywide survey that brought in 141 pages of additional comment), and then another hour of debate over whether or not Councilwoman Bertha Perez should be censored for recent behavior in the public sphere.

The mayor looked toward the audience and said, “There’s so much work to do. Right? So much work to do. And there are so many people doing great things, bringing people together. And I see so many of you out there doing that. That’s what we have to focus on. … Look at us [up here on the dais]. We all look different. We are all from different backgrounds. We all have different skin colors, different jobs, this and that. And we disagree on a lot of things. But we all like each other. We all respect each other.”

The mood in the chamber was somewhat different hours earlier as people in the galley prepared to comment on “Item K-1” on the agenda.

Two local business owners, Tim Razzari and Terry Ruscoe, had brought complaints to City Hall about Perez acting inappropriately toward them during separate incidents in September. Razzari’s complaint said his business, Razzari Auto Centers, received a “crass” email from Perez sprinkled with cuss words and attacking the owner’s character. Ruscoe’s complaint said Perez shouted at his employees from her truck, using threatening language as they worked on an affordable housing development in town.

At the start of Monday night’s meeting, Razzari added to his complaint by reading a letter he said was written by a taco truck operator who claimed Perez spoke disparaging about Razzari and said she would “approve nothing” that came her way in regards to him. Razzari then requested that Perez be recused from any City Council matters relating to himself or his business.

Also, a convenience store clerk got up and claimed she had a back-and-forth altercation inside the store with Perez in which she said the councilwoman acted like a bully and put a finger in her face and said: “You should have voted for me.”

Someone else mentioned Perez was recently arrested in the Bay Area during a protest rally. She reportedly was wearing a City of Merced mask.

With public discussion already started on the agenda item that the mayordidn’t even call on yet, and a request from Razzari to have the issue dealt with earlier in the meeting, some residents in the audience cried foul, and some of them eventually brought up the subject of “white privilege.”

Mayor Serratto chose to first discuss the federal relief funding, and that featured hours of public comment, much of it repetitive, on the need to use the $27 million for things like an affordable housing trust fund, premium pay for low-wage essential workers, activities for young people, job training and a “universal basic income program.” In turn, city leaders reiterated their list of funding priorities, including a jobs program, water infrastructure projects, housing programs, a soccer complex in south Merced, the Zoo and Kiddieland, and perhaps some sort of utility bill assistance for homeowners.

During this time, an interesting exchange happened between Councilman Fernando Echevarria and Councilman Delray Shelton.

Echevarria proposed to just cut checks for select young people in the community, so they can spend the federal relief dollars “any damn way they please.”

Shelton, who disagreed with the idea, replied: “Respectfully, we all get a say-so. So that’s your say-so, and the rest of us get a say-so.”

In any case, nothing was decided on.

City Manager Stephanie Dietz took some general direction on the council’s ideas, and the talks are expected to continue into December.

That’s when Councilman Kevin Blake got things rolling with a few words about the Perez situation.

He called it an “unwinnable war” for both sides.

“I think everybody who is tuning in, and who is here, probably wants to see a shit show,” he said.

Then Blake turned to his colleagues and said: “I would encourage you guys not to let that happen.”

Then he turned to Councilwoman Perez and said: “If I were you Bertha, I would apologize.”

And then Blake turned to Razzari and his lawyer sitting in the audience, and said: “If I were you guys, I would accept that apology with open arms, and let’s move on with our lives, and deal with bigger, more important issues with this city.”

Those were Blake’s last words because he left the meeting saying he had some other urgent matters to attend to. Blake is also an officer with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, so that might had something to do with his departure.

However, his words would have a lasting effect, and end up being the course of action taken — after about an additional hour of drama in the chamber, including:

• Councilman Fernando Echevarria almost crying on the dais when recalling the time, just a year ago, when his colleagues voted to censure him for conduct unbecoming of a city official in the public arena.

• Councilwoman Sarah Boyle almost crying on the dais while trying to explain her feelings on the matter.

• Councilman Delray Shelton basically telling residents that Perez was just being Perez. “She has a mind of her own and she can’t be bought,” he said.

• Dozens of Perez supporters defending the councilwoman, some with signs saying “Don’t silence District 3” (That’s the downtown area Perez represents.), and some telling Perez directly from the public podium: “We got your back.”

• Perez apologizing for using “bad words” and saying the incident involving Razzari was a personal matter that could have been dealt with privately if the owner had just talked to her. She also showed images of her truck window that were smashed out at Razzari Auto Centers while the vehicle was being stored there. She said the vehicle was returned to her with broken windows and leaking oil, and that’s what prompted her reaction.

• And finally, Council members voting unanimously to not impose any consequences, such as an official censure, on Perez with regard to the complaints that were made.

Monday night’s City Council meeting went past midnight. There were other issues up for discussion after Item K-1, and some decisions made.

Stay tuned for more to come …

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