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Merced city leader faces censure over behavior at protest event, disturbing emails

“At the end of the day, we are all human and we certainly make mistakes.
I wish he [Echevarria] was here to apologize. I think we need to, as a council,
let him know we don’t agree. It does reflect on the city and all of us.”

Kevin Blake,
Merced City Council member

Merced City Councilman Fernando Echevarria is facing censure by his fellow leaders for what they describe as unsettling behavior at a recent public meeting and a protest rally over police use of force, along with a few disturbing emails sent to residents, and at least one laced with allegations against the mayor.

 

During a special meeting on Monday night, the council voted 6-0 in favor of moving forward with a censure resolution that will be drafted in the coming days and presented at a meeting on July 20. Echevarria was not in attendance for the decision on Monday, nor was he present at the last council meeting on June 15.

City officials also said Echevarria could face possible removal from office if he fails to show up to scheduled meetings through the month of July. His next chance to show up and face his colleagues and the public is this coming Monday — the first council meeting of July.

Echevarria has previously said that he did not attend the June 15 council meeting because he feared further unrest. He was reportedly consulting with a lawyer before Monday night’s meeting.

The councilman’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, Echevarriaspoke 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.

On Monday night, several residents spoke out and again demanded that Echevarria resign and that the council should take immediate action to sideline the leader.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton explained to those in attendance that since Echevarria was an elected leader, his fellow council members were limited in what actions they could take directly against his leadership position. Censure was considered the best step forward. Council members were also informed they could vote to remove Echevarria’s committee assignments. They later agreed to put that on the table for the July 20 meeting as well. Attendance could come into play considering Echevarria’s recent absences. If he misses consecutive meetings over a two month period, his colleagues could vote to remove him from office, according to the City Charter.

Councilman Matt Serratto pointed out five sections of the City Council’s “Code of Conduct and Values” statement that supported the censure move. They include topics such as conduct at public meetings, the handling of confidential information, and creating a positive workplace environment for city employees, citizens and businesses working with the city.

The city attorney confirmed that the examples Serratto presented could be included in a censure resolution that “would be sufficient to take action by the council if you so choose.”

Said Councilman Kevin Blake, “At the end of the day, we are all human and we certainly make mistakes. I wish he [Echevarria] was here to apologize. I think we need to, as a council, let him know we don’t agree. It does reflect on the city and all of us.”

Said Councilman Serratto, “I support Fernando and want him to be successful, but part of supporting him and wanting him to be successful is holding him accountable and making sure his behavior reaches the high standard that we all value.”

Said Councilman Anthony Martinez, “It seems like he keeps doubling down on — I don’t even know what to call it. Unwise statements I guess. I would say foolish things. It’s a shame things have to occur like this, but it’s time action does need to occur.”

During public comment on Monday night, among the more moderate words spoken in regard to Councilman Echevarria and his actions were those of Jesse Ornelas, a local youth mentor and Latino community activist.

“I was really hoping Fernando would be here, and he would take this opportunity to admit wrongs and to dedicate to doing better, and getting back on line,” Ornelas said. “We make mistakes. Even if we are in positions of power, we can mess up. … You just dust yourself off, and you keep trying, and you try to do better. The restorativeness in me was hoping for that so I’m really disappointed that he chose not to be here. I was disappointed that his behavior only escalated after the last City Council meeting when the community spoke out and wanted his resignation. I’m disappointed in him period. … I know himself and some other folks in town think its really important that we have ‘Latinx’ leaders up on the City Council. I agree we need political representation, but we also need the right political representation. Just because they look like me doesn’t mean they have my people’s best interest …”

(Latinx is a “gender neutral” term often used in lieu of Latino or Latina that refers to individuals with cultural ties to Latin America and individuals with Latin American descent.)

Ornelas continued: “I’m going to urge the people of District 2 to start gathering petitions. If people from District 2 don’t want him, it’s time to do the footwork. We had a candidate that was very capable of doing his job and who was less problematic and he is sitting in the office. And there is more people in the community that has already thrown their name in the hat. That seat will be filled. And it’s not really that hard to get it done.”

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 his name was not on the ballot. Echevarria ended up winning the election by a wide margin.

Interestingly, the “under-contested” District 2 race in 2018 was foretold, in a way, a few years before by then City Councilman Michael Belluomini who warned against creating six representative council districts across the city (two in the south, two in the middle and two in the north) because it would increase the probability that only one candidate would run for a particular district. Belluomini, who is a candidate for mayor this year, argued for only three districts in the northern, central and southern areas of the city.

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