Merced City Councilman Jesse Ornelas is looking forward to spending time with his family this week.
He has three children under the age of 12, and they are all off from school for the Thanksgiving holiday break.
“I want to focus on my family,” he says. “My youngest turned 8. … I have really enjoyed being a public servant, but I have to prioritize it with other things.”
The 48-year-old Ornelas brings up the topic of loved ones because he wanted the Times to know his kids are one of the main reasons he’s not going to seek re-election for a second term in next year’s election.
There will be four City Council seats, including the mayor’s, on the ballot in November of 2024, and already we know the makeup of the current council is going to change.
“I’m announcing it early,” Ornelas says, “so that if people are interested, they can start getting papers together, or plan fundraising. I wanted to give people in my community an opportunity to prepare.”
There’s already one candidate vying for the District 1 seat that Ornelas holds, according to recent social media posts, and that’s a young local attorney named Darin Dupont. Ornelas doesn’t know of any other potential candidate, but he expects there will be.
There are other personal issues Ornelas considered before making his decision. He was promoted at work recently, and he says his new role is expected to take a lot of time and energy to do the job effectively. Ornelas is now the regional director of programming for the statewide Leadership Institute. He finds the job rewarding because he helps at-risk youth overcome adversity through programs at places like Juvenile Hall, schools, and education centers.
“Being on the City Council has been a lot of hard work too, but it’s also been fun, and I think we have accomplished a lot of things,” he says. “The City of Merced is in a different place than where it was three years ago. … On one hand it’s exciting. On the other hand, it’s worrisome. I’m concerned that in 10 to 15 years from now, the city of Merced that we have all grown to love for generations, is not going to look the same due to developments that are going on, UC Merced, combined with a lack of economic opportunities for local families. I worry about growth that will end up pushing out families who have been here for generations.”
So far, the councilman says, he is most proud of the Local Housing Trust Fund the city created earlier this year to address issues of affordability for the local population. He’s also glad the city worked out an inclusionary zoning policy this year that includes a set percentage of affordable housing units for many new development areas.
“Another thing I’m really proud of,” he points out, “I was able to get the City Council to send a letter to the state attorney general that asked for an investigation into the Merced Police Department. … Has there been an investigation? No there hasn’t. Do I know if they will investigate? I don’t know. I don’t care whether they do or not, because I think that letter did its job. It started changing the culture of the Police Department. And changes were made. Things are happening. I believe the Police Department is in a better place than it was three years ago.”
It’s no secret Ornelas is unafraid to scrutinize local public safety issues, reports and agenda items as they come before the council for review or decisions. But he feels some people in the community have misjudged him because of that.
“You know my goal has always been to have a healthy department that serves the community in a way that residents deserve. I’ve never pushed back on law enforcement, and told them to not do their jobs. Don’t arrest people. I’ve never gotten in the way of them making arrests. I think of the homicides they had last year, and they successfully solved all of them. I don’t get in the way of all of that. But I’m more concerned with the culture of this department.”
He believes his views on the renewal of Measure C — the public safety tax initiative — have also been taken the wrong way in the past.
“In the last election cycle, it was never about stopping Measure C,” he says. “It was about including an affordable housing component to it, or a housing policy that would show up on the ballot. When the new council started, we were already talking about how we were going to make this happen. Then the community committee started, and I think they sort of jumped the gun a little bit. …. But let the voters vote. Whatever is, is going to be. … All I know is that, if so many tax dollars are going to law enforcement, I want to see some prevention going on, especially when it comes to guns getting into the hands of young people. I want more bang for our buck, so to speak. We need results.”
Ornelas has never seemed afraid to speak up to fellow leaders on the council and in the community when he disagrees with something, or just simply be himself despite customary norms. He’s drawn some quiet ire in certain circles for appearing like he doesn’t participate in the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every regular meeting.
He says he’s only been asked once about it though — by the Times.
His reply: “I’m not doing it out of protest, or any political stance, or any kind of political drama. And I don’t want to get in the way of people who do value that moment. I also have family members who have served in the military. So I always stand. But I think [the flag salute] is disrespectful to my ancestors who were victims of genocide as a result of American colonization. Because of the blood that pumps through my body, for me to pledge allegiance to the flag that the murderers of my ancestors waved — it’s disrespectful.”
Ornelas feels he’s come a long way from being a “Juvie kid” from a poor rural area, and an incarcerated adult himself. “This January, it will be 15 years since I have put any mind-altering substance in my body. I’ve been drug and alcohol free.”
In the same time period he also earned a university degree and won a top city election. He says he has grown in his time on the council.
“I’ve learned the most about housing issues from my opposition. They have given me an opportunity to learn from them on how development works in the inner city and throughout the state. I’m grateful for that opportunity, and I’m grateful for their push back. They’ve allowed me to change my stance at times, and be more understanding. I can’t always push the hard line just because I want to, right? We have to think what’s best for the city as a whole. … I think I have more empathy now. I’m trying to be more open-minded about other people’s points of view. I have grown to appreciate all the work the city staff does.”
In the coming year, Ornelas hopes to focus on solutions to violence in the community and making Merced a more affordable place to live.
“There’s only two ways to do that,” he says. “Establish some type of rent control, or create some policies that will boost economic development.”
He adds, “We have an industrial park study in south Merced, and I support the idea of developing a site. We have a generation of people who are in need of careers to support their families. If we don’t do it, then another community will. And everybody says we want tax dollars for this, and tax dollars for that, but that stuff doesn’t come out of thin air. I want the City of Merced to be able to cash in. People are concerned about the environmental impact, and so am I, but I feel we have enough oversight and regulations. I’m OK with it.”
As for after the 2024 election, Ornelas says he wants to continue to be an ambassador for Merced. He also promises to be an ally to whoever does get elected to the District 1 seat, “no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, and especially in some of the communities they may not have access to.”
He also will be looking after his family including, his partner, Bernadette, and kids: Caresse, 28; Layla, 22; Alizah, 20; Alonna, 11; Adrian, 10; and Jesse, 8. Oh, and there’s a grandson, Jayel, 2; and another grandchild on the way.
Ornelas adds, “I’’ll be back. I will definitely run for office again but I’m going to sit out this election. I want my little ones to all be in high school. I want my life to be a little more settled. I’m not done. Right now I just have to prioritize things.”