EDITORIAL: Ontario council’s silence on Rodriguez controversy speaks volumes

Members of the Ontario City Council must break their silence over Councilor Freddy Rodriguez. They must lead, not dodge. They must show they care about safeguarding the community and its citizens.

Community leadership demands more than showing up for council meetings and reading briefing papers. As public officials, councilors carry the weight of authority, and it’s not just their legal duty. They are expected to exemplify the best of the community – to exhibit integrity, morality and courage in facing sometimes hard choices.

Being a community leader means always acting in the best interests of all. Every citizen should feel councilors represent them. Community leaders must inspire confidence that they are selfless in duty, articulate in decisions and forthright in conduct.

In the Rodriguez instance, councilors have abstained.

They may dismiss the Rodriguez imbroglio as some personal issue of no import to city government. Nonsense. Any issue that riles citizens and disrupts city functioning matters. They may conclude that attending to Rodriguez’s behavior is not their job, that it is a task left to voters. Nonsense again. And they may argue they have limited legal authority to do anything. That’s escapism.

The legal limits are clear. They can’t arbitrarily “fire” Rodriguez from his council seat. They can’t impeach him. Councilors even lack technical authority to take away his title as council president.

But nothing in the city charter or state law or the U.S. Constitution bars each councilor and the mayor from using their political and moral authority, vested in any public official. They can speak, if they want. They are muzzled only by their own fear or excuses.

At a minimum, the council could act for the community to get at the truth of several matters. It could deputize investigators to address those issues swirling around Rodriguez. These include:

Residency. There is the issue about where the councilor lives. He testified under oath that he lives in a travel trailer with his daughter. Another witness said it’s parked outside city limits. Rodriguez has made the claim he went from homeless this year to simultaneously having residences in the country and in the city. Citizens expect councilors to live in town.

Political pressure. The councilor turned directly to Police Chief Steven Romero for help getting back a dog he had given away. Rodriguez may have tried to use his official city position, perhaps indirectly, to get special treatment from the police.

Citizen attack. Rodriguez used his council seat to slander a citizen, making the vile accusation that the individual was a child molester. Rodriguez justified his remark by saying he heard it from a friend. That’s not evidence and he knows that, given his experience with the justice system.

Domestic violence. Rodriguez said an arrest for spousal battery in 2003 in California resulted in a year-long domestic abuse coursework. A 2010 arrest in Idaho for domestic battery led to a 12-week program called “Men’s Healthy Relationship” and dismissal of the charge. A second 2010 arrest in Idaho for domestic battery resulted in a 52-week domestic battery treatment program. And in June 2020, a state judge found Rodriguez was a credible threat to an Ontario woman, restraining the councilor from going near her. The city generally has a duty to confront all domestic violence, a persistent threat for many women in Ontario and Malheur County.

Rodriguez tends to blame others for his troubles, to abdicate responsibility. That’s his weakness. That weakness – abdicating responsibility – shouldn’t be echoed by Ontario councilors.

 They can act. They can each speak up. They can tell the community what they stand for – and what they won’t tolerate. They can act individually and collectively. No legal authority to remove Rodriguez as president? Perhaps. But they have the political authority to speak one by one calling on him to resign the post. Nothing – nothing – prevents that.

They can speak up on behalf of domestic violence victims. They can clearly condemn, not condone, any and all such abuse. Councilors Ken Hart and Michael Braden provided statements to the Enterprise generally doing so – but haven’t spoken directly to the public during council sessions.

They can speak up against abuse of citizens who brave the spotlight and Rodriguez’s wrath by appearing before councilors.

They should go on the record about the potential recall – do they support it or not?

But the strongest signal they can send to the community – and to Rodriguez – is to unite, one by one, for a call for Rodriguez to resign. Nothing – nothing – prevents Mayor Riley Hill or Councilors John Kirby, Eddie Melendrez, Sam Baker, Ken Hart or Michael Braden from doing so.

More is at stake than Rodriguez’s reputation or conduct. Getting citizens involved in local government is a challenge. Getting citizens to have faith in government is essential to progress, stability and popular support. That is all at risk in this moment. The councilors can either rise to meet the moment with courage, or they can let their silence continue to erode community trust and support in Ontario city government. – LZ

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