Councilor Freddy Rodriguez reads a prepared statement responding to an ongoing protest by former councilor Marty Justus during a recent meeting of the Ontario City Council. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
ONTARIO – A petition to recall Freddy Rodriguez from his position as Ontario city councilor has collected the majority of the 494 signatures needed to bring the matter to a public vote.
Cydney Cooke of Ontario, the chief petitioner, said that as of Friday, April 29, only 100 signatures were needed for the petition to reach its initial goal.
“We really want to get closer to 600 signatures,” said Marty Justus, a former city councilor who has been involved with the recall effort.
He explained that some of the signatures are likely to be thrown out by the county clerk as invalid, such as a voter not living in Ontario city limits.
He said City Recorder Tori Barnett wants the group to turn in signatures once they reach 494 to start the verification process.
Cooke started the petition in March. She said she began “alone” with some fear after allegations were made in state court that Rodriguez had abused a local woman. A judge later ruled the woman hadn’t proven the abuse. Rodriguez remains under a second restraining order dating from June 2020.
“As a survivor of sexual assault I take these allegations seriously,” said Cooke. “The first time this was reported I reverted back to old ways, scared of what might happen, since knowing the individual. I was quiet and I stood back. This time I took action. I was petrified, but the amount of support being received from everywhere is refreshing and it’s energizing.”
Several businesses in Ontario have agreed to make the petition available for customers to sign, including Oregon Trail Hobbies & Gifts, Romio’s Pizza and Pasta, Blessed Home Solutions, and Care-O-Sell Consignment.
“We’ve had a ton of people coming in here to sign the petition, just to sign the petition,” said Tamara Carrell, manager at Romio’s. “Obviously it’s a good thing for us to have it here because we’re open seven days a week, so it makes it easier for people to come in and sign.”
But just up the street, at Care-O-Sell, the petition has been less of a draw.
“We actually only have one signature,” said Chris Kodama, the store’s owner. “We have a lot of Idaho people, and they can’t sign.”
For a signature on the petition to be accepted, the signer must be a registered voter living within the city limits of Ontario.
Carrell and Kodama said that they hadn’t received any negative feedback from customers regarding the petition.
Carrell said she’d been willing to take the risk of carrying the petition out of loyalty to Justus, a longtime friend who Rodriguez has accused, without evidence, of being a child molester.
During the last several Ontario city council meetings, Justus has appeared during the council’s public comment portion to voice his animosity towards Rodriguez. On April 20, he provoked an extraordinary confrontation when he handed each councilor a washcloth and told them it was “to wipe the brown off your nose.”
“You all should be ashamed of yourselves for letting that man say what he said about me from that seat,” said Justus. “And I’m going to be here and I’m going to make sure you hear from me on a regular basis. Because what you’ve allowed him to do, I’m going to do back to you.”
Rodriguez responded angrily, stepping to the lectern and repeating his assertions that Justus is a child molester and calling him an “abuser” and “chomo” from the dais.
The following week, on April 27, Justus appeared at the city council meeting with a series of signs that accused Ontario Mayor Riley Hill of “groping a female patron” at the Elks Lodge. “Birds of a feather fly together,” read a subsequent sign, referencing Hill’s support for Rodriguez.
“I’m not going to let somebody sit from the dais and call me a molester,” said Justus in an interview with the Enterprise. “I told (city council) last week that they were going to get exactly what they’ve given, and they’re getting it.”
Hill did not return a request for comment, and other councilors sat silent during the proceedings related to Rodriguez.
The drama around Rodriguez and the recall effort has not been confined to council meetings. On Rodriguez’s councilman Facebook page, he accused the petitioners of mail fraud – a federal crime – after 3,830 fliers were delivered by the US Postal Service without a stamp.
The fliers depict two children holding signs that say “I look up to my leaders” in English and Spanish below the legend, “‘Teach me better’ Recall Freddy Rodriguez ‘We are begging you.’” At the bottom, it says “Bullying is not leadership. Stand up, Ontario!” and includes details on where to sign the recall petition.
However, Cooke said that unnamed community donors had provided the graphic design and postage for the mailing, providing the Enterprise receipts that showed the cost of the mailing, $735.36.
Rodriguez said on his Facebook page that he had contacted Ontario City Manager Adam Brown about the mailing.
“I don’t have any involvement in that, but sounds like if you went to the post office, it’s nothing to do with me,” Brown told the Enterprise. “Both (sides have) kind of come to me, and (the petitioner) was worried that there might be something wrong with (the mailing), but I don’t think there is, not that I know of.”
Cooke said that one of the primary obstacles in gathering signatures for the petition has been Ontario residents’ fear of retaliation from Rodriguez.
“That approach of saying how aggressive (Rodriguez) is and how he loses his temper easily has a lot of people just terrified to sign because of that,” she said. As such, now “the whole imagery and everything has changed to make it more digestible.”
Rodriguez disputed that.
“To the claims of fear of retaliation, I say are completely unfounded as there is zero record or claims of proven harassment, abuse, retaliation or bullying coming from me,” he said in a statement to the Enterprise.
Another drama that originated with a Facebook post was the public clash between Rodriguez and Serve Day organizers. Serve Day is a day of service in Ontario when volunteers complete community-based projects.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Rodriguez accused organizers of removing volunteers “from last year leaving multiple projects aimed at low-income on the table.”
Tammy Vogt, Serve Day director, said that claim was false.
“Community Serve Day in no way discriminates people or neighborhoods. Our record of 13 years of service in this valley are irrefutable and speak for themselves,” Vogt said.
In a letter to the city council on April 13, the Better Together Board that manages Serve Day noted that years of partnership between the group and the city “make a difference” in Ontario.
“That is why it is so disappointing to see a city councilman make such a negative post about our organization,” said the letter, released to the Enterprise by the city.
The letter explained that all projects were canceled last year because of the pandemic.
“We do ask, at the council level, Mr. Rodriguez be held accountable for his words and encouraged to show greater respect for our partnership.”
The group received replies of support from Brown and Councilors Michael Braden and Eddie Melendrez.
“Serve Day should’ve never felt offended because I didn’t lie,” said Rodriguez. “Did you see many projects in the lowest of income in the city? Perhaps some on the east side of tracks?”
Vogt did not respond to a question about projects on the east side of town.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
SAFEGUARD YOUR LOCAL NEWS
Take one action today to help the Enterprise grow and do more for the community through accurate, fair reporting.
SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription is $5 a month.
GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.
ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.