Ontario Councilor Freddy Rodriguez speaks at the Black Lives Matter rally at Ontario City Hall on June 4. (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - The 90-day period to get signatures on the petition to recall Ontario City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez has begun, but the chief petitioner still has to finish filing documents before people can start signing.  

Vernon Denison, a retired truck driver who has lived in Ontario 30 years, said he decided to seek the recall because of Rodriguez’s “aggressive” behavior, domestic violence history and restraining order filed against him by a former girlfriend.

The clock on the recall started on Tuesday, July 28, and Denison has until Oct. 26 to submit enough Ontario voter signatures to force a city vote, according to Tori Barnett, Ontario city recorder.

However, Denison still has to finish filing paperwork with the Oregon Secretary of State before the signing can start. Denison didn’t provide the draft of the petition when requested by the Enterprise.

Rodriguez, 38, has served on the Ontario council since January 2019 and has recently been in the public eye because he and a former girlfriend filed restraining orders against each other in June. Rodriguez’s history of domestic violence surfaced in late June, which showed that before he moved to Ontario, he lived in Idaho and was twice charged in domestic abuse cases. During a hearing for Rodriguez to contest the victim’s restraining order on July 14, a state judge ruled Rodriguez a credible threat to the former girlfriend, ordering him to stay away from her for a year.

Rodriguez said in an email to the Enterprise that he was acquainted with Denison and his wife,

and described them as “good people.” He said that they were “tied” to his former girlfriend and “they would do anything for her.”

A city council seat can become vacant under 10 conditions, including public recall via petition, according to the rules and procedures of the Ontario City Council. To recall an elected city official, the number of signatures must equal 15% of the number of city voters who voted in the last gubernatorial, said Barnett, so the petition needs 493 signatures.

Denison said he is confident he will be able to get enough petition signatures as “many people” have already volunteered to circulate the petition for signature. For example, Lifestyle Home Medical Supply in Ontario is planning to make a petition sheet available for the public to sign when they come by the shop.

“I hate to do this to anybody or anything like that, but we just feel that too much has gone on,” said Dino Woods, speaking for the business. “It’s just a bad thing, but what needs to be done, needs to be done.”

The process to file a recall petition involves multiple documents. First, Denison had to file the prospective petition with Barnett. The form, the SEL 350, was filed with Barnett on Monday, July 27. Barnett then sent the form to the Secretary of State for review.

Denison then has to give information about the organization behind the recall, submitting an SEL 222 online with the Secretary of State. The state then gets it “posted and anybody can go out there and look at it,” Barnett said.

“When the secretary of state tells me, ‘Yes, we've got his SEL 222, and we've received your 350 — he's good to go,’ now it falls back on me,” said Barnett.

As of Monday afternoon, Barnett said “the state still shows no filing by the Petitioner.”

The Secretary of State’s Office didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday.

The signature sheet and a cover sheet explaining the reason for the recall must then be filed with Barnett. Once she determines the documents are filled out correctly, the signature gathering can begin.

Signatures then must be verified by Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter.

“Then he's got to go out and collect almost 500 signatures, which we know, I'm sure, from history is you can get 500 signatures and not all 500 signatures are going to be valid. Some of them are going to get thrown out,” said Barnett. “I always recommend that they get way more than they need.”

Only signatures of registered voters in Ontario can be counted.

“Signature verification works the same for petitions as it does for ballots,” said Trotter. “The only exception to that is we would have to verify that they were City of Ontario registered voters.”

If Denison doesn’t have enough signatures, but the 90-day period is not over, he can still go out and collect more, Barnett said. After 90 days, that “particular petition is done,” and if Denison wants to try again, he has to start over.

Barnett said that once enough signatures are verified to warrant a special vote, Rodriguez would have five days to resign or file a statement to appear on the ballot explaining why he is not resigning. A special city vote would be held within 35 days with the single question of whether Rodriguez should be removed from office.

“The thing that people need to remember is this is a separate ballot,” said Barnett. “Even if he makes it in time to go on the November [ballot], it has to be a separate mailing. It would be a standalone action. You'd get a separate envelope just like you would for a voting in town for a regular election.”

However, Denison hopes Rodriguez will step down from his position before the petition “goes to the next step.”

“What he is doing is tarnishing the city, causing divisiveness and creating a hostile situation for all citizens of Ontario,” said Denison. “Who wants to deal with a bully in a position of authority? I would hope he would step down. If he does not step down, I hope the vote to remove him wins in the ballot.”

Rodriguez and Denison have only met “briefly,” said Denison, and their interaction was “polite” since he had never met Rodriguez before. But since news broke that Denison started the petition, he said Rodriguez reached out to his wife on social media in a way that Denison said was harassing.

“Whenever there is negative news about him, his first instinct is to attack the messenger, then stalk the messenger, [and] finally, harass the messenger,” said Denison. “Again, he attacks anyone who speaks out against him.”

“This is middle school antics,” he said. “I expect more from our councilman.”

On Tuesday, July 28, Rodriguez made a Facebook post about the petition, saying he knows Denison, and the last time he saw him, “he was very cordial and nice.” Rodriguez wrote that he “cleaned up yard debris” at Denison’s wife’s “place of employment.”

“When is someone going to question how all these people doing this to me are all employees or directly tied to petitioner’s money,” Rodriguez wrote in the post.

That was in apparent reference to an Ontario businesswoman who obtained a restraining order to keep Rodriguez away from her.

In his email to the Enterprise, Rodriguez confirmed that he had reached out to Denison’s wife via Facebook Messenger. He provided a screen shot, showing that on July 28 he messaged her: “Isn’t your husband’s name Vernon Denison?”

Rodriguez said he asked because “I felt it was okay and responsible for me to verify if Mr. Denison was also her hubby.”

He said that “the moment I messaged her she blocked me.”

Denison said Rodriguez’s claim that he is being “paid by the victim” is “a complete falsehood.”

“I am not on her payroll, and I resent the allegation,” said Denison. “Even if I was paid by the victim, what does it matter? Does that mean I am unable to spot a bully? Again, he attacks anyone who speaks out against him.”

News tip? Contact the Malheur Enterprise by email at [email protected] or call 541-473-3377.

PRIOR REPORTING:

Judge rules Ontario city councilor is credible threat to former girlfriend, imposes year-long order

Rodriguez, Ontario city councilor, has new contacts with police over disputes, records show

Rodriguez, Ontario city councilor embroiled in restraining orders, has prior domestic violence history

Ontario city councilor obtains restraining order against ex-girlfriend

KEEP THE ENTERPRISE GOING AS OTHERS CLOSE.....

Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE - $5 a month, automatically. DONATE - to provide additional support.