Editor’s note: This article has been edited to include comments from Mia Casey saying she is not being paid by developers or funneling money.
Hollister resident Mia Casey accused Mayor Ignacio Velazquez of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, during the March 7 City Council meeting and told the council she had filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office, asking it to investigate her allegation. She also told the council that the mayor and Councilman Rolan Resendiz violated the council’s recently adopted code of ethics during its Feb. 22 meeting.
District Attorney Candice Hooper verified a complaint had been made and it is currently under investigation.
The Brown Act aims to promote transparency and public participation in local government. Casey claimed the mayor violated her right to free speech by keeping her from speaking during the public comment section of the meeting. She told BenitoLink she believed the mayor intentionally prevented her from speaking because she had asked Councilman Rick Perez to lead an investigation into misconduct by Resendiz during the Feb. 7 meeting and the mayor at the Feb. 22 meeting.
Casey claimed Velazquez violated the Brown Act’s Chapter Section 54954.3, Subsection C which states: “The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.”
During the Feb. 22 meeting, Velazquez interrupted Casey’s public comment when she said she was attacked by the mayor and Resendiz. She also stated Resendiz had violated the “Conduct of Elected Officials with the Public” of the City Council’s code of conduct.
Velazquez didn’t let Casey finish her public comment stating the public comment section, traditionally held before the council considers any issues, was only for issues not on the agenda that the City Council can work on and not political agendas.
Video of the interaction that includes Casey stating she is not paid by developers can be seen in the video starting at 1 hour, 50 minutes, 17 seconds.
When BenitoLink contacted Velazquez, he reiterated his stance that the council is there to listen to people on issues they can solve together. “We’re not there just so people can throw out false accusations or spread rumors,” he said. “Don’t council members have a freedom of speech right too?”
The Brown Act, which is a state law, gives members of the public the right to say whatever they want, as long as it is not an agenda item, while Hollister’s code of conduct, as Velazquez interprets it, does not.
“The Brown Act can be interpreted so many different ways,” he said, adding, “If someone wants to come in here and scream and yell, at the end of the day, they can.”
At the Feb. 7 meeting, Resendiz alleged Casey was working for developers and claimed he had evidence after Casey called in to voice her concern of the “giant warehouse project and the lack of environmental review.” She also said the only appeal process of the project was for the applicant and landowner, which comes with a $3,700 fee.
When Resendiz spoke to BenitoLink about the complaint submitted to the DA’s office about the alleged violation of the Brown Act, he compared it to the failed attempt of a lawsuit alleging he and the mayor defamed residents Elia Salinas and Irma Gonzalez. He said the women were very public about the lawsuit but had not said anything after they lost the case and had to pay legal expenses.
Resendiz did double down on his accusation of Feb. 7 and said that based on comments he read in “secret chatrooms,” he believed Casey was dishonest in how she represents herself at council meetings.
“Every time she calls it’s about her and her group who want to control growth,” he said. “If she’s out in the open, why is she hiding in those secret chatrooms with a bunch of officials and they’re planning attacks; they’re saying hateful things; they’re stalking people. The whole situation is toxic. Everything was going really well ever since the people they were closely aligned with have left the council. She does a lot of things that are dishonest [and] is funneling money, trying to get around laws.”
Resendiz did not present BenitoLink with any evidence of his claims. In response to this article (see comments below) Casey said “I do not work for any developer, or anyone actually. I do not funnel money, and would not know how to. I am retired and on a pension. I volunteer my time to help my community, including speaking at public meetings on local issues.”
Right to speak challenged
During all council meetings when it’s time for public comments, the mayor recites from memory the public can only speak about topics not included on that evening’s agenda and that the council cannot respond to any comments.
But during the March 7 meeting he went off script and added his own thoughts.
“Too many times people come up to throw an accusation about a council member, so I’m going to read you all the rules so we’re all clear on the rules that we, as a council, follow,” he said. “Any person making personal, improper or slanderous remarks, or who shall become boisterous while addressing the City Council, at any City Council meeting, shall be forthwith, by the presiding officer, barred from further audience before the City Council, unless permission to continue is granted by the majority of the City Council.”
Then, he added his own interpretation: “In other words, we want to hear from the public, but we want to hear about things we can help solve in our community. Each year this becomes a situation of politics. We’re not here, at these meetings, to talk about politics. We’re here to talk about things that can affect our community.”
At the mention of “politics” audience member Catherine Eva Booth Vaughn shouted a challenge to Velazquez: “Why are you talking about politics? We’re here to talk about city business and you’re trying to intimidate people from talking,” which drew an “amen” from another audience member. He responded, “This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In previous years, we had these same issues and, unfortunately, the council allowed it to go forward until it was about them.”
In 2019, Velazquez, Resendiz and the late Marty Richman engaged in a constant back-and-forth exchange of accusations of misconduct. On other occasions, Velazquez and Resendiz accused former councilwomen Honor Spencer and Carol Lenoir of being too closely connected to developers.
When Casey addressed the council on March 7, she said the mayor’s actions during the Feb. 22 meeting were “inappropriate and unconstitutional.”
She said, “Courts have made it clear that council meetings are public forums for First Amendment purposes. This council faces a huge burden trying to justify any kind of content-based restrictions during public comments.”
She said while a council member may not like what is being said they have no right to shut down public comment and violate free speech. She said the Brown Act allows “members of the public to speak on any item of public interest. Speech regarding misconduct at a council meeting fits the criteria and should not have been denied.”
Hollister Resident Kevin Henderson voiced his opinion on free speech via Zoom. He said he did not want to mention any council member by name so it wouldn’t “be considered an attack.” He mentioned the part of the code of ethics the mayor read earlier and the part that stated a person could continue to speak if a majority of the council allowed them to go forward. He advised the public, “the next time someone is being shut down, if any one of you would like to continue to hear, and you believe the majority of the council will vote with you, please speak up and use that power given to you in the ordinance.”
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