Pinole residents to vote on recall

February 2, 2008 7:33:03 PM PST
After months of political mudslinging, Pinole residents will finally have a chance to vote Tuesday on whether or not to recall council members Maria Alegria and Stephen Tilton.

Tilton, however, said that no matter what the outcome of the election, he didn't think a simple majority vote would end the bickering. Both sides have accused each other of making threats, lying, name-calling and corruption.

Calling the recall efforts a "witch hunt," and a "smear campaign," Alegria said, "To me it's really plain and simple - it's revenge and it has nothing to do with policy and that's why I'm asking the people of Pinole to reject the recall."

Proponents of the recall accuse Alegria of acting "with impunity against the majority will of the people and city staff with callous disregard of us..." They also cited her "orchestrated personal-vendetta-style termination of our competent city manager" as grounds for the recall.

Similar accusations were made against Tilton. Recall proponents also said they found Tilton's behavior offensive and they didn't want his name "to become synonymous with the beliefs or behaviors of the good citizens of the city of Pinole."

The two sides have different stories about how the recall campaign began, but both agree that the decision was made after Alegria, Tilton and former Councilman David Cole voted May 14 not to renew former City Manager Belinda Esponosa's contract.

According to Tilton, who was a newcomer to the city council, having beat out three-term incumbent Betty Boyle, the decision not to renew Espinosa's contract was made by a three to two vote during a closed session meeting.

Tilton, a deputy sheriff in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, alleged that after the votes were cast, Councilwoman Mary Ann Horton asked them to change their vote and when they refused, she threatened them with a recall.

"She said, 'If you don't change your vote, you're going to get recalled,'" Tilton said.

Boyle served Alegria, Tilton and Cole with recall papers June 5. Tilton said Horton's husband, Will Horton, filed the legal papers.

Alegria corroborated Tilton's story about Horton's alleged threat.

"I basically told them, 'I'm not going to be intimidated by threats,'" Alegria said. "Basically what this boils down to is a personnel matter."

According to Alegria, Horton was friends with Espinosa and the recall effort is revenge for not renewing her friend's contract. Horton, however, tells a different story about how the recall movement came about. She also denied the allegation that she had threatened anyone during the closed session meeting.

Instead, she said when the council came out of the meeting, there were several people in the council chambers, including owner of the Pear Street Bistro Garry Wong, who was friends with Tilton and Alegria. Wong also owed the city $400,000 in redevelopment loans that he had defaulted on.

Horton noted that it was unusual for members of the public to attend closed-session meetings, since there was nothing to see.

As councilmembers came out of the meeting room, Horton alleges that Tilton told Wong, "We did it," and then went over and shook Wong's hand.

Wong allegedly told Tilton, "Champagne's on ice at the Bistro," Horton said.

The news about Espinosa's contract was made public before anybody informed Espinosa of the decision, Horton said.

At the city council meeting the following evening, members of the public asked the council not to let Espinosa go, Horton said. Members of the audience clapped after each person spoke.

Horton alleged that Alegria, who was mayor at the time, banged her gavel in an attempt to quell the applause, but Horton asked the city attorney if clapping was included in the people's right to free speech and the attorney said it was.

After public testimony, Horton said she stood up and said, "Belinda, I think you've done a terrific job."

"It was really weird," Horton said. "It was like an out-of-body experience."

Horton said the audience clapped for about five minutes and then someone in the back of the room said, "Recall. Recall." "It was like rolling thunder," Horton said.

She never found out whose voice that was, she said. "I'm not the leader of the movement," Horton said. "I'm definitely a supporter of it."

Horton said Wong's continued failure to make his loan payments coupled with the fact that Alegria and Tilton continued to hold city functions at the bistro was "always bubbling in the background," but that the decision about Espinosa's contract was what made "the community come unglued."

Petitioners for the recall were required to get 2,200 signatures for each council member. They got 2,700 for Alegria, Horton said. Jeff Rubin with the Concerned Citizens of Pinole said he became involved in the recall effort a few weeks after it began. Although he didn't witness the event, Rubin told the same story Horton had about Tilton "pumping Gary's hand" after the vote not to renew Espinosa's contract. "That was the tipping point," Rubin said.

When asked who he thought first brought up the idea of a recall, Rubin said, "To be honest, it was probably me."

He said that about a year before the recall efforts began he was talking with Councilman Peter Murray, who was telling Rubin about the alleged corruption at city hall and Rubin said he suggested a recall.

Rubin also had a long list of allegations against Alegria and Tilton, including an incident in which Alegria allegedly interfered with a police officer when he was attempting to ticket an employee of the Pear Street Bistro.

Alegria's term expires in November of this year and Tilton's expires in November 2010.

Debbie Long, who works in health care management and administration, and Ivette Ricco, retired a businesswoman, are both running for the council seat left open by Cole's resignation. His term expires in November 2010.

Long promises change and transparent government. Ricco promises to "restore pride and confidence" in Pinole and to support the business community.

Machine shop owner Steve Denlis is running for Alegria's seat should she be recalled.

"If elected I will ask for an accounting of all properties involving Pinole city funds," Denlis said in his candidate statement. "I believe that delinquent leases should be evicted, and delinquent mortgages should be foreclosed."

Former Councilman Roy Swearingen, a semi-retired construction defect consultant, is also running for Alegria's seat. Swearingen was a member of the Pinole City Council from 1986 to 1990.

Virginia Fujita, a retired personnel specialist and city employee, is also running for Tilton's seat should he be recalled.

"I will be honest and truthful, and will evaluate each issue that comes before the council on its own merits," Fujita said in her candidate statement.