Tulare County supervisors clash over TCRTA designee

Supervisor Eddie Valero as he voiced his concerns over “being targeted” by the other Tulare County Board of Supervisors at the May 8 meeting.(Karis Caddell)

Board of Supervisors’ decision to swap county representation on Tulare County Regional Transit Agency board creates tensions between supervisors, raises allegations of racism

TULARE COUNTY – A recent Board of Supervisors meeting was marked by intense discussions as the supervisors contended over the selection of the county’s designee to the Tulare County Regional Transit Agency’s (TCRTA) governing board.

Ultimately, the supervisors voted 3-1-1 on May 8 to remove Supervisor Eddie Valero as the county designee on the Tulare County Regional Transit Agency (TCRTA) board and replace him with Chairman Larry Micari. Supervisor Valero voted against the action and Amy Shuklian abstained from the vote.

There were strong indications that the other supervisors lost faith in Valero following a slew of complaints from other agencies in the TCRTA. The board mentioned that cities within the TCRTA reported some issues with the organization.

“I’ve heard a lot of different (issues) brought up…here at the board supervisors meetings, but nothing about (the TCRTA) jurisdictions and now (cities) wanting to withdraw from the TCRTA. Why is that happening?,” Supervisor Pete Vander Poel III said.

Vander Poel also noted one of the issues he’d heard from other agencies in the TCRTA, is a potential cost increase of $1 million across the county for transit services, which he thinks will be taken from funds that are used for roads.

“​​I can’t – in good faith – be out in my communities that I represent anywhere in Tulare County, saying that it makes sense to take money away from roads and put it into the funding of transit,” Vander Poel said.

He noted his initial response to hearing so many concerns with TCRTA, was to have the county withdraw from TCRTA to provide the county with transit services internally; however, that would jeopardize transit for many cities who don’t have the infrastructure to provide transit internally, as the TCRTA is a joint powers agency formed by various cities within Tulare County to supply residents with transit services.

Supervisor Vander Poel was caught off guard when he heard other agencies reporting issues with the TCRTA since he’d only heard positive reports about TCRTA from the board’s representative, Valero. This prompted the supervisors to have a conversation about the best course of action to take going forward.

These issues were enough to make supervisors Micari, Dennis Townsend and Vander Poel want to change the representative on the TCRTA.

“I’ve been approached by many agencies as well, so there’s obviously problems,” Supervisor Townsend said. “I think it’s probably better to handle it now than to wait.”

ON THE ROAD TO TRANSPARENCY

One of the issues regarding Valero’s representation on TCRTA, which Micari noted, was Supervisor Valero’s attendance of a Transdev protest last year.

“The problem is that faith has been lost. Especially when a board member of TCRTA leaves a board meeting early to go picket on a transit issue…that erodes trust,” Micari said.

Micari explained in a separate interview that he’d heard concerns about Valero leaving the Board of Supervisors meeting on July 11, 2023, to take part in the protest.

“We didn’t know where he went, but then the complaints started coming in back then,” Micari said. “What everyone’s upset about was that he went and participated in the transit strike in Visalia.”

He continued to explain, “When you’re on a transit board, you should remain neutral, because you may have decisions to make, and it’s kind of hard for people to see you as transparent when you do those things.”

He said that, now, the board is getting complaints about transparency from the cities participating in TCRTA, so the supervisors are doing everything they can to fix the concerns within the organization.

However, there seemed to be confusion among the supervisors. The staff report from the July 11, 2023 Board of Supervisors meeting does show Valero voting on all open session items for that convening. Even further, Supervisor Valero stated that these claims from Micari were false, thinking that Micari was referring to Valero missing a TCRTA meeting instead.

Valero noted in an interview with The Sun-Gazette that the TCRTA meeting during that time was on May 17, 2023, during which he was out of town for the Young Leaders Academy conference. He stated that he did attend a Transdev protest to hear the concerns of the people on May 11, 2023, but even still, never missed a TCRTA meeting.

“This was a city transit issue. So it was not even under our purview,” Valero stated via written statements. “Besides, it was Visalia Transit and they are not even a part of TCRTA.”

MAKING A SPECTACLE

During the May 8 meeting, Supervisor Shuklian notably wanted to take a different approach to this overall situation. She suggested pushing the decision to the next meeting, that way the board can talk to TCRTA and collect more information.

“I would at least like to – before we make any changes of who represents us – hear a report from TCRTA,  where then we can specifically ask the director these questions,” Shuklian said.

She motioned to push the decision to a later date, which Valero seconded; but the board voted against the motion with a 3-2 vote.

During the meeting, Valero went on to explain that he believes he is being targeted personally by his colleagues. He also reviewed various accomplishments made by the TCRTA during his time as designee, such as hiring a new and capable executive director.

He also pointed out that during times where there were issues with other organizations, the supervisors invited those agencies to come give formal presentations before taking any action.

“Have my colleagues asked TCRTA to come before the board here to speak on the agency? Nope. Have my colleagues reached out to me and asked how TCRTA is doing? No,” Valero said.

He continued to explain that – in his opinion – this item could easily have been addressed on the consent calendar, but instead was made a “public spectacle” at the meeting.

“I am here to share that I have done everything possible to keep this agency moving forward. Though falsehoods encircle me, I can stand firm in knowing that I put the county’s best interests at heart,” Valero said. “It is unfortunate that this has become a personal attack on me, for my district and the entire county of Tulare.”

Leadership in TCAG

This isn’t the first transit position that the other supervisors opted to go with the leadership of someone else in place of Supervisor Valero.

This overall situation comes after Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza was recently voted as the chair of the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG).  Traditionally, the role of chair is always rotated between the Board of Supervisors, and this year, according to Valero, he would have been the next in line to become chair.

Instead the TCAG board voted Mendoza, their first city-level official, into the position.

“I want to congratulate Mayor Rudy Mendoza from Woodlake (for being the new chair of TCAG). This is the first time that a non-county supervisor has been chair of TCAG,” Shuklian said at the April 23 meeting. “That it is something I have questioned for many years, and I think it’s good for the cities to build that trust with the county and have one of their own be the chair.”

Vander Poel also gave his congratulations and support to Mendoza at the April 23 meeting and noted that he believes Mendoza is capable of prioritizing the whole county despite being in charge of a small jurisdiction.

While Mayor Mendoza was not in attendance of the May 8 meeting, he did submit a letter with his opinion on the reorganization of the TCRTA designee.

“Recent allegations that he (Valero) willfully abandoned his responsibilities during a recent TCRTA board of directors meeting to picket on behalf of striking transit workers clearly pits Mr. Valero’s loyalties with organized labor and not with his own constituents who elected him,” Mendoza stated, according to the staff report.

He continued, “If these allegations are proven to be accurate, I respectfully ask the board to remove him as the County’s representative to the TCRTA board of directors due to an egregious violation of public trust.”

Other representatives from the cities within TCRTA came forward and shared their thoughts and concerns regarding the issue, including the City of Porterville, which recently chose to withdraw from the TCRTA.

“The decision to withdraw was not an easy decision that our city council made,” Porterville Mayor Martha Flores said. “Unfortunately, it seems that so far TCRTA has been unwilling to truly work with us on this transition.”

She continued to explain that going forward, Porterville wants to work with the county to provide the best services for the community.

Exeter’s representative on the TCRTA board, Vicki Riddle, who also has a seat on Exeter City Council, also came forward on behalf of the City of Exeter to explain their concerns about TCRTA.

“I would support any changes that would improve transparency and eliminate the potential appearance of conflict of interest,” Riddle said.

Community’s response

Multiple community members were upset by the change, explaining they thought other motivations were behind the decision to replace Valero with another supervisor on the TCRTA board.

“He’s a public representative, the first Mexican-American ever elected in this county. That context is playing up here: the history of racism that is Tulare County,” Daniel O’Connell said. “The two representatives from Porterville and Exeter didn’t make any statements that justify this change.”

bos-tcrta-public-comment-20-24-kc
Resident Maria Guillen as she spoke during public comment on May 8, claiming the Board of Supervisors is limiting “equitable representation” in the community. (Karis Caddell)

Another community member continued that thought.

“As stewards of elected officials, I call on you to examine your oaths to serve Tulare County, with an anti-racism lens, and a sense of integrity,” Maria Guillen said. “The irony is not lost on me that some of you tout much pride, your attendance at Cinco de Mayo events, but then you show great disregard by limiting this community’s equitable representation.”

In response to these claims, Supervisor Vander Poel attempted to disprove their accusations, explaining he believes race has nothing to do with the decision.

“Rudy (Mendoza) is not here…but he would very willingly state if he was here that he is a proud Latino. … I take great offense to anyone bringing up race…that is not what this is about,” Vander Poel said. “I did not one time bring up anyone’s race in anything that has been done here.”

He also asked the Mayor of Porterville to come forward and publicly state her ethnicity. She came forward and stated that she is proud of her heritage.

“I have no reservation whatsoever to state that, My father was from the state of Michoacán, my mother was from the State of Jalisco, I was born and raised in Porterville, so I am a very proud person to say my parents were born and raised in Mexico and I am their daughter,” Flores said.

Multiple supervisors responded by reiterating that this action was prompted because they have heard a number of complaints about the TCRTA from the involved cities, particularly Porterville. Despite the objection from the community, the board did ultimately vote to replace Supervisor Valero with Chairman Micari for the county-designee position on TCRTA.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was modified on May 10, 2024 at 4:35 p.m. PST to update a quote from Porterville Mayor Martha Flores.

Start typing and press Enter to search