In-fighting continues at the Parlier City Council, with private arguments publicly manifesting earlier this month.
Last year, Janie Molina defeated incumbent Trinidad Pimentel and Diego Garza defeated Diane Maldonado in council elections.
The year before, Alma Beltran won her third term as mayor of the city, which has about 14,500 residents and is 20 miles south of Fresno.
But what was once a Beltran-friendly council has devolved into fights over the city attorney, accusations of assault leading to a police report, and complaints filed with the Fresno County District Attorney and state Department of Justice.
Things spilled over on Dec. 7, when a multi-person argument consumed nearly 20 minutes.
“The only time it’s been that way has been this last year,” said City Manager Sonia Hall about the political squabbles.
Why the tension?
“Because they’re trying to get the mayor out,” said Hall, who has been city manager for four years. “And there’s just so much tension between the mayor and (Councilmember Cathryn) Solorio, first of all. The mayor used to have control at the council. But when she lost two of her supporters … she now is on her own little island. But she’s still a strong personality, so there’s a lot of tension there.”
Councilwoman Accuses Mayor of Assault
“What I saw here was an abuse of power and directing and pushing my chief of police to do something that is not ethically right. Because if he’s doing that to me on behalf of Kathy Solorio, who’s to say he’s not going to do that to somebody else in the community?” — Parlier Mayor Alma Beltran
An alleged altercation between Beltran and Solorio led to the filing of a police report and a restraining order request.
Solorio, in court documents, said the incident took place at the July 6, 2023 council meeting.
“During the meeting, she threatened me verbally. Before closed session, she was (so) angry that she grabbed me by my back and she stuck her nails on my back,” Solorio wrote. She alleged “her nails broke my skin. I was in pain.”
Solorio told GV Wire she believed the contact was intentional.
“She never should have done it. She never should have touched me. I didn’t give her permission to touch me. She got me from behind,” Solorio said.
Hall said that she didn’t witness the incident but saw the aftermath.
“I only walked into the room as Councilmember Solorio was jerking her arm away, yelling at the mayor to get away from her,” Hall said. She saw “not scratches but indents” left behind.
Hall said police interviewed her.
Beltran denied Solorio’s accusations. Beltran also told GV Wire that after the July 6 meeting, she was discussing possible council candidates.
“At that point, she swung her arm around and started to say that I was harassing her. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then she ran to (the police) chief,” Beltran said.
While Beltran expected an incident report, she disagreed with the police conducting a criminal investigation. She texted Police Chief David Cerda afterward.
“Kathy demanded a criminal investigation. I simply called him (Sgt. Dan Barcellos) to talk to Kathy about her complaint,” Cerda responded. “I didn’t initiate this investigation, Kathy did, we are obligated to look into it based on her request for an investigation. I have nothing to do with this. It is in the investigators hands. I am not biased, I prefer you guys get along and work together, so we can be proactive as a city.”
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Negin denied Solorio’s request for a temporary restraining order against Beltran on July 14, 2023. A few weeks later, Judge Robert Whalen denied a “show cause” order. The District Attorney’s office told GV Wire that it declined to move the case forward because of insufficient evidence.
The issue boiled over publicly on Dec. 7, with Beltran accusing Solorio of making false claims.
“That never happened. And you demanded it (a police investigation). You initiated it, which is an abuse of power,” Beltran said from the dais.
Solorio continued to say the assault was true, even inviting the chief of police to speak about the incident. He declined her request.
Court records showed that Solorio filed two separate incident reports in 2022 — one accusing Beltran of telling lies about Solorio and another alleging that Beltran grabbed a microphone from her hand at a council meeting.
Speaking to GV Wire, Beltran said the assault accusation was politically motivated and she filed a complaint with the state DOJ.
“This is why I went to the Department of Justice, because this is not the first incident that ever happened to me. I mean, I’ve been under attack a lot of times,” Beltran said.
The DOJ did not respond to GV Wire’s request for comment.
Battle Over City Attorney
“The mayor used to have control at the council. But when she lost two of her supporters … she now is on her own little island.” — City Manager Sonia Hall
Councilmember Janie Molina was unsure about the advice she was getting from the city attorney.
So, the first-year Parlier lawmaker wanted the city to hire a new attorney who would represent the council’s needs, not just the entire city.
“When the question is asked, we get different answers,” Molina told GV Wire about her motivation seeking a second attorney.
Solorio, first elected in 2020, also has ill feelings toward city attorney Neal Costanzo.
“We can’t trust him. He lies to us and threatened us, even the mayor, to intimidate us. We just want an attorney that we can trust and ask for guidance,” Solorio said.
Molina tried to raise the issue of replacing Costanzo several times. Each time, her efforts failed.
The city of Parlier hired Costanzo as its city attorney in 2018. An independent contractor — Costanzo also provides legal advice for several other local government agencies — Costanzo bills by the hour. It would take a vote of four of the five city councilmembers to end the contract.
Tensions reached so high that Molina called the Fresno County District Attorney’s office earlier this month. The DA’s office confirmed it received an inquiry from Molina, but declined to say if it has led to an investigation.
“I will walk away or I will walk through that door, and I walked through that door,” Molina told GV Wire.
Emails Reveal City Attorney’s Reasoning
“I will walk away or I will walk through that door, and I walked through that door.” — Parlier City Councilmember Janie Molina
Agendas are set by the mayor and city manager. Each heeded advice from Costanzo not to place an item on the agenda to replace him.
In email exchanges obtained by GV Wire, Costanzo explained to Molina and others why such an item could not be reviewed by the council. A city cannot have two different attorneys, he wrote. And, the item would have to be in a closed session — not an open session as Molina wanted — because it dealt with an employee matter.
Those legal opinions did not stop Molina’s efforts. And, with each email exchange, dating back to August, tensions grew.
Beltran sided with Costanzo on why Molina’s efforts did not comply with the law.
“We tried to explain this to them numerous times. And it seems to go on deaf ears or they’re not comprehending. … And I am not going to do anything that will put the city in a liability for a potential case against us for violating the contract,” Beltran said.
Hall brought in an outside attorney to explain why hiring two city attorneys would not work.
When Molina attempted to add an item to terminate Costanzo’s contract as a closed session item, Costanzo advised that it not be placed on the agenda as it was not worded correctly.
In email exchanges with other city leaders, Costanzo denied accusations that his advice favored anyone, particularly Beltran.
“Sometimes they’ll ask for things, and it’s not possible for us to do those things. And they don’t like the answer that they receive. So they will think that he’s just not adhering to what they want or doing as they want. And Neal’s responsibility is not to to only do as what the majority says, it’s to follow the law,” Beltran said.
GV Wire reached out to Costanzo, but he said he could not respond because of attorney-client privilege.
The council eventually discussed Costanzo in a closed session on Nov. 2. No action was taken.
Tensions Publicly Boil After Final Attempt
Molina then tried to put the hiring of a second attorney on the Dec. 7 meeting agenda. In this attempt, she produced a document signed by councilmembers Garza and Solorio supporting the effort.
In a Dec. 6 email, Hall, the city manager, explained to Molina, Solorio, and Garza that posting the agenda on the open session “puts the city in huge liability.”
“Neal said he would pursue action against us for stigmatizing him as our attorney,” Hall wrote. “He made it clear that he wouldn’t just go after the city; he would go after those who signed the notice to put it on the agenda. He said he felt confident he could get a judgment against you all for posting this agenda item, one that would follow you for the rest of your lives,” Hall wrote.
Hall said she didn’t want to risk posting the item to the agenda.
“It would ruin my career. And I told the councilmembers that this would just destroy my career. I’d be done,” Hall told GV Wire.
Molina complained during the Dec. 7 council meeting.
“Why am I being threatened? This is a threat to me,” Molina said. Garza and Solorio also said they felt threatened by what was implied in the email.
That led to an argument with Beltran and Costanzo.
Beltran accused Molina of already shopping for a new attorney. The mayor said a Request for Proposal is the proper procedure. The two elected leaders continued to talk over each other.
Strained Relationship with Mayor
Molina said she once supported Beltran, even voting for her as mayor. She said she’s tired of the threats of investigations.
“Everybody’s looking at us but the damn Paw Patrol. What’s wrong with them? If I am breaking the Brown Act (the state’s open meeting law), if I am violating the state law, please do your job and report me. Report me,” Molina said.
There is no love lost between Beltran and Solorio either.
“That lady needs to be disciplined or removed. You can’t be threatening councilmembers,” Solorio said.
Is it possible that Molina and Beltran could patch things up?
“She doesn’t like me. I know she doesn’t, but it’s OK. I’m not doing this for her. I’m not even doing it for myself. I’m doing this for my community because everything that comes out of City Hall comes out of our pockets,” Molina said.
Meanwhile, Beltran said politics in Parlier have turned for the worse. She said her council colleagues’ goal “is to remove me.”
“With this new council, we have not had any progress. It’s been stagnant and it’s been the same complaints over and over and over,” Beltran said. “My last council wasn’t like that. They worked through the problems.”