For the first time, voters in Sanger get to choose the mayor, and incumbent Joshua Mitchell hopes to continue a rise that has the makings of an American Dream movie.
Mitchell, 31, is a landscape contractor who was appointed to office two years ago. Proponents credit him for a turnaround in the city's fortunes and call him a likable family man whose fluency in Spanish allows him to connect with this predominantly Hispanic community.
His big-time endorsements include Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson and the entire school board, to name a few.
But Mitchell also faces three complaints from people who said they've taken their beefs to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Two of those people are prominent Fresnans -- former City Council Member Jerry Duncan and landscape architect Paul Saito, and the third is Sanger businessman David Mendez. All three said they filed complaints with the state this week.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Mitchell called the complaints typical pre-election tactics as he faces challengers Randy F. Guerra, Victor Ruiz and Adrian Villarreal.
"They know I'm ahead in the polls, so their only chance to win is to destroy my character," Mitchell said. "But I haven't hid anything."
List of complaints
Duncan accused Mitchell of not paying him and Holly Carter more than $15,000 for political-consulting work they did for Mitchell. Carter owns Carter & Co. Communications and Duncan works for her.
Mitchell never reported the expense on his campaign forms, Duncan said. Omitting the expense "is a clear FPPC violation," he said.
Duncan said he has pulled his endorsement of Mitchell: "Character is what you do when no one is looking. He has a responsibility to follow the rules. It's not that complicated."
Mitchell bristled at the allegation: "That's 100% untrue. I paid them every single penny." He also said he listed the expense on his campaign forms.
Mendez said his complaint is about questionable gifts, including one for $25,000 from a Mexican company that paid Mitchell's way to the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas. The gift is listed on Mitchell's campaign reports.
According to a campaign ethics expert, local elected officials can't take gifts greater than $420, unless it's from a relative. "That sounds like a violation to me and he will have to pay it back," said Bob Stern, former general counsel for the FPPC. "I'm surprised he didn't know the rule."
Saito sued Mitchell in Fresno County Superior Court and won a judgment in September for $2,800. Saito said Mitchell owed him the money for rent on an office.
Saito's FPPC complaint is based on a voicemail left on Saito's phone in May 2011. In it, Saito said Mitchell can be heard saying that he would direct Sanger city work toward Saito. "I want to try to bypass the normal city bidding process," Mitchell is heard saying on the tape.
Saito said Wednesday that he took Mitchell's offer as quid pro quo for forgiving the $2,800 rent bill. "It sounded like a bribe," Saito said.
Saito said he filed the FPPC complaint because "we don't need another crooked politician in office."
In Thursday's telephone interview, Mitchell first claimed that the recording didn't exist. Then he said he doesn't have the power to steer work toward Saito. Only the city manager has that power, he said.
He also said Saito and Mendez are "grumpy people."
Mitchell said he plans to sue Saito because "one of my workers got bit by a rat in his office building." He said Mendez is helping one of his opponents, Villarreal.
Appointed to office
Mitchell, a graduate of Clovis High, jumped into Sanger politics two years ago when he ran unopposed to replace Mayor José Villarreal, who had resigned from the City Council because of health reasons.
Back then, the council appointed the mayor, leading to infighting and causing many residents to grow discontent with City Hall. A Fresno County grand jury report in 2009 blamed the City Council for mismanaging city finances and having cozy relationships with developers.
But in November 2010, Sanger voters approved Measure L to make the mayor's seat an elected position. In addition, the four council members would be given defined district boundaries and would be elected only by voters within those boundaries.
In the telephone interview, Mitchell recalled that it took the council five minutes at his first meeting to appoint him mayor. "The city was in a mess and I was willing to put in the hard work," he said.
City Manager Brian Haddix said in an email that the city was in dire straits when Mitchell took over as mayor.
For example, the city sewer bond was downgraded to Triple-B status in 2011 based on the city's "prior years' ability to protect the debt," Haddix wrote. This year, Standard & Poors upgraded the city's sewer bond rating to A-minus, he said.
He also said the city's $28 million budget had an ending balance in 2011 of $36,120. Three years ago, the city was in the red by $907,587, he said.
Mitchell said he is proud of the council's achievements.
"We were on the verge of bankruptcy," he said. "Now, Sanger is one of the best cities in Fresno County."
Mitchell's own financial statement shows some cracks. In June, a Fresno County Superior Court judge ordered him to pay Fresno First Bank $109,669 after defaulting on a loan. Court records said he borrowed $100,000 but stopped making payments in September 2011.
He also owes John Deere Landscapes in Fresno $19,016, court records show.
As a landscape contractor, Mitchell said lawsuits are part of the business.
"We sue people and get sued," he said. "I have about a million dollars in accounts and I have been able to keep my doors open and hire workers who keep food on the table for their families. I would say that's a pretty good accomplishment considering the state of the economy."
But as Tuesday's election nears, Mendez, Saito and other critics say Mitchell needs to be exposed before the city gets in deep trouble.
"We do not need a mayor who says all the right things, hits all the political buttons, (and) looks good ... to later find out that he is out of touch with the constituency," former Mayor Villarreal said in an advertisement in the Sanger Herald weekly newspaper. José's son, Adrian Villarreal, is running for mayor.
In the Sept. 26 advertisement, José Villarreal contends Mitchell has confronted a few Hispanics by saying: "Are you a Taco Bell Mexican or a taco truck Mexican?"
Mitchell's response: "I'm not a racist." He also said he speaks better Spanish than his opponents.
Pastor Gary Duran of the Family Worship Center in Sanger said it's unfair to paint Mitchell as anti-Hispanic. Of all of the mayoral candidates, Duran said, Mitchell stands out because he embraces old people, teaches English to migrant children and hangs out at the church just to talk.
"There's a saying -- they always throw rocks at those who bear fruit," Duran said.
Mitchell said he is worried about his reputation. His campaign forms don't specify when he took the gifts. But Mitchell said he plans to amend the forms to put in the dates. He also said he may have "overestimated" the amount of the gifts.
"I didn't even know this was an issue," Mitchell said. "I was told campaign contributions in the city of Sanger can be unlimited."
He said the Super Bowl trip, paid for by the Mexican company Grupo Clisa, was for business, not political reasons. But Stern said the limit is $420 for a local politician, even if the gift is for business.
Mitchell's campaign forms also show a gift of $10,000 worth of tickets from The Big Fresno Fair. Mitchell said he gave the tickets to nonprofit groups, low-income families and Superintendent Johnson to distribute to students. "Every mayor in the Valley gets these tickets for free, but I bet I am the only one to report it," he said. But Stern said that gift could be questionable.
Mitchell also received a $2,000 gift to attend an undisclosed meeting/event; a $1,000 gift to attend a Sarah Palin event; and a $500 gift to attend a "breakfast event." Stern said Mitchell could receive those gifts if he was a speaker at the event.
With the election only a few days away, Sanger resident Toni Pacini said Thursday that it was unfair for critics to blast Mitchell. "Joshua was green as a bean when we asked him to step in and help the city," she said.
In two years, Mitchell has turned into one of the best mayors Sanger has ever had, Pacini said. "He might have messed up. Everyone does," she said.
Mitchell insists he has done nothing wrong.
"I've got a track record of nothing but success," he said.
Sanger mayor's race
Occupation: Incumbent and owner of Western Landscape Development
Education: High school graduate
Family: Married to Bethany, four children with twins on the way
Key endorsements: Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson and all school board trustees, Sanger Mayor Pro Tem Eli Ontiveros
Occupation: Sanger City Council member
Education: Fresno State, bachelor's degree in business administration
Family: Married to Linda; three children
Key endorsements: Assembly Member Henry T. Perea; state Sen. Michael Rubio; Robert Silva; mayors of Mendota, Fowler and San Joaquin; and Central Labor Council of Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare Counties
Online: facebook.com/pages/Victor-Ruiz-for-Mayor-of-Sanger/154504184683381; @ruiz4mayor on Twitter
Education: Sanger High graduate
Family: Married to Doreen, two children and one on the way
Key endorsements: His father, former Sanger Mayor José Villarreal
RANDY F. GUERRA
Occupation: Insurance agent
Education: Sanger High graduate; Fresno State, major liberal studies, degree pending
Family: Married to Ingrid, eight children
Key endorsements: Former Fresno City Council Member Cynthia Sterling
Sanger City Council races
District 1 (northeast): Raul Cantu Jr., Realtor and retired policeman; Martin F. Castellano, incumbent
District 3 (northwest): Tony Pacheco, retired veterans representative; Victor Moreno, television station manager
Also: Mayor Pro Tem Eli Ontiveros (District 4) and Council Member Rodney Nielson (District 2) elected to four-year terms in 2010
City Council pay: $300 stipend per month, plus $400 a month auto allowance
Sources: Fresno County Elections Office, city of Sanger, candidates
Staff writer Angel Moreno contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter.