When it comes to Orange Cove, a town of about 9,600 residents east of Fresno, there’s one name that always stands out: Victor Lopez.
Lopez is known for having kept a firm and controversial hold on the city since first becoming mayor in 1978. After nearly three decades, he lost his 2010 bid for re-election to Gabriel Jimenez, a former garbage hauler, then public works supervisor for the city. But Lopez wasn’t gone long. He won a seat on the council as vice mayor in 2012 after beating the incumbent.
Now he wants the top spot back, fighting Jimenez and former City Council member Glenda Hill for it.
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Lopez has been accused of abusing his power by giving city contracts to friends and family and rewarding allies with jobs. In 2010, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office investigated whether he committed a crime when he threatened the police chief. Just before losing re-election, the state withheld a $490,000 grant because city officials awarded no-bid contracts and failed to properly document spending on a BMX bike park that Lopez pushed for.
Yet Lopez is also known for building the city’s infrastructure through millions in other state and federal grants. He draws attention to the impoverished town, whose residents are mostly farmworkers earning less than $10,000 per year.
When Lopez left office, City Manager Sam Escobar said, the city had more than $12 million in reserves, most of which came from a settlement for a burned building. At the end of this fiscal year, the city will have about $3.1 million in reserves, he said.
Lopez said he wants to become mayor again because the city is in chaos and almost on the brink of bankruptcy. He pointed to a proposed 10-year parcel tax on the November ballot, which would raise about $234,000 per year for the police department and fire protection district. If approved, homeowners would pay $95 a year while apartment units would pay $65, The Reedley Exponent reported.
“I don’t think the citizens should have to sacrifice to pay for their mistakes,” he said, referring to the current city leaders.
Jimenez said he’s leaving his re-election up to God’s will. Despite Lopez’s claims, Jimenez considers the city’s budget one of his accomplishments.
The former police chief was fired last year for allowing the department to run over budget. Once spending $2.2 million a year, the 10-officer department now runs on $1.6 million, though Jimenez is hoping to drop it further. Still, Escobar said the city will likely end up with a nearly $200,000 deficit this fiscal year, borrowing from reserves as it has since 2009.
“Like I tell people, I’m in a win-win situation,” Jimenez said. “If I win, I get to keep serving my community. If I lose and that responsibility has been taken away from me, then I’m blessed either way.”
Jimenez said he hasn't accomplished more because he and the rest of the council constantly butt heads. But if re-elected, he hopes to bring the city a new source of water, boost infrastructure and create jobs by attracting more businesses.
“As I’m constantly reminded, I’m only one vote,” he said. “And I know that.”
Hill, a 65-year-old Realtor, says she has watched good and bad leadership decisions play out in her hometown. She has done her part to help, serving on the Planning Commission, then joining the City Council in 2006 before being recalled in 2012.
“My goal is to be positive,” she said. “I’m asking the voters, if you’re not pleased with the past, give me a chance to prove my leadership skills.”
Lopez organized the recall effort against Hill and Council Member Frank Martinez. Two of his supporters — Bertha Alicia Del Bosque and Ralph Pardo — took their places. Now he’s got a new team: Josie Cervantes and Minerva Pineda are vying to unseat Del Bosque and Pardo.
Hill said she’s not interested in being divisive. Collaboration, she said, is the only way to move Orange Cove forward. She now serves as the Chamber of Commerce president, helping attract businesses including Family Dollar, Subway and Texas Burger, the city’s first fast-food restaurant, which opened last month.
“I always felt I had a good pulse on the business community and the needs of the residents — what their desires were, where we need to step up the game and bring services to them,” she said. “Texas Burger is an example of that.”
Lopez also proudly touts his accomplishments in Orange Cove: A new library, child care center and high school among them. He disputed reports filed with local police of voter fraud during his 2012 election. Complaints had been forwarded to the Secretary of State, which investigates election fraud claims, but no charges were ever filed. He also challenged allegations that he mismanaged funds of the Target Eight Advisory Council, the nonprofit he runs as a volunteer. The Advisory Council is in charge of the city’s Julia A. Lopez Child Development Center, named after his mother.
City staff requested the audit and paid Price Paige & Co. $9,000 to analyze the nonprofit’s expenses from 2007 to 2011. It did not find any improper transactions. Escobar, the city manager, said a Price Paige fraud examiner and accountant told the City Council last month that nearly $51,000 in reimbursements from Target Eight to the city was accounted for but had not been examined. He said that’s because it would cost more to do a complete forensic audit.
Lopez chalks that up to slander. He called the audit a waste of money and was quick to blame Jimenez for agreeing to it.
“The voters don’t believe that,” he said. “They know Victor Lopez better than that.”
The 71-year-old retiree isn’t modest, often launching into stories about his accomplishments and continuous support. During a recent phone interview, he recalled when a young man who will vote in November for the first time came up with tears in his eyes and said, “I’m voting for you, Mr. Lopez.”
This time around, Lopez wants to take the city out of its “financial mess.” He said he became convinced to run for the top spot after community members insisted on it, telling him they made a mistake in 2010 when he lost to Jimenez.
“Every day they’d beg me to run,” he said.