Politics & Government

Petitions to recall Parlier school board members are thrown out

Recall efforts against three Parlier Unified school board members will not move forward after Fresno County elections officials found significant irregularities on the recall petitions.

Recall supporters sought to remove trustees Benjamin Tamez Jr. and Mary Helen Villanueva, who were elected to the school board last November, and Enrique "Rick" Maldonado, who has been a trustee for nearly three years.

The recall proponents accused three board members of micromanaging and not supporting Superintendent Rick Rodriguez.

Thursday, Fresno County Clerk Victor Salazar said that each of the three petitions failed to reach the minimum number of qualified signatures to launch the recall. In each case, 720 qualified signatures were required.

Proponents of the recall submitted more than 850 signatures on each of the three petitions, but Salazar said elections officials disqualified more than 200 of the signatures in each of the petitions against Villanueva and Maldonado, and more than 300 signatures in the petition against Tamez.

"We started by verifying a random sample from each petition, but we switched to a 100% verification after the irregularities began to appear," Salazar said. "Those irregularities included more than 100 voters who did not complete the petition form themselves, as well as voters who signed a petition more than once, or did not live within the district."

Salazar said his office had forwarded the irregular petitions to the California secretary of state for further investigations. It wasn't clear what penalties, if any, the recall proponents could face.

Recall proponents said the irregularities were simply administrative mistakes and not attempts at voter fraud.

"More than anything, it was misleading information we received from the elections office," said Zonia Tovar. "We were told that as long as the voter signed, the petition circulator could write in their address."

Salazar said the proponents were given accurate information from his office, as well as a pamphlet that clearly explained the rules of the recall petition process.

Tamez said he was not surprised that the petition failed because of disqualified signatures.

"We've heard a lot about people being pressured to sign, or people soliciting signatures even though they are not the signed circulator," Tamez said. "We're very concerned about those irregularities, and we will pursue it to its fullest with the secretary of state."

The signature irregularities are the latest in a long series of elections issues in Parlier.

In February, Rodriguez and the trustees were at odds over Rodriguez's recommendation to reassign three principals. Board members initially approved the moves, but they later rescinded that vote.

In addition to the flap over principals, a point of contention for recall supporters has been the board's decision last spring to assign Juan R. Sandoval to a district position as director of curriculum, instruction and projects.

Sandoval is the Parlier school district employee who said police shocked him with stun guns more than 20 times at a board meeting in March 2006. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges of disrupting a public meeting and resisting arrest.

He said he wasn't given his allotted time to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Sandoval said no charges were ever filed against him, though he filed suit against the city of Parlier, alleging that police violated his civil rights and the department's use of force policy.

Juan Lopez, the district-office administrator reassigned to a principal's job when Sandoval was promoted, also filed suit against the district. Lopez says that school board members violated the state Education Code because his contract entitles him to the district-level job.

Thursday, recall proponents said they planned to meet with elections officials to review the rejected petitions, and to plan a new recall effort.

Salazar said that if successful, a future recall petition could launch a special election at a cost of between $15,000 and $20,000.

After the November election, the next regularly scheduled election is in February.