Protesters seeking information about the death of Earl McNeil demonstrate during a meeting of the National City Council. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

National City is small, with roughly 60,000 residents, but it’s been the center of some of the biggest political dramas over the last year: allegations of sexual harassment, police misconduct and nepotism.

In one instance, an allegation by a Council member against another turned out to be completely made up. Still, taxpayers were left with the outside investigator’s bill.

Disagreements and feuds among members of governing bodies are inescapable.

But National City has taken things to another level. Its city government is split into two warring factions — with Mayor Ron Morrison, Vice Mayor Albert Mendivil and Councilman Jerry Cano are on one side, and Councilwomen Mono Rios and Alejandra Sotelo-Solis on the other — and the discord is so intense, it has led one Council member not to run for re-election and has started bleeding into otherwise non-controversial topics.

Community activists say personal interests and vendettas are getting in the way of basic governing.

This summer, city staff recommended that the local group Mundo Gardens oversee a new community garden at El Toyon Park, which was approved for agriculture and mostly vacant. Although Mundo Gardens has informally managed another garden in the area for almost a decade, Morrison asked that the city issue a request of proposals and qualifications before moving forward — delaying the process by as much as six months.

Morrison argued that the group was asking for special treatment. “We’ve got to treat everyone fairly,” he said.

Rios saw it differently. At a City Council meeting, she said the city had already checked around and couldn’t find another organization willing to take on the garden, which provided healthy food options to residents. The final vote was 3-2 in favor of issuing the request for proposals Morrison sought.

Sotelo-Solis later told Voice that Morrison had demanded proof of qualifications because Mundo Gardens was co-founded by someone related to the head of the local chamber of commerce, who — you guessed it — he said is too cozy with her and Rios. Morrison didn’t deny the tension, and said the chamber has also picked sides.

“We have, sounds like an oxymoron, but a very anti-business chamber of commerce right now and it has aligned itself with Alejandra and Mona,” he said. “It’s more into social and political issues than it is into business issues.”

Another disagreement unfolded in July, when the Council was preparing to amend a city ordinance that would exempt property owners from having to contribute to public improvements when requesting building permits for projects under $100,000.

On that occasion, it was Sotelo-Solis and Rios who slowed things down — or tried to. They questioned the timing of the change and said the city should wait until the conclusion of an investigation into whether Cano had used his political clout to evade building permits on his property. Later at the same meeting, an outside investigator cleared Cano of wrongdoing but conceded that he may have come to a different conclusion had Cano cooperated and agreed to an interview. The investigator had also looked into a complaint from Cano that Rios had inappropriately touched him, but Cano later admitted it had never happened.

City Attorney Angil Morris-Jones said the building permit change had been in the works for years prior to the Cano investigation.

“The whole purpose is to allow those small projects to be expedited as well as to cost less money,” she said. “It’s truly because of the complaints we received from the public.”

But while Sotelo-Solis agreed that the change would be beneficial to residents and business owners, she wasn’t persuaded by the city attorney’s reasoning, so she voted against the amendment.

Predictably, the Council has split on more significant issues too. The city’s internal conflict gained exposure after a black man who’d been in the custody of National City police died. Once again, it split the Council, with Sotelo-Solis and Rios suggesting that the city be more transparent about the investigation.

They tried to force the other Council members to put the death investigation up for discussion and a possible vote, unsuccessfully. Last year, Morrison, Mendivil and Cano changed city policy so that at least three votes would be required to add an item to the Council agenda.

Those who have lived in the community their entire lives say the tension among the city’s elected officials, although it reached a fever pitch this summer, is not new.

“It’s been crazy for many years,” said Mark Baca, a community organizer. “In order to understand National City, you have to understand that it is a disenfranchised community.”

Indeed, National City — the second oldest city in the county, with one of the highest poverty rates — is home to many low-income families of color who must deal with a lack of affordable housing and environmental health issues.

Marcus Bush, a former National City planning commissioner, said all those factors contribute to how the city is run, creating a sense of apathy among the electorate.

“There’s a lot of low-income, working-class families and voters who don’t have time to be engaged,” Bush said. “We have such a lower voter engagement, and they’re not following the Council meetings and the specific policies getting passed.”

In the last 52 years, National City has only had four mayors, one of whom served for 20 years. Two others, including Morrison, held the seat for more than 10 years.

“I think there needs to be fresh new blood,” Bush said.

Naturally, Morrison, who’s been mayor since 2006 and is about to be termed out, doesn’t agree.

“If you go to the blood bank, they won’t give you fresh blood,” he said. “It has to be tested first and a lot of people either haven’t been tested or if they were tested, they didn’t make the grade, and yet that doesn’t qualify for new blood or for change.”

Morrison supported Measure B in the June primary, which would have changed mayoral term limits from three four-year terms to two four-year terms for all city officials. If the measure had passed, it would have reset Morrison’s clock and allowed him to run again.

Instead, voters ended up passing Measure C, which stuck to the existing term limits. Morrison is currently running for a seat on the City Council, a position he held for 14 years prior to becoming mayor.

The original source of the dispute is unclear. Each of the City Council members who spoke with VOSD pointed to a different root.

Sotelo-Solis cited Morrison’s attempt to change term limits and raise his own pay by 32 percent.

Morrison said the tension lays mostly with the women on the Council, who are unwilling to compromise. “And it wasn’t because they are women, because we’ve had women on the Council before that I was allied with and we were very civil.”

Morrison said things started to get bad almost a decade ago when Rios’ and Sotelo-Solis’ supporters — including Bush  — accused Morrison’s executive assistant, Josie Flores Clark, of harassment and conflict of interest.

The ongoing disputes seem to be draining not just on the public, but on some members of the Council. Mendivil, who often sides with Morrison on contentious votes, acknowledged in an interview that “the way we’ve disagreed has not been healthy.”

He said he would not seek a second term in an effort to change the dynamic of the Council. But on his way out the door, he accused Rios of getting special treatment as the president of the Rotary Club years ago and pushed through yet another outside, taxpayer-funded investigation.

Rios and Cano did not return requests for an interview with VOSD.

Regardless of where the tension stems from, Baca, the National City community organizer, said a bit of the blame falls on every member of the Council, because their collective actions affect all local residents.

“We don’t have leaders,” he said. “They just take care of themselves and their circle of friends.”

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