The Montclair City Council voted late Monday, March 21, to move ahead with censure proceedings against Council Member Ben Lopez, a former spokesperson for an anti-LGBTQ religious group accused by two male city employees of making unwanted sexual advances and creating a hostile work environment.
On April 4, the City Council will hold a public hearing and consider adopting a resolution to formally censure Lopez. Monday’s vote was 4-0 to consider censure, with Lopez abstaining.
Lopez made no comment about the censure or the allegations against him at the meeting.
A censure “serves as a collective act of public reprimand, rebuke or disapproval, rendering the subject behavior unacceptable,” according to a report by City Manager Edward Starr. A vote to censure most likely would include stripping Lopez of committee assignments, banning him from traveling to conferences and meetings and prohibiting him from speaking on behalf of the city.
Starr said all members of the city council received anti-sexual harassment training. Also, he said that, unlike a city employee, a council member is elected by the people and cannot be fired.
The issue surfaced earlier this month when the council met in closed session to discuss two lawsuits filed by the two employees against Lopez and the city. Edmund Garcia, a senior information technology specialist for the city, filed his lawsuit Dec. 7. Michael Fuentes, Montclair’s director of economic development, filed the second lawsuit Dec. 14. Both were filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
Garcia’s lawsuit alleges that Lopez, who the lawsuit says presents as a heterosexual man, repeatedly asked Garcia to engage in specific sex acts. The suit also alleges that Lopez took Garcia out to dinner and asked him about his sexual orientation.
The lawsuit recaps Lopez’s job from 2003 to about 2015 as a lobbyist and spokesperson for the Anaheim chapter of the Traditional Values Coalition, “a designated anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” The suit states that, during those 12 years, Lopez publicly lobbied and spoke against same-sex marriage, LGBTQ history curriculums in schools and the legal recognition and protections of transgender people.
In a 2010 article in the Pasadena Star-News about same-sex marriage, Lopez stated, “‘Gays want to boast and brag that they are making inroads — no, they are not … Go to my community. They will be rejected here soundly.’”
His comments about the gay community of Montclair, plus his long-held stances against gay rights prompted protests from the city’s LGBTQ community in December 2020. Many of the same people spoke out again Monday night.
“Are you a suppressed gay man living in denial? Is that why you attacked the LGBTQ folks for over a decade?” said Thuan Nguyen, a Montclair resident and doctoral student in sociology at USC.
Nguyen said he was frustrated by the same issues that he had raised before, resurfacing two years later.
The city hired an investigator in August 2021, who interviewed the two employees about their allegations and discussions with Lopez. Earlier this month, the investigator corroborated the allegations made by the employees, the city reported Monday.
Also, the report added a new allegation. It alleges that Lopez intentionally hid his identify from an employee while they communicated on social media dating sites. The investigator’s report added that the communications included “sharing of sexually explicit content and photographs.”
The city’s investigation was enough for the council to ask for a formal censure resolution.
“We have an obligation to the employees, to believe them and to protect them,” Council Member Corysa Martinez said before voting for the censure hearing. “The investigator found the factual allegations did, in fact, occur and the employees were credible.”
“Having heard the investigator’s research, I believe there are reasons for censure. We do not in any way condone Councilman Lopez’s behavior,” Council Member Tenice Johnson said.
Members of the public expressed frustration, anger and concern that Lopez was giving Montclair a bad reputation, will cost taxpayers for his defense and other special arrangements made to protect the two employees, and could prevent the city from landing future grant dollars.
“You can either resign, otherwise we are going to recall you,” resident Bruce Culp said.
Alma Trejo, a 23-year Montclair resident, reiterated concerns from 2020 about Lopez’s stances against the gay community.
“We weren’t wrong his homophobic rhetoric truly showed us who he truly is,” Trejo said.
She criticized Mayor John Dutrey and Mayor Pro-Tem Bill Ruh for supporting Lopez’s council run in November 2020.
“Mr. Lopez, if you really have any humility left or you care one bit about your career or your family or this community or the workers you would consider resigning,” she said.
Former City Council Member Carolyn Raft asked for Lopez’s resignation.
Trejo and others referenced a social media statement Lopez made in support of a Republican Congressional candidate from Montana. In the post, he called Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, who represents Montclair, “a dim-witted, bimbo congresswoman.”
Montclair resident Selena Gutierrez said she supported Lopez, who is a coach for her son’s baseball team.
“He has always been respectful and kind to my family,” she said at the meeting. “Coach Lopez has coached same-sex parents and never treated them any differently.”
Most spoke against Lopez, including Javier Hernandez, executive director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, who called the council member “divisive.”
Rob Pipersky, who ran for the council and lost in November 2020, said Lopez violated the sanctity of his elected position.
“Lopez is a liability that exposes the city in the future,” Pipersky said, and then called him “a liar and a hypocrite.”
Montclair will proceed with the censure hearing and vote, at which time Lopez will be allowed to respond, City Attorney Diane Robbins said.
“Mr. Lopez is entitled to be heard,” she said, adding he may participate in the censure resolution discussion and vote.