It’s the Gadflies vs. the Officials in Downey Feud
They see themselves as governmental watchdogs who make sure city officials do not abuse their power and waste public money.
But to some City Council members and city officials, John Gonzalez, Lennie Whittington and Stanley Wantuch are pesky gadflies who disrupt the workings of government.
The feud has been running for years. And Downey officials have not shied away from taking legal action against their most outspoken critics:
Wantuch is facing trial on misdemeanor charges of disrupting two council meetings and obstructing a police officer.
Six current and former city officials, who say they were harassed, have won restraining orders against Gonzalez in the past several years.
Whittington was arrested by city police and charged in 1986 with making annoying telephone calls to a city official and a resident, but a jury acquitted him on one charge and deadlocked on the other.
“Anybody who rubs them the wrong way, or is a thorn in their side, they try to eliminate you through the legal process,” Whittington said in a recent interview.
But Mayor Robert G. Cormack said the three deserved everything they got.
“They were given every opportunity to cease and desist before there was any legal action,” Cormack said. “They were baiting staff.”
The three have said they became governmental vigilantes after they were mistreated, at one time or another, by officials in their cities. Whittington and Gonzalez live in Downey. Wantuch said he lives in residences in Bell Gardens and Bellflower. Wantuch said he first attended a Downey council meeting a couple of years ago when Gonzalez hired him to videotape a session.
At most council meetings, Gonzalez takes the podium and lashes out at the council. He often calls council members liars and thieves and says he has information that will lead to their prosecution, but he almost always fails to deliver the evidence.
During her term as mayor last year, Councilwoman Diane P. Boggs was frequently so agitated by the outbursts that her lip would tremble, she would slam down her gavel and have Gonzalez escorted to his seat or out of the meeting. Cormack has followed suit.
The more soft-spoken Whittington usually voices his objections to a proposal or a past council action and takes his seat. Wantuch routinely videotapes council meetings and sometimes argues against proposals.
Gonzalez and Whittington also frequent City Hall to pore over documents in search of improprieties. Gonzalez and Whittington, for example, provided documents to Deputy Dist. Atty. Herbert Lapin for last year’s trial of former Councilman James S. Santangelo.
Santangelo was accused of misdemeanor conflict-of-interest for voting to expand the city’s redevelopment district. He owned property in the existing area and in the proposed expansion area. A mistrial was called after the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 for conviction. The district attorney’s office decided not to retry the case after Santangelo lost a reelection bid last year, Lapin said.
In Local Politics
Whittington and Wantuch also have been involved in local politics, including election campaigns and petition drives in their cities. The activists say they may be involved in similar activities but do not usually work together.
The Downey council and city officials have long taken action--aimed mostly at Gonzalez--to control the critics.
City officials obtained the restraining orders against Gonzalez, preventing him from following them or calling their homes.
And last year the council on a 3-2 vote passed an ordinance that strictly controls conduct at its bimonthly meetings. In 1986, the council rejected a similar ordinance in the face of public opposition.
The ordinance prohibits demonstrations, placards and posters in the council chambers. It also requires, in most cases, that anyone videotaping be seated or positioned at the back of the council chamber. The ordinance also locked into law the five-minute limit on speakers that previously was city policy.
Cormack, who directed staff to draw up the 1988 ordinance, said he acted in response to Gonzalez and Wantuch but that the city needed such a law anyway.
City residents “have every right in the world to give us their viewpoint,” Cormack said. “The public does not have the right to talk about anything they want. They (critics) will come to a council meeting to disrupt.”
There was considerable opposition to the ordinance. The League of Women Voters of Downey, for example, said the measure is too restrictive.
Wantuch was arrested last November shortly after Frances Saurenmann, president of the Downey League of Women Voters, spoke against the ordinance. He had been ejected from the previous meeting after he failed to obey Cormack’s order to be seated while videotaping.
Ordered Him Seated
Wantuch began talking about his ejection from the past meeting and the restrictions of the proposed ordinance, but Cormack ruled that he was digressing, and ordered him to be seated. Wantuch refused and was carried out of the room by Downey police.
Cormack declined comment on the specifics of the incident because of the charges against Wantuch, and because Wantuch has filed a $50,000 claim against Downey. But he said Wantuch has repeatedly disrupted city business and deserved to be arrested.
“I don’t feel they have a right to get up there and just harass,” Cormack said.
In a recent interview, Wantuch said he needs to be able to move around the council chamber to produce good videotapes. Wantuch said he began taping Downey council meetings a couple of years ago for Gonzalez. Since then, he said, he has taped them for other residents and sometimes on his own. Wantuch is often accompanied to the council meetings by his father, Al Wantuch of Bell Gardens, who also is a community activist.
“It’s a permanent record,” said Wantuch, 22, who makes a living applying acoustic ceilings.
Wantuch’s trial is scheduled for March 14, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Everett Emerson. Each of the three charges carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, Emerson said. In turn, Wantuch’s $50,000 claim against the city alleges that he suffered back, neck and shoulder injuries when he was removed.
Just before Wantuch was hauled out of the November council meeting, Councilwoman Boggs told officers to make sure he was arrested. “He was going to stay there and make a confrontation,” she said in a recent interview. “I think that’s what part of their little game is, the lawsuit game.”
Would Defend Rights
But Wantuch said his only intention was to defend his right to say his piece.
“Whether it be a bum on the street or a councilman, I’m going to defend the rights of the Constitution,” Wantuch said.
The Wantuchs also regularly attend and debate proposals at Bell Gardens council meetings. Stanley Wantuch also has been ejected from the Bell Gardens council chamber, allegedly for being disruptive.
Downey officials decided Whittington had gone too far in 1986, when he called City Hall to complain about whether there had been proper notice for a Library Advisory Board meeting that Whittington had missed. During a series of calls, Whittington allegedly directed profanity at a city employee. Whittington denied that allegation. Whittington also denied he was guilty of abusing a resident over the telephone. The resident had written a letter, which was published in a local paper, complaining that council critics were acting like children.
“If (Mayor) Cormack had his way, he’d round up all the activists and put them in an internment camp and he’d be the gatekeeper,” Whittington said.
A 51-year-old disabled veteran, Whittington has been involved in a variety of civic affairs. He served for two years on the city’s Health and Sanitation Committee, was an aide to former Councilman Bob Davila, and has been involved in city election campaigns.
Whittington said his attitude toward the city changed in 1982 when he was removed from the Health and Sanitation Committee. The council voted 4 to 1 to remove Whittington after he accused several council members of holding a secret meeting. Councilman Randall R. Barb said Whittington had become too disruptive.
Since then, Whittington said, he has declared war and stepped up his efforts to try to uncover any improprieties by city officials. For example, he periodically reviews expense records.
Sued the City
Whittington sued the city in 1983, claiming officials violated his civil rights by conducting a criminal investigation of his background. He lost the case in December, 1984, in Los Angeles federal court. Whittington appealed, but reached an out-of-court settlement in which the city agreed to drop its request that Whittington pay $2,209 in court costs, according to lawyers for Whittington and the city.
City officials are kindest to Whittington. Councilmen Cormack and Barb said they have little use for Whittington but added that he is not as disruptive as Gonzalez or Wantuch. Councilwoman Boggs says Whittington usually does his homework. Whittington supported Boggs in her campaign for City Council in 1984.
“He is a legitimate watchdog and because of Lennie, it keeps people on their toes a little more,” Boggs said.
But Boggs, like Cormack and Barb, accused Wantuch and Gonzalez of only wanting to disrupt.
It is Gonzalez, 54, who probably most irks city officials. Gonzalez, an unemployed building contractor, declined to comment for this article.
Gonzalez’s problems with the city began in the early 1980s when he began making improvements to his Orizaba Avenue home. The city prosecuted him for failing to correct numerous building and safety code violations. He was sentenced in 1986 to 30 days in jail and served his time. Gonzalez has accused city officials of acting against him to silence criticism.
Boggs is one of the officials who has a restraining order against Gonzalez. She recently had her original three-year restaining order renewed through 1991. It bars Gonzalez from telephoning, harassing, threatening, striking or following Boggs. She obtained her original order, she said, after someone followed her car one night. The next morning, Boggs said, Gonzalez called her and said he knew where she lived.
Public Works Director Bill Ralph also had obtained a restraining order. Gonzalez called Ralph’s home one night in 1987 and scared his daughter, Ralph said. Ralph became so enraged that he called back Gonzalez and threatened to kill him if he did not stop calling.
A person, who asked not to be identified, lodged a complaint with the district attorney’s office alleging that Ralph had made a threatening phone call worthy of prosecution. Officials from the district attorney’s office interviewed Ralph but decided not to prosecute, finding that a jury would probably determine that Ralph had been “driven to near desperation by Gonzalez’ harassment of him and his family,” according to a report.
“I did threaten him,” Ralph said. “I was extremely angry. (It was) in the heat of the moment. I’ve never hurt a soul in my life.”