A former Los Banos mayor, who was ordered to pay $17,500 to a man whose microphone was cut off during a City Council meeting in 2008, was denied his request Tuesday to have the city pay a portion of the damages.
Tommy Jones was ordered last year by a federal court in Fresno to pay $10,000 in general damages and $7,500 in punitive damages to resident Gene Forte after a jury found his civil rights were violated when a microphone went dead at a council meeting in 2008.
In a letter from this year, Jones asked the City Council to pay $7,500 of the damages, noting that he was acting within the scope of his duties as mayor at the time. The letter goes on to say that the microphone went off by accident.
Mayor Mike Villalta and Councilman Tom Faria were absent from the special meeting, so Jones needed “yes” votes from all three remaining members to support his request. Councilman Scott Silveira and Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove voted “yes” for Jones’ request, but Councilwoman Deborah Lewis voted “no.”
Villalta and Faria did not attend the special meeting on advice of legal counsel. Both men testified during a civil case in connection with the meeting and were advised not to attend to avoid a conflict of interest, Villalta said.
Jones pleaded his case to the council Tuesday during a special meeting. “This was a complete mistake,” he said. “I and no one up on the complete board knew the time was short.”
Jones said he couldn’t have had any malicious intent toward Forte, because he doesn’t know him.
Forte attended a Los Banos City Council meeting in May 2008 and addressed the council about a recall he had organized against Jones. Under council rules, Forte had five minutes to speak, but about two minutes into his time, as he was reading the recall petition, the microphone went dead.
Forte was escorted from the meeting by then Los Banos Police Chief Chris Gallagher. Forte said Jones gave the order to the chief, but Jones contends he gave no order.
Dozens of people spoke during the same meeting, but on an unrelated topic, according to all accounts. Jones contends that he mistakenly did not reset the timer on the microphone after the person before Forte was finished speaking, which led the system to turn the microphone off before Forte’s time was up.
Jones went on to say he sent a letter of apology to Forte about two weeks later, which he said is a sign that he did not purposely turn off the microphone.
Forte, who was also at the meeting this week, contends Jones intentionally let the microphone timer run. “They (City Council) all knew that microphone was cut off intentionally by Tommy Jones to shut me up and humiliate me,” he said during the meeting Tuesday.
Silveira said the city should pay for the damages assessed to Jones. “I could see that it could be an honest mistake,” he said. “I really do.”
He went on to say he has made mistakes while running the microphone system, which is controlled through a computer at the mayor’s seat on the dais. Stonegrove echoed his thought, saying she also believes Jones made a mistake and had no malicious intent.
Lewis said she believes Jones let the time run out on the microphone intentionally. “It seems to me that there’s tension between Mr. Jones and Mr. Forte over the issues that have gone on between them personally,” she said.
Jones said that while he respects the decision of the council, he will weigh his options for pursuing the money with the advice of attorneys. “(We’ll) sit down and say, ‘Where do I go from here?” he told the Sun-Star.
This story contains updated information.