Amid a tumultuous week for the Los Banos Unified School District board of trustees, the Merced County Election’s Office confirmed Thursday that votes cast last week narrowly favored removing John Mueller from the board. But it’s unclear whether the fight is over.
Mueller, a 36-year-old independent contractor by trade, lost the effort to save his seat as the District 7 trustee by just 13 votes, with 182 ballots cast supporting his removal to 169 against, election results show.
Barbara Levey, the Merced County registrar of voters, confirmed the results released Thursday had been finalized and were official. Levey said the 352 ballots cast on Aug. 23 — which amounts to just about 18 percent turnout — had been counted by hand during the final canvas.
The ballots were cast before news broke Monday that the Merced County District Attorney’s Office was investigating alleged corruption by a fellow member of the board, Tommy Jones, and Greg Opinski, a Merced contractor who had been awarded a school expansion project.
Mueller said Thursday that had the investigation been revealed before the recall vote, he would have kept his seat.
“Oh, 150 percent, it would’ve affected the outcome,” he told the Sun-Star. “It would’ve given the voters in Los Banos a perspective of what other board members were really doing. The results would have been positive in my favor.”
Mueller also said he hopes the district attorney’s office will look into the recall campaign for possible wrongdoing.
As a result of the Aug. 23 vote, Mueller will be replaced by Ray Martinez, a former Santa Clara County firefighter. Martinez will be sworn into office at the upcoming Sept. 8 meeting, board President Anthony Parreira confirmed in a telephone interview.
“I can say that Mr. Mueller was a very good board member and he will be missed,” Parreira said Thursday.
Martinez said he was “honored” and “grateful” to have won election to the school board.
“I want to build relationships with (constituents) and I want to focus on dealing with the things that need to get done,” Martinez said a telephone interview.
Martinez said he hopes to help end the acrimony that has characterized a radically divided school board this year. He also said he wanted to help improve test scores and work to ensure student safety on Los Banos campuses.
“We need to refocus and get things done that will improve our student test scores,” he said. “The scores that came out last year were not acceptable.”
Mueller, who remained highly critical of the drive to remove him from office, congratulated Martinez on his election and wished him well on the board.
“I hope he represents District 7 to the best of his abilities,” Mueller said.
The effort to remove Mueller from his seat sparked nearly a year ago, led by Baldo Salcido and the Community Advocacy Coalition. Salcido and others accused Mueller of “disruptive behavior” at board meetings, as well as condoning nepotism and blamed Mueller for the district’s low test scores, while also criticizing his support of a deal to build a new school building.
Salcido said his “biggest problem” with Mueller was that, he felt, Mueller was “not responsive” to concerns raised by constituents.
Mueller refuted those claims and said blaming him for the school board’s bitter divide oversimplified a variety of complex, deep-seeded issues.
Mueller said he hopes the Merced County District Attorney’s Office will investigate the recall campaign and its proponents. He said he believes many of the people involved in the effort to oust him also were involved in a high-profile and controversial vote on July 26 to award a construction contract to Greg Opinski.
Opinski and Jones face charges of bribery in connection with the vote to award Opinski a contract to build 15 new classrooms at Mercey Springs Elementary School. They are accused of paying off another trustee to vote for Opinski to win the contract.
In what turned out to be Mueller’s final act as a trustee, the school board on Wednesday voted to cancel the hotly disputed contract with Opinski’s company.
“The group behind this recall are Tommy Jones’ biggest supporters,” Mueller said Thursday. “And I think it calls into question, in my mind, what else may have been paid for and what else may have been done.”
Jones has denied any involvement in the recall campaign. Salcido, while describing Jones as “a good friend,” also has denied Jones played a role in the effort against Mueller. Salcido brushed off Mueller’s request for a criminal investigation into the recall, saying Mueller was “being a sore loser.”
“He can ask for all the investigations he wants; nothing illegal happened,” Salcido said.
District Attorney Larry Morse II said he would be willing to meet with Mueller, but said he was not aware of any information that could possibly lead to an investigation.
“And, if there’s some kind of evidence he can point us to, then we’d follow that and take a look at it,” Morse said.
Mueller said he hasn’t decided whether to ask for a recount of the vote. He said wasn’t “necessarily disappointed” with the outcome of the recall, saying the financial burden it placed on the schools “hurt” the students.
“I think it’s the students who were hurt more than I was hurt by this,” Mueller said. “I’ve been happy to serve on the board and I hope the good things I did for the kids will help them with a good education and equal opportunities. Though I’m not on the board anymore, I know I had a lot of support, a lot of support from teachers, and I thank them for that.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482