A trip to China that included the mayor, the city manager, a council member and his wife, and a city public works supervisor was the subject of scrutiny at a City Council meeting Tuesday.
Beating the naysayers to the punch, Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza addressed the trip early in the meeting during his mayor’s report. “I got invited through a friend and former mayor of Lathrop,” Espinoza told the crowd. “We had a great time up there and took a lot of pictures.”
Espinoza, who told the Merced Sun-Star it was his first time traveling to China as mayor, stressed that the trip was not paid for by taxpayers. “It was not paid by any city funds,” he said. “We paid most of our way and the China government paid the rest.”
In addition to Councilman Jim Soria, his wife and public works supervisor Ruben Mendoza, the trip included three to four business owners from the cities of Lathrop and Stockton, the mayor said.
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The unexpected announcement from Espinoza during Tuesday’s meeting didn’t appease some citizens, who still had questions about the 10-day expedition.
“It sounded like just the mayor and city manager were going alone, but it sounds like more (people) went,” said resident Katherine Schell-Rodriguez. “I’m curious as to why the Chinese government would be paying to bring people over.”
Espinoza said Wednesday he was asked by the former Lathrop mayor to invite 10 people on the trip. Some of the people he invited declined, the mayor said, but he had no method for picking the attendees.
A Livingston public works employees union recently questioned the mayor’s friendly relationship with Mendoza, in addition to accusing Mendoza of harassment.
Espinoza, however, said his friendship with Mendoza had nothing to do with him getting invited to China. “We’ve been friends, and we talk once in a while, but that didn’t play a part,” the mayor said.
A Facebook post on Espinoza’s page showed a picture of himself and Mendoza on a Bay Area train, applying for visas for the trip. He identified Mendoza as a friend in the post. “Yes I’ll be visiting China next month,” Espinoza posted of the trip. “With Ruben and other friends.”
Although Espinoza said the Chinese government covered the costs of the November trip, some city officials need to report the value of hotel, transportation and dining expenses to the state Fair Political Practices Commission on a Form 700 statement of economic interests.
Livingston City Manager Jose Ramirez said he chipped in about $1,800 to cover the costs of the trip, which he estimated at about $3,000. The mayor said he paid the same amount.
Ramirez called the China trip a “pleasure trip,” saying he used vacation hours to cover the time away from work. However, while in China, Ramirez said, he looked for opportunities to network for Livingston – possibly finding a sister city in China.
“I think China could be a good partner to the Valley, but I didn’t go on this trip wearing my city manager hat,” Ramirez said. “I went as a private individual who basically was participating and looking at economic development opportunities, sister city opportunities and looking for cultural exchanges.”
Ramirez declined to disclose the names of the business owners from Lathrop and Stockton who also attended, saying they are private citizens.
Councilman Soria, who attended the trip with his wife, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
In other city business, Planning Director Holly Owen on Tuesday asked the council’s permission to advertise a seat on the Planning Commission held by Mario Mendoza. His term expires Dec. 31, but a citizen read a statement at the meeting from Mendoza announcing his intent to reapply.
The City Council on Tuesday also elected Gurpal Samra to continue serving as mayor pro tem. Newly re-elected, Samra and Espinoza were also sworn in for another term during the meeting.
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.