RIVERBANK — Keeping Jesse James White on the City Council could leave Riverbank open to lawsuits, an election law expert says.
That's one of the sticky questions Riverbank officials must consider as they evaluate options after a grand jury report released Wednesday.
The grand jury investigation found that White violated election law because he wasn't registered to vote in Riverbank when he first signed up to run in last year's council race.
The grand jury says the city should "invalidate" the election and remove White from office. Riverbank has hired an attorney for advice on the next steps.
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White said Thursday he couldn't comment. "I've been advised not to comment on it until we formally come out with our response," he said. He expects to release a response in about two weeks, he said.
Whatever it does, the city shouldn't be too hasty, said Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
He noted that a grand jury report amounts to accusations, and nothing more.
If the city tossed White off the council, the city probably would be violating White's due process rights, Benedetti said.
"At this point, this is an allegation," he said. "The councilman has a right to defend himself and say this is why (this happened). Until that process goes forward, the city is not compelled to do anything, and, frankly, neither is (White)."
White could choose to resign at any time; otherwise, he deserves his day in court, said Benedetti.
Can a city "invalidate" an election? Not quite, said Chris Skinnell, an attorney with a Marin County law firm that specializes in election law.
Any Riverbank voter could have contested the election on the grounds that White wasn't eligible, but the deadline to do that passed months ago, Skinnell said. Voters must file such complaints within 30 days of election results being certified.
But a private individual could ask the attorney general for what's called a "quo warranto" action. That means the attorney general would give an individual permission to file a lawsuit contesting the election.
It's possible that the City Council could act to remove White from office, Skinnell said. State law says city councils can judge whether a council member is qualified — and remove members who don't meet that criteria.
He cautioned that allowing White to remain on the council could leave Riverbank open to lawsuits. If White were the deciding vote on an ordinance that was challenged in court, an attorney could argue that White's vote was invalid, said Skinnell.
"They're allowing someone to make decisions on behalf of the city that isn't really qualified," he said.
Councilman Dave White, grandfather of Jesse James White, scoffed at that idea Thursday. "That's one person's opinion," he said.
'Elected by the people'
Dave White said he hadn't read the grand jury report because he's in Washington state. But he rejected the grand jury's suggestion that his grandson be removed from office.
"The people that elected him are the ones that should take him out," he said. "He was elected by the people."
The grand jury also raised concerns about the role of Riverbank's city clerk. The panel found that the city clerk didn't verify information on Jesse James White's candidacy papers.
However, that's not a clerk's job, said Skinnell. A clerk's function is "ministerial," said Skinnell, meaning the clerk must check forms to make sure they're filled out correctly. But clerks aren't allowed to investigate whether a candidate's claims are true, Skinnell said.
City Clerk Linda Abid-Cummings said the city followed the same procedure for Jesse James White as it does for all candidates.
On July 21, a city employee showed White a binder full of materials outlining candidate qualifications. The employee went over the requirements with White.
Then White signed a paper acknowledging that he met the requirements. In other words, White said he was registered to vote in Riverbank, he was a U.S. citizen and he would be 18 on Election Day.
Public records show White didn't become a registered voter until four days later, on July 25.
Abid-Cummings said the city forwards candidates' paperwork to the county election office for verification.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2378.