Norwalk city council selects new mayor, but may have violated open meetings law

Luigi Vernola and Jennifer Perez after Tuesday's meeting. Photo courtesy city of Norwalk

Luigi Vernola and Jennifer Perez after Tuesday's meeting. Photo courtesy city of Norwalk

NORWALK – Bucking tradition, the Norwalk City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to select first term and now sophomore fellow member, Jennifer Perez, as the new mayor of Norwalk, which is home to approximately 110,000 residents.

Vice Mayor Leonard Shryock cast a “No” vote against the nomination but joined the council in unanimously confirming the nomination of Margarita Rios as the new vice mayor.

After Perez took her seat in the center of the five-seat podium area, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, she went on to highlight the direction she hoped to see the City of Norwalk move.

The PowerPoint was prepared with Perez’s goals and likeness, prompting questions whether Tuesday’s mayoral vote was decided before the public meeting, which would violate the state’s open meeting laws.

According to Norwalk city staff member Adriana Figueroa,” We (city staff) normally prepare a generic PowerPoint (for the new mayor’s use). We had a hunch that Jennifer was going to be nominated.”

When asked who shared that hunch, Figueroa said that City Manager Jose Gomez “had shared that he had a hunch that there was a likelihood of Jennifer Perez getting the nomination.”
The PowerPoint had Jenifer Perez’s name on it at least 24 hours prior to her actually being selected as the new mayor, city staff members confirmed.

“I speak with the council members on a regular basis,” Gomez told the Patriot in an interview Wednesday night. “I had a council member say that he was going to nominate her (Jennifer Perez).”

When asked if Luigi Vernola was that source, Gomez only reiterated, “I had a council member say he was going to nominate her.”

Additionally, Gomez confirmed that this statement was made to him in “the early afternoon of Monday (April 2),” prior to the closed session 5 p.m. council meeting regarding a solid waste contract.

When asked if he had knowledge of any discussion between council members of the proposed nomination, the city manager said no.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Perez said that she and Shryock “were going in a different direction.” 

She confirmed that “my peers and I have been having individual conversations” regarding what she described as “being ready for the new year.” 

“I have to be careful not to violate the Brown Act,” Perez added.

According to Assistant City Clerk Marissa Asistin, “In the time in my position with the city of Norwalk [nearly 20 years], I cannot recall a vice mayor not moving up into the position of mayor.”

Norwalk mayor Jennifer Perez on Tuesday. Photo courtesy city of Norwalk

Norwalk mayor Jennifer Perez on Tuesday. Photo courtesy city of Norwalk

She went on to confirm that she had also checked internal records to affirm that statement.
Shryock’s family did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, where theoretically he would have been voted mayor of Norwalk. Shyrock declined to attend festivities celebrating Perez’s selection as mayor.

Tuesday’s actions confirmed the first all-female mayor/vice mayor team in Norwalk’s history. With Perez’s selection as mayor, it also represents the first father-daughter pair to have held Norwalk’s mayor chair. Perez’s father, Bob Arthur, held the position 25 years ago. 

Resembling a final farewell rather than a transition of power, a video depicting the history and accolades of now former mayor Luigi Vernola was shown with 20 guests offering their congratulations and salutations in a packed council chambers.

In what seemed tantamount to a farewell address, Vernola cited many strides he has seen in the city. He pointed out the hiring of a new city manager and deputy city manager, saying “You have brought [back] trust to the council and city.”

Vernola sounded proud, if not defiant, in his words to his peers on the city council.

“To my colleagues, thank you for your support,” he said. “We’re on a path and we’re not going to be deterred by anything or anyone.”

A who’s who of local political and business representation lined up to present Vernola with certificates of appreciation and tokens of gratitude.

Those offering their congratulations were: US House Representative Linda Sanchez office, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Janice Hahn’s office, Los Angeles Sheriff Department, cities of Santa Fe Springs, Artesia and Downey, Little Lake School District, Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District, Cerritos College, Whittier Union High School District, Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, Norwalk Coordinating Council, Norwalk Lions Club, Soroptimist International, United Parents Club, and the Norwalk Senior Center Bingo Board.

The positions of mayor and vice mayor will be a one-year duration with no new council election slated until 2020.

After things settled down in the council chamber, the council and guests joined each other in a reception held on the lawn next to the city hall.

Shryock declined to attend.

By Raul Samaniego, contributor