After learning that Councilmember Jaime Soto had yet another “dose of drama” to serve them, San Fernando residents who attended the council meeting on Monday, March 7, were quick to respond.
Soto, after removing his appointed Planning and Preservation Commissioner David Bernal without explanation, proposed to replace him with Alvaro Castellon, the former San Fernando police officer who was removed from the local force two years ago after a series of very public and sordid interconnected scandals.
Outraged residents and the police union lined up to speak out against the appointment, but Soto wasn’t there to hear them. City Clerk Elena Chavez reported that Soto said he had a “family emergency and might not make the meeting.” The concerns were heard without him.
Residents and members of the police department were somewhat stunned that Soto would make an attempt to bring Castellon back to the City. A separation settlement was reached with the former officer for a quiet departure after Castellon — at the center of a massive fallout — added to the City’s financial burden, caused public embarrassment and negatively impacted the police department.
Irwin Rosenberg, secretary of the Police Officers Association, told the council that the police union vehemently opposes the Castellon appointment.
“This appointment is a disturbing disappointment to the POA and a shock to the community. It’s an insult to the men and woman who work for the City, and to the police department,” Rosenberg said.
“It’s a matter of public record that Castellon was to be terminated in 2013 as a result of numerous investigations for alleged misconduct.”
To avoid termination, Castellon signed a “settlement agreement,” which Rosenberg pointed out prevents him from working in any capacity at any time for the City of San Fernando — including volunteering to serve as a commissioner.
Rosenberg said he was concerned with Soto’s motivations to attempt such an appointment.
“He (Soto) was not part of the City leadership and [didn’t] live in the City when the rest of us were trying to move the City forward and out of financial bankruptcy,” he said. “We don’t want to see the City go back to divisive politics of the past.”
“Mr. Soto was not part of the City and this only opens up old wounds that divide and conquer this City. Perhaps the City attorney needs to examine if there is a conflict of interest by Councilman Soto,” Rosenberg said.
Mayor Joel Farardo said he stands with David Bernal, and believes the commissioner’s seat he was removed from is better left vacant than “play these games.”
“He (Bernal) should wear this as a badge of honor because it speaks to his credibility. He was fired because he refused to show hatred for certain ideas, people and certain organizations. I for one won’t stand for these games and by appointing someone else, would support Soto’s actions,” Fajardo said.
Fajardo suggested that the council not wait for Soto to find someone else, because he believes Soto would only select someone who would do whatever he asked.
“We need someone who is open-minded and willing to hear new ideas,” Fajardo said.
Residents, including former council member Jesse Avila and Linda Jauron Campanella, retold personal accounts of Castellon’s acts of intimidation.
Avila pointed out that not everyone is aware of the history.
“It wasn’t just about his love triangle,” Avila said of Castellon. “He abandoned his job at the police department to follow us for several minutes. His lack of judgment is only mirrored by the council member who is not here.”
“You must understand the fear that people have with the possibility that he could come back. It’s an issue of respect. [The appointment of Castellon] would be taking steps backward and we would lose the community’s respect and the greater community that includes the county and state – they are looking at us.”
Campanella was also in the car when Castellon followed them.
“He followed us to an appointment, and he alerted girlfriend Brenda Esqueda and facilitated her ambush of us,” Campanella said. “They blocked access to our car and [Esqueda] encouraged her daughter to park in the middle of street to block us. After several minutes when we were able to get to our car; we drove straight to the police station to file a harassment complaint, and found out that he was supposed to be working at the station.”
Campanella said that Castellon, after that incident, “repeatedly drove back and forth in front of our house in his private vehicle” in an apparent act of intimidation during the course of the City Council recall campaign.
“I continue to be afraid of Mr. Castellon, as now he and Mrs. Esqueda now live around the corner from us. I am appalled by the lack of professionalism and seriousness used by this council member on behalf of this applicant. The very idea of this irresponsible nomination exhibits a gross lack of judgement and consideration.”
Resident Yolanda Haro said she was also very disappointed,.
”I hold David Bernal in high regard. Not only has he served our City with integrity, but he has served our country with loyalty. He has been able to sit down with the leaders, City developers and business owners without compromising the oath that he took when he was appointed. I’m very disappointed and sad.”
Prior to his removal, Castellon faced numerous allegations that included intimidating residents, misusing his position on the police force and leaving his assigned post to engage in unauthorized activities, which included being personal backup for former Mayor and council member Brenda Esqueda who frequently contacted him.
Castellon was also closely aligned with former police Chief Anthony “Tony” Ruelas, who stepped down after a cadet came forward about their inappropriate affair and subsequent harassment, The cadet produced photos and emails that documented the affair.
Castellon, married at the time, became involved in an affair of his own with Esqueda who supported his belief that he would be the next in line following Ruelas to be the Chief of Police. Following Ruelas’ departure, Castellon lashed out when his perceived plans were foiled.
During this time, the City had a difficult time conducting business as media trucks rolled into town. Residents organized a recall election that ultimately removed two council members, Esqueda and Maribel De La Torre. A third council member, Mario Hernandez, who publicly confessed his affair with De La Torre, resigned before the recall election was held.
Without Soto present for discussion, the proposed appointment of Castellon was moved to the next council meeting.
However, given the City’s settlement agreement with Castellon and without three affirmative council votes, it is unlikely the appointment would to go forward.