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It's the Gadflies vs. the Officials in Downey Feud

March 12, 1989|RICK HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — They see themselves as governmental watchdogs who make sure city officials do not abuse their power and waste public money.

But to some City Council members and city officials, John Gonzalez, Lennie Whittington and Stanley Wantuch are pesky gadflies who disrupt the workings of government.

The feud has been running for years. And Downey officials have not shied away from taking legal action against their most outspoken critics:

Wantuch is facing trial on misdemeanor charges of disrupting two council meetings and obstructing a police officer.

Six current and former city officials, who say they were harassed, have won restraining orders against Gonzalez in the past several years.

Whittington was arrested by city police and charged in 1986 with making annoying telephone calls to a city official and a resident, but a jury acquitted him on one charge and deadlocked on the other.

"Anybody who rubs them the wrong way, or is a thorn in their side, they try to eliminate you through the legal process," Whittington said in a recent interview.

But Mayor Robert G. Cormack said the three deserved everything they got.

'Baiting Staff'

"They were given every opportunity to cease and desist before there was any legal action," Cormack said. "They were baiting staff."

The three have said they became governmental vigilantes after they were mistreated, at one time or another, by officials in their cities. Whittington and Gonzalez live in Downey. Wantuch said he lives in residences in Bell Gardens and Bellflower. Wantuch said he first attended a Downey council meeting a couple of years ago when Gonzalez hired him to videotape a session.

At most council meetings, Gonzalez takes the podium and lashes out at the council. He often calls council members liars and thieves and says he has information that will lead to their prosecution, but he almost always fails to deliver the evidence.

During her term as mayor last year, Councilwoman Diane P. Boggs was frequently so agitated by the outbursts that her lip would tremble, she would slam down her gavel and have Gonzalez escorted to his seat or out of the meeting. Cormack has followed suit.

The more soft-spoken Whittington usually voices his objections to a proposal or a past council action and takes his seat. Wantuch routinely videotapes council meetings and sometimes argues against proposals.

Gonzalez and Whittington also frequent City Hall to pore over documents in search of improprieties. Gonzalez and Whittington, for example, provided documents to Deputy Dist. Atty. Herbert Lapin for last year's trial of former Councilman James S. Santangelo.

Santangelo was accused of misdemeanor conflict-of-interest for voting to expand the city's redevelopment district. He owned property in the existing area and in the proposed expansion area. A mistrial was called after the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 for conviction. The district attorney's office decided not to retry the case after Santangelo lost a reelection bid last year, Lapin said.

In Local Politics

Whittington and Wantuch also have been involved in local politics, including election campaigns and petition drives in their cities. The activists say they may be involved in similar activities but do not usually work together.

The Downey council and city officials have long taken action--aimed mostly at Gonzalez--to control the critics.

City officials obtained the restraining orders against Gonzalez, preventing him from following them or calling their homes.

And last year the council on a 3-2 vote passed an ordinance that strictly controls conduct at its bimonthly meetings. In 1986, the council rejected a similar ordinance in the face of public opposition.

The ordinance prohibits demonstrations, placards and posters in the council chambers. It also requires, in most cases, that anyone videotaping be seated or positioned at the back of the council chamber. The ordinance also locked into law the five-minute limit on speakers that previously was city policy.

Cormack, who directed staff to draw up the 1988 ordinance, said he acted in response to Gonzalez and Wantuch but that the city needed such a law anyway.

City residents "have every right in the world to give us their viewpoint," Cormack said. "The public does not have the right to talk about anything they want. They (critics) will come to a council meeting to disrupt."

There was considerable opposition to the ordinance. The League of Women Voters of Downey, for example, said the measure is too restrictive.

Wantuch was arrested last November shortly after Frances Saurenmann, president of the Downey League of Women Voters, spoke against the ordinance. He had been ejected from the previous meeting after he failed to obey Cormack's order to be seated while videotaping.

Ordered Him Seated

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