In response to a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct by Robert
Ornelas, about 15 residents attended Wednesday’s Parks and
Recreation Commission meeting supporting a requested removal of the
Recreation Division’s top manager from his post.
Hollister resident Ron Miller
– who runs a children’s theater program through the Recreation
Division – spoke on behalf of the group. The assemblage included
parents of kids involved in recreation programs, family and friends
of the women named in the suit and former Recreation Division
employees, according to Miller.
In response to a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct by Robert Ornelas, about 15 residents attended Wednesday’s Parks and Recreation Commission meeting supporting a requested removal of the Recreation Division’s top manager from his post.
Hollister resident Ron Miller – who runs a children’s theater program through the Recreation Division – spoke on behalf of the group. The assemblage included parents of kids involved in recreation programs, family and friends of the women named in the suit and former Recreation Division employees, according to Miller.
The public’s perception of the division, Miller told the five attending members of the Commission, is one of “disarray.” Ornelas, seated toward the front of the City Hall Chambers, could only listen.
“We feel that he doesn’t feel the rules apply to him and his position,” said Miller, standing from his seat in the gallery. “And worst of all, we feel he’s putting our children at risk – not just my children, but anybody’s children that are involved with city recreation.”
As a comparison, Miller brought up Marty Dillon, San Benito High School’s former athletic director and softball coach. Dillon, as Miller pointed out, was dismissed from his position in 2002 while the school district investigated allegations of sexual misconduct. Miller asked that Ornelas also be suspended.
“And now we have six women come out with similar sexual harassment, sexual assault, intimidation and we don’t have his removal?” Miller asked. “We are asking for his removal from his position.”
Six women – either current or former Recreation Division employees – filed the suit Nov. 17 seeking monetary damages from the city and Ornelas. One of them is 17 years old.
The suit alleges Ornelas’ behavior at work or work-related functions has included groping, kissing, touching body parts and threats toward job security, among others. The city, according to the suit, knew about the allegations and did not take appropriate corrective actions.
Responding to a complaint in July 2002 from Lisa Borges, a division employee and one of the women named in the suit, Hollister officials investigated Ornelas’ alleged actions. So did the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The city found Ornelas had violated city policy, but his actions had not fostered a hostile work environment. The state agency also found no violations of law.
“What is it going to take for the city to wake up?” Miller asked. “Another suit? Another child to be injured?”
Responses were vague Wednesday from the Commissioners and Ornelas’ immediate supervisor, Management Services Director Clay Lee. And Ornelas, well after the public comment period, left the meeting about 20 minutes before its completion and did not return.
As Lee explained, however, the Commission and other city officials – including Ornelas – could not comment on the group’s attendance or their call for Ornelas’ removal.
“The bottom line is – it’s a personnel matter,” said Lee, who went on to point out they are further restricted because the matter is in litigation.
Commission Chairman Robert Baumgartner also addressed the audience, saying, “We’re just an advisory committee,” and their concerns would be expressed to City Council members.
After the meeting, Commissioner Adam Breen said he wasn’t aware – going into the meeting – about the residents’ oncoming outcry. But he said the Commission meetings usually draw one or two audience members. So he realized what would likely occur when the crowd showed up.
“We appreciate everyone’s concerns,” Breen said. “We understand the confusion level, frustration, anger – because there are a lot of accusations out there.”
One other resident in attendance – whose child is involved with the division’s Kinder Dance program – also commented after the meeting.
“I think there should be some sort of suspension until some sort of investigation is done,” said Hollister resident Ernest Mendoza. “And I don’t want him anywhere near my kid ’till he’s cleared, which I don’t think is going to happen.”
After the meeting, Miller said he understood Baumgartner’s stance – but not Lee’s, he said.
“I’m disappointed in Clay Lee that he’s the immediate supervisor and he’s calling it a personnel issue,” Miller said, “when I’m calling it a safety issue.”
The city has 21 more days to respond to the suit. After that, the lengthy trial process could begin.