A heated exchange during the Gilroy City Council’s Sept. 19 meeting led one councilmember to file a police report after a resident claimed the public would “do stuff to make your life miserable.”
Ron Kirkish of Gilroy, who made the statement toward Councilmembers Zach Hilton and Rebeca Armendariz, told the Dispatch on Sept. 20 that he meant what he said, but his words were “not violent in any way.”
The incident stemmed from a Sept. 16 Dispatch article, which reported that the Santa Clara County Democratic Party pulled its endorsement of Councilmember Fred Tovar, saying his policy positions are in “direct conflict” with the party’s platform. Hilton was among a handful of others who brought the resolution forward to the party, which was unanimously approved by its Central Committee on Sept. 8.
Armendariz is also an active member of the local Democratic Party.
At the beginning of the council’s public comment period, where attendees are allowed to speak on issues that will not be covered during the meeting, Kirkish, directing his attention to Hilton, said he was “appalled” after reading the article.
“I served in the Air Force, and my job was to listen in on communist communication,” he said. “What I’m reading in here is a communist communication. This is so wrong.”
Kirkish said he supported Tovar during the 2020 election, even though they are from different political parties.
“I know that you are an independent thinker, and that’s what I wanted out of you,” he told Tovar. “I don’t want you to be subservient to Hilton’s agenda.”
As soon as Kirkish said this, Armendariz said it was “out of order,” which sparked a vehement back-and-forth between Kirkish and the councilmember that extended for more than a minute.
“It’s my comments. Shut your mouth,” Kirkish told Armendariz, to which she responded, “How dare you.”
City Attorney Andy Faber then leaned over to Mayor Marie Blankley, telling her quietly that “you may restore order.”
Blankley requested Armendariz to not interrupt, but it didn’t stop Armendariz and Kirkish from continuing their squabble.
“Mayor, I would like us to not be attacked personally,” Armendariz said. “Folks are not supposed to direct their comments toward us.”
“I can do anything I want, like you do,” Kirkish fired back, leading Armendariz to say, “I’m sure you think you can.”
Blankley directed Kirkish to finish speaking during his allotted time.
“I’m very angry. This has never happened in our community. It’s happening all too often by these two people,” he said, pointing to Armendariz and Hilton. “It’s got to stop, and if it doesn’t stop, we’re going to do stuff. This community is going to do stuff to make your life miserable, both of you.”
As Kirkish walked away, Armendariz responded, “Were those threats? That’s not appropriate.”
After the meeting, Hilton said he reported the incident to the police and city administration. He added that the city is required to provide a safe working environment, pointing to California Penal Code 76, which protects elected officials.
“Threats against public officials undermine democracy,” Hilton said. “An elected public official should make decisions based on what benefits the community, not based on whether a decision will cause the public official to be harmed in any way.
“Modern politics can be polarized and toxic, but we must never normalize or tolerate threats.”
Kirkish said he wasn’t threatening violence toward Hilton and Armendariz. Rather, he said he is going to use social media and his lengthy email distribution list to “expose them for what they truly are, in my mind.”
“If they are going to try to make Fred Tovar’s life miserable, then I will do my best to make their lives miserable,” he said, adding that the two have also “attacked” other councilmembers via social media. “I’m just going to do exactly what they are doing to them.”
After the meeting, Blankley said comments such as Kirkish’s that are directed at elected officials are “not unusual.”
“Unfortunately, members of the public and elected officials alike often do stuff to make life miserable for those with whom they disagree,” she said. “Criticism of a public official by name and references to making that person’s life miserable cannot be prohibited by the public rules of a public body. Although there was a heated exchange, that alone did not constitute an actual disruption of the meeting or an actual threat of the use of force.”