La prensa

National City Officials Violated State Law in Turkey Giveaway

National City Council
Author: La Prensa
Created: 15 February, 2024
Updated: 16 February, 2024
4 min read

By Alberto Garcia
Investigative Reporter

A City Councilman gave away free turkeys in November and later received reimbursement from his City Manager, all in violation of state Constitutional restrictions and laws prohibiting the gift of public funds.

Jose Rodriguez, a City Councilman in National City, held an event at a local park on the Saturday before Thanksgiving ostensibly to showcase upcoming improvements to the park but the event turned into a food giveaway when hundreds of turkeys were distributed to random people who showed up.

The event was publicized as being hosted by both Rodriguez and Councilwoman Ditas Yamane who represent adjoining Council districts.

Yamane claims she organized sponsors to provide free food and gifts for people without using any City resources or funds from her own allocation of City funding.

But Rodriguez organized the delivery and distribution of hundreds of frozen turkeys then sought and received a reimbursement of $7,120 from a $100,000 annual taxpayer fund each Councilmember individually controls.

Rodriguez later posted a video on his Facebook profile highlighting the event.

Facebook post

The California Constitution and state law prohibit the use of public funds without direct public benefit, explicitly banning the gift of monetary and non-monetary gifts that are not directly related to the business of the government agency.

Turkey giveaways are common among politicians, but other events La Prensa San Diego researched found sponsors or donors to cover the cost of the turkeys that were given away.

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Local State Assemblywoman Dr. Akilah Weber also held a turkey giveaway in November in conjunction with the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego. All of the food given away was provided by donors and sponsors without using any public funds.

The California Constitution prohibits any government agency from making “any gift or authorize the making of any gift, of any public money or thing of value to any individual, municipal or other corporation whatever.”

California Government Code also creates penalties for violations of the gift of public funds, including "a civil penalty not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each day on which a violation occurs, plus three times the value of the unlawful use of public resources."

Government agencies can and do create programs to give food and other things of value to residents but it must be done under an approved plan or program to promote the goals of the agency, including welfare programs, health care services, and even homeless shelters.

But the decision of one lone Councilman to give away turkeys without any vote or discussion by the City Council is not consistent with state law, according to two local attorneys interviewed by La Prensa San Diego.

Councilman Rodriguez did not request or receive any approval for the expenses before he sought reimbursement from the City under a recently approved plan for each Councilmember to have up to $100,000 per year to spend on community outreach.

Under the City's reimbursement rules, a department head must sign off on payments. Mayor Morrison is the department head of the City Council but he declined Rodriguez's request on December 12th.

Reimbursement request

The same day, City Manager Ben Martinez overrode Morrison's denial and approved the issuance of a warrant or check. Check number 366559 was issued to Rodriguez on December 14th. 

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The City budget approved by the Council in July was the first to include the $100,000 for each of the four district Councilmember, but only three of the five members voted for the new slush funds. Councilmembers Jose Rodriguez, Ditas Yamane, and Marcus Bush supported the measure while Mayor Ron Morrison and Councilmember Luz Molina opposed it.

The Mayor is the only member of the Council that already received a $131,000 office budget and is also a full-time elected official who receives a $62,500 annual salary, while the part-time Councilmembers receive annual salaries of $18,560.

Just months after the new funds were allocated, Councilman Rodriguez requested to use the funds to hire four politically connected individuals as community outreach staff through part-time independent contractor agreements.

State law does not allow companies or even government agencies to miscategorize independent contractors to do work traditionally conducted by employees.

La Prensa San Diego exposed Rodriguez’s request in a November 22, 2023 article and his requests for the contractors were eventually dropped. 

Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Martinez did not return repeated messages and an email asking for comment.

City Attorney Barry Schultz did not respond to a message and email sent requesting comment for this story.

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