La prensa

NC Signs $47,000 Contract for Councilman's Outreach

Jose Rodriguez
Author: La Prensa
Created: 28 March, 2024
9 min read

By Alberto Garcia
Investigative Reporter

A National City Councilman has pushed the City to sign a $47,000 contract for political outreach that seems to violate state laws limiting how independent contractors can be used to circumvent hiring employees.

Councilman Jose Rodriguez requested that the City sign a contract with Cordero Coaching and Consulting, a new company registered with the California Secretary of State on February 20th, just weeks before the contract was signed.

Jose Rodriguez
Jose Rodriguez


The contract, signed by Cindy D. Lopez as the company’s “Principal Consultant" never went before the City Council but was signed directly by City Manager Ben Martinez.

Lopez is a teacher and former candidate for the Sweetwater Union High School District board who is also the President of the National City Democratic Club.

Cordero Coaching and Consulting does not have a website or any online business listing, and uses a National City apartment address as its business location. It is not clear who lives at the apartment used for the business.

The contract does not specify who will oversee the company's work or who Lopez would report to at the City.

La Prensa San Diego confirmed that Cordero Coaching and Consulting just recently filed for a National City business license which is still being processed and not yet valid. The company did not have a business license when Lopez signed the contract.

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The contract requires that the company "must possess or shall obtain a business license from the National City Finance Department before beginning work."

The contract, signed on March 14th and running through June 30th, is for a total of $47,000, and specifies that the company will “assist the municipality of National City with outreach strategies to expand engagement and awareness of ongoing and new projects that will positively impact the community and its residents.”

Cindy Lopez contract

Rodriguez has been working for months to hire four politically connected individuals as he gears up his re-election campaign for the November 5th election.

In the past few months, Rodriguez has asked the City to hire four local individuals; Cindy Lopez; Jose Cerda, a former member of the South Bay Irrigation District and now a real estate agent in the cannabis industry; Barbara Avalos, a member of the National City School District board; and Ken Seaton-Msemaji, a longtime labor and civil rights leader.

Rodriguez had asked to hire these assistants as independent contractors utilizing agreements that are usually used to hire experts, licensed professionals like lawyers or engineers, and other service providers who deliver specific duties not customarily conducted by staff.

The process seems to violate state laws that distinguish between work conducted by employees and contractors who are sometimes mischaracterized as independent.

California laws were strengthened in recent years by AB 5, a state bill authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to protect employees. Gonzalez Fletcher resigned from the Legislature early last year to take the position of CEO of the California Labor Federation, the largest union advocacy group in the state.

Rodriguez describes himself as "a firm believer in unions and worker justice" in his online X social media profile, yet his move to use contract laborers would circumvent worker protections by excluding them from employment protections, health care, and retirement benefits.

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AB5 only allows for contracting work for services that are not within the usual scope of the employer, such as outside experts or licensed attorneys, engineers, and other professional services.

Tests used to determine if someone is properly categorized as a contractor hinge on whether the contractor is in the business of providing the same services to other clients, promotes its services publicly, and if the services are provided directly to the contracting entity or interacts with the public.

The contract requires that Lopez provide services for the “education and engagement of Tenants for Mobile Home regarding temporary Rent Control ordinance”, to “partner with organizations to host homeownership education workshops to prepare residents to become ready to purchase a home”, to “provide marketing strategies to expand communications and information to residents in an effort to increase awareness of the affordable housing opportunities”, to contact street vendors to “provide policy/ordinance recommendations while educating street vendors to participate in the process through the City Council meetings”, and to “communicate and organize small business owners to create an annual ‘National City Restaurant Week.

All of the services outlined in the contract are usually conducted by staff of elected officials and government agencies. 

The contract also allows Lopez to hire staff or subcontractors to fulfill the required services.

Two labor attorneys contacted by La Prensa San Diego said the arrangement would seem to violate the provisions of Gonzalez Fletcher's AB5 and tests established by subsequent legal cases which outline the elements that differentiate employees from contractors.


The four individuals Rodriguez has worked to hire on contracts were directly involved securing a political endorsement for Rodriguez just days after the consulting contract was signed. 

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The newly formed National City Democratic Club endorsed Rodriguez on March 18th even though the candidate filing deadline is not until August.

The President of the new club, which was formed last month, is Cindy Lopez. The other officers of the club are Jose Cerda, who serves as the Club’s Vice-President, and Barbara Avalos, who serves as the Club’s Treasurer. Ken Seaton-Msemaji is also a member of the Club.

Although at least one other Democratic has announced their intention to run against Rodriguez, the Club decided to vote on what is known as an early incumbent endorsement.

The Club's endorsement can help Rodriguez gain the official endorsement of the Democratic Party when the south regional meeting takes place next month. Members of clubs within the south region can vote on the Party's endorsement.


Rodriguez is using a $100,000 annual fund each Councilmember controls to pay for outreach efforts.

The City budget approved by the Council in July 2023 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.

Rodriguez, Ditas Yamane, and Marcus Bush supported the measure while Mayor Ron Morrison and Councilmember Luz Molina opposed it.

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There are no City rules or process for Councilmember to follow in using their individual funds.

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.

In November, Rodriguez organized a food giveaway the weekend before Thanksgiving where he gave out over 300 free turkeys to individuals who attended the event.

Councilmember Ditas Yamane also participated in the event but she raised money and donations to cover the items she gave away without using any of her taxpayer fund.

In January 2024, Rodriguez submitted a reimbursement to the City for $7,143.45 for the cost of the turkeys he purchased at a San Diego restaurant supply company.


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

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. 


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.

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National City's City Attorney Barry Schultz said last month that he believed the use of taxpayer funds to pay for the turkeys was legal.

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.

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.

Rodriguez, who was elected to the City Council in November 2020, is running for re-election in the November 2024 election.

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In 2022, Rodriguez ran for Mayor against incumbent Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and then-Councilman Ron Morrison. Morrison won the election with Rodriguez placing second and Sotelo-Solis was third.

Rodriguez previously ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2016 and again in 2018. 

CORRECTION: The dates of when Rodriguez ran for office were incorrect in a previous version of the story. The dates have been corrected.

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