Feuding councilmen’s desert rumble leaves Southern California city with a black eye

The upscale and typically tranquil Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa in Indian Wells was the site of a brawl last weekend involving local government officials at a convention.
The upscale and typically tranquil Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa in Indian Wells was the site of a brawl last weekend involving local government officials at a convention. Los Angeles Times

A city councilman unconscious on the floor of a swank Southern California desert resort. Another councilman needing a cut man. A mayor vowing criminal charges. Sheriff’s deputies seeking witnesses into the wild fracas.

That was the aftermath of a late-night brawl between feuding city leaders at a convention last weekend. Days later, the black-and-blue soap opera plays on.

Now, City of Commerce Vice Mayor Ivan Altamirano says rival council member Leonard Mendoza – the pol knocked unconscious at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa on Saturday night – was the “physical aggressor” in the melee.

The Saturday night fight has captured headlines across the Southland, shining a not-so-flattering light on the city of 13,000 southeast of Los Angeles. City of Commerce officials were at the resort in tony Indian Wells for the annual convention of the California Contract Cities Association. The Cerritos-based group represents 75 cities that contract to counties for municipal services such as police and fire protection.

In a statement released by his attorney this week, Altamirano said it wasn’t the first time he had been threatened by the council member and said he was “deeply concerned by this violent behavior.”

“Vice Mayor Altamirano has been threatened by Councilman Mendoza before and this incident fits an unfortunate and documented pattern of misconduct by Councilman Mendoza,” read the statement.

The statement went on to detail “at least three episodes involving alcohol and violence this year,” including incidents in January and at the Miss Commerce pageant in March, where Altamirano alleged an inebriated Mendoza threatened to attack him – and do it in front of the vice mayor’s children.

Saturday’s fisticuffs at the annual convention exposed the deep-seated acrimony between the warring council members – bad blood that Altamirano attorney Michael Zweiback alluded to in a Wednesday interview with The Sacramento Bee.

“There’s been a history of – shall we say – animosity. It all seems to be around political issues and the future of the city,” Zweiback said. “Unfortunately, it boiled over into the events of the particular evening.”

Zweiback said Altamirano hasn’t yet sought charges in the incident, but said Altamirano “fully expects there will be a meeting in the future” with investigators. “We will fully cooperate with the investigation.”

The brawl also embarrassed the host organization’s executive board, which unanimously suspended Commerce’s membership “until further notice” and scrambled to release a statement Monday condemning the incident under the headline, “CCCA Executive Board rejects violence.”

“(V)iolent behavior is unacceptable and inconsistent with the values of our Association and its members,” the board’s statement read in calling on witnesses to cooperate with law enforcement. “Violations of our code are taken seriously.”

The first reports of unrest came from unidentified onlookers. The Los Angeles Times reported that witnesses said the donnybrook involved more than seven people, a chaotic scene that included elected officials and consultants. The first calls came in to Riverside County sheriff’s deputies about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, according to the Times’ report, but no one was talking when deputies got to the scene.

In a lengthy statement to Los Angeles-area media Sunday, City of Commerce Mayor John Soria broke the silence, condemning the violence and vowing to press charges against his attackers, whom he declined to name.

“I know who the attackers are but I will refrain from naming them at this time so that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department can conduct a thorough investigation,” Soria’s statement read. “Violence is never the answer, and as elected officials we are held to a higher standard. The stakeholders in our community deserve better.”

Soria said he was made aware of a heated conversation between Altamirano and Mendoza in the moments before punches were thrown and had planned to “defuse any potential conflict.”

The mayor was too late. Mendoza was on the floor, knocked cold. Altamirano stood nearby with – a photo supplied by his attorney later showed – a deep cut to his upper lip. Soria in the statement said he tried to clear space while other rendered aid to the unconscious council member when “within seconds” he and the vice mayor were attacked from behind by two people. Altamirano was knocked to the floor. Soria’s attackers connected to the head and face before his wife and others pulled him to safety.

Mendoza told the Los Angeles Times this week that he exchanged words with Altamirano. Mendoza said he asked the vice mayor to step away and that when Altamirano refused, “it got heated and it got loud,” he told the Times.

Mendoza awoke in a hospital bed unaware of who had attacked him. The back of his head was cut open and he suffered cuts to his face, the Times reported.

Meantime, City of Commerce is officially staying away from the intradais drama, offering only a two-sentence statement on the council members’ confrontation: “The City has been made aware of reports of a confrontation between some City officials that took place outside of the City’s jurisdiction. Given that, and the fact that the City is unclear on the specifics, the City has no further comment at this time.”

It’s unclear whether Mendoza and Altamirano will attend Commerce’s next council meetings – the next two are May 28 and June 2 but Zweiback on Wednesday said Altamirano “fully intends to get on with the business of the city.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.