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A Dairy Town, A Facebook Argument, And The Unseating Of A Mayor

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
Agricultural company Gar Tootelian handed out signs and hats reading "My job depends on ag" from a lot across the street from a crowded Tulare city council meeting on June 19.

Last week, the city of Tulare ousted its mayor after he got involved in a heated argument on Facebook. The argument centered around agriculture and its impacts on the environment and the economy—but the story is far bigger than a few punches thrown on social media.

In the small city of Tulare, agriculture is king. Especially dairy. Factories for Land O’ Lakes and Saputo are just steps away from downtown. And the city water tower is a glass of milk. “It even has a straw coming out of the top,” laughs Alyssa Serpa. “It says ‘Tulare we've got it,’ and I think that's a pretty perfect representation of us.”

Serpa is a dairy consultant in Tulare. She’s walking me through downtown where, moments earlier, she had seen a tractor driving by. Here, even the businesses you’d see in any city – thrift shops, hair salons, pet stores – all have signs in their windows that say “my job depends on ag.” “Agriculture is tied to both the town and the people in it,” says Serpa. “We really do believe it's a part of our identity, individually and as a town.”

The city is home to the World Ag Expo, the largest annual agricultural exposition in the world. In 2017, agriculture and livestock brought in $6.8 billion to Tulare County – the second highest agricultural bounty of any county in the country, behind only Kern County. What would Tulare be without agriculture? “Honestly, I really don't know,” Serpa says. “I can't imagine what this town would look like without ag being the defining characteristic of the town.”

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
The water tower of the city of Tulare, home to factories for dairy companies Land O' Lakes, Saputo, and Kraft Foods, is painted like a glass of milk - complete with bubbles and a straw.

That’s why it was so shocking when one morning in mid-May, Tulare residents caught wind of a Facebook conversation involving then Mayor Carlton Jones. He had commented on a friend’s post. But comments turned into a conversation, the conversation got heated, and Jones made dozens of comments interpreted to be anti-agriculture.

He referred to farm subsidies as welfare. He also said agriculture contaminates the groundwater and air, and causes asthma and cancer.

“It just spread like wildfire,” says Serpa of the screenshots passed around on social media. “It felt like the entire town overnight was just instantly fired up.”

The conversation took place online, with no changes to policy or politics. But Tulare residents took the comments personally. They showed up by the hundreds to city council meetings and prompted hours of public discussion. Some supported the mayor, though the angrier voices were louder. Eventually, a month after the conversation, the city council voted unanimously to remove Jones as mayor—to cheers and applause from council chambers.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
It's hard to stand anywhere in downtown Tulare without seeing a sign reading "my job depends on ag."

Looking back, Carlton Jones acknowledges the Facebook conversation became contentious.

“You can see that both of us were being pretty negative, taking shots at each other,” he says. “Like one saying ‘no, you’re on welfare and the farmers pay for it.’ That was his shot, and then my shot was, ‘no, you’re on welfare and the people pay for it.’”

He says he’s not against agriculture. In fact, he argues, acknowledging problems is the first step toward improving the industry. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that,” he says. “Every industry does that.”

And his environmental comments? They’re not wrong. Growers have become more efficient, but historical overapplication of fertilizer has led to nitrate contamination in groundwater all over Tulare County and the San Joaquin Valley. And just a few weeks after the Facebook incident, the city of Tulare revealed its drinking water contains unsafe levels of 1,2,3-TCP—a carcinogenic byproduct of pesticide use.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Hundreds of locals flooded Tulare's two city council meetings in June, both times filling council chambers and this overflow room.

Even after so much public discussion, Jones still doesn’t fully understand why his comments were so offensive. A possibility he doesn’t fully entertain is racism. Jones is black. And while he was the target a handful of comments about lynching, he says those were outliers and racism doesn’t motivate most people here.

Whether he’d change anything about his social media comments, he doesn’t say. But he acknowledges he could improve down the line. “Anytime I go out and have that conversation and I can back that up with scientific data and fact, I’ll continue to have those conversations,” he says. “But I will try to recognize when someone’s feelings are starting to get hurt, or when they’re starting to get emotional.”

Xavier Avila says emotions ran high here not just because of what Jones said, but how he said it. Avila is a livestock industry sales rep. He says imagine Jones was a coach—which he is, in his free time. “You don’t come and tell a player, ‘you know what, you’re terrible at batting, you’re terrible at catching, and you’re one of the worst players on the team,’ and then say, ‘oh by the way, I just want you to clean up your act a little bit,’” he says. “How inspiring is that?”

Avila says the comments cut deep because many in the ag industry already feel that it’s under attack, especially from environmental groups with power in Sacramento.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Then-Mayor Carlton Jones addressed the chamber during a city council meeting on June 19, after nearly three hours of public comment, imploring Tulare residents to beat him at "loving this city."

But Avila also says this situation is bigger than a social media scuffle. Jones’ 18 months as mayor had been mired in negative public opinion. This was the city’s fourth attempt to unseat him. “He’s being accused of a whole of behind the scenes bullying and manipulation,” Avila says. “So there’s a lot of history there before the ag comment.”

Under Tulare’s so-called “weak mayor” system, the city council selected councilmember David Macedo to replace Jones as mayor. Jones will serve the rest of his term, until November 2020, as one of five city councilmembers. Some residents say they’ve already begun the process to recall him from the council, though a city official confirmed it has not yet received a notice of intention to begin the recall process.

When it comes to environmental politics, one issue to follow will be Senate Bill 623, which would tax all California water users to help pay for drinking water treatment in disadvantaged communities. In an unusual partnership with environmental groups, many agricultural coalitions support the bill. Jones, however, does not, saying he’d prefer to force cleanup costs on the industry rather than the general public.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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