Tito Ortiz is no stranger to defending a championship title and on Monday night the newly-elected councilman found himself protecting his role as Huntington Beach’s mayor pro tem from a frustrated City Council majority.

He is keeping the ceremonial title for now after hours of resident and council debate.

Over 42,000 people voted for the UFC hall of famer in November, electing Ortiz with not only the most votes in the council race but the most votes in city history as well.

However, since his victory Ortiz has increasingly worried most of his fellow council members and many residents because of his refusal to wear a mask at public meetings, at a local burger spot and at Oak View Elementary School. 

Council members in December bestowed the title of mayor pro tem on Ortiz but at their meeting Monday night some lectured him for not being more proactive in his role and not wearing a mask, as well as ignoring them when they reached out to speak to him.

On the verge of being stripped of his leadership role, Ortiz continued to question public health officials’ recommendations of a face covering and blamed getting sick after a recent trip to Las Vegas on having to wear one.

“I’m thankful that it is not COVID,” he said at the meeting.

“I get the fact that you may not agree with it, but you’re taking on a job that requires certain things for us to do,” Councilwoman Barbara Delgleize said about his refusal to wear masks.

Councilman Mike Posey listed off people he knew who have been hospitalized because of the coronavirus and assure Ortiz that the virus is real.

“I do it out of respect for others not because I believe in masks or I don’t believe in masks,” Posey said.

Ortiz responded to concerns about his commitment to the job by saying that other council members had a difficult time accepting his leadership role as a Mexican American and that members of the panel have been conspiring against him.

Some residents criticized him for associating with people they called racists and white supremacists with one commenter saying he was called a racial slur by some of Ortiz’s supporters. Others defended Black Lives Matter protesters who took to Huntington Beach streets last year, part of global demonstrations following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. While still others said calling Ortiz’s supporters white supremacists was ridiculous and criticized Black Lives Matter protests as violent.

Ortiz, who wept at the meeting, later apologized for some of his antics and pleaded for another chance.

 “I made mistakes in my life. The things that I did, they were wrong,” Ortiz said. “The difference between this and the fight game, in the fight game I get to get in the cage, you get to compete against another man and we shake hands, we say, ‘okay,’ (but) with this, I don’t get nothing like that.”

Despite concerns, council members backed off from stripping Ortiz of the title and opted not to take any action Monday night.

“Here’s your opportunity. Show us what you can do,” Mayor Kim Carr said. “Show us that you’re in it to win it and that you want to work with us.”

Ortiz was mayor pro tem for two months before some of his fellow council members got so worried about his behavior during his short time in office, they were ready to remove him from that position. 

Councilman Erik Peterson criticized the agenda item.

“Kim, you’re the mayor. He’s your right hand, talk to him, say ‘hey, I need you to do this.’ There hasn’t been a lot of those things,” Peterson said. “This is not leadership airing our dirty laundry out.”

“It’s just ridiculous. This isn’t where it should be done,” he added. 

The move that was initiated by Carr and Council members Dan Kalmick and Posey made national headlines, grabbing the attention of hundreds of residents as well as setting the scene for a heated, emotional and passionate debate Monday night over what factors should decide who serves as mayor pro tem.

More than 470 comments and emails were sent into the city regarding rescinding Ortiz’s title.

For over two hours residents called in to the Monday meeting to have their voices heard – some urging the council to take away Ortiz’s title and others defending the newly-elected councilman.

The residents in Ortiz’s corner argue that the voters overwhelmingly chose him and that the council is acting against the will of the people when they could be tackling bigger city issues.

“More important than anything else, I think is that Council member Ortiz received the highest number of votes ever cast in this city. That means something,” one resident said. “If there’s some problems with his behavior, I think there’s certainly a less divisive and much more appropriate manner in which it can be dealt with.”

The residents who support Ortiz’s removal as mayor pro tem want his title stripped because of his behavior and refusal to wear a mask. 

Some of them don’t just want him out as mayor pro tem, they want him off the council completely — calling him an “embarrassment” to the city.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Councilman Ortiz has refused to wear masks,” Spencer Kelly, a resident, said at the meeting. “It’s just a bad look for Huntington Beach. Councilman Ortiz is representing more than himself, and I’d like him to think about all the health care workers and people who have passed away.”

“How many people have to die for you to care? Councilman Ortiz,” Kelly added. “It’s just mind blowing that we are at this point where we have to call in and basically beg you to care.”

The marathon meeting that went into early Tuesday ended with Mayor Carr asking Ortiz to chat with her.

“Mr. Ortiz, tomorrow you and I need to talk,” she said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam

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