Mayor’s directive sparks public outcry

Oversight Committee objects to ‘uninvited guidance,’ public questions legality of mayor’s executive action

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Members of the Measure L Citizens Oversight Committee, along with a full house of public attendees who appeared at the committee’s regular meeting Monday evening, objected to the “uninvited” intrusion of city officials in the board’s function as the watchdogs of the recently passed tax measure.

The most recent controversy focused on an offhand comment by Mayor Dan Clark at the previous council meeting that committee members could be removed by a majority vote of the council, as well as a written statement by Clark read Monday that proposed a “re-visioning” of the committee’s purpose.

But tension between the citizen proponents of Measure L and the stance of some councilmembers dates back much farther.

The concept behind establishing the oversight committee was driven by the council’s efforts to establish public support for a general tax. When the city attempted to pass support for police and streets through the Measure Q general tax increase (which needs 50 percent-plus-one voter approval) in 2004, it failed with only 35 percent support. When the city ran Measure N as a special tax to fund streets in 2006, it received 58-percent approval, but lacked the two-thirds support necessary for a special tax.

So the council ran Measure L as a general tax in an attempt to lower the threshold of approval, but promised an oversight committee to ensure that the money was spent as proposed on streets and police — even though the general tax carried no legal binding to that pledge.

On June 5 residents passed Measure L by 55-percent voter approval. On June 13, the council outlined proposed expenditures that included some $120,000 to fund “youth programs.” Citizens immediately opposed that expenditure as out of step with the promise to voters, and others pointed out that the line item padded existing Parks and Recreation staff salaries rather than funding a new program.

The council later reversed its decision to funnel Measure L funds directly into Parks and Rec, although critics note that since the city still funded those line items, Measure L was indirectly diluted.

Since then committee members have been vigilantly following the money, sometimes raising the apparent ire of some councilmembers. During one of the first meetings of the committee, Vice Mayor Chip Holloway had Delano Councilmember Sam Ramirez give a public-comment presentation to the committee that urged members to meet on an annual basis to simply review a demand warrant list of expenditures provided by the city.

Several members of the committee expressed that they did not believe that fulfilled their obligation to the public. After some of those members shared their criticism of council actions at public meetings, Clark made his statement that members could be replaced.

When the legality of that action was questioned by the public, City Attorney Keith Lemieux acknowledged that it was within the council’s authority, since the members served at the will of the council.

When the oversight committee opened public comment at Mon-day’s meeting, the speakers unanimously opposed such an action.

Resident Al Huey noted that appointments were made with express term limits, and there was no reason for any of those members to be removed.

Michael Neel read a prepared statement (see also related letter, Page 5) outlining what he saw as improper attitude and conduct by some councilmembers toward the committee. He said that the board was promised to the citizens as a independent committee and that any council attempt to dictate the board’s actions violated that promise to the public.

Robert Eierman echoed those thoughts and added that he objected to the presence of the two councilmembers in attendance (though the majority of the public and committee voiced that they wanted councilmembers to hear what was said).

Jim Fallgatter said that Clark had expressed to him that one concern about the committee related to the expense to the city of the staff that supported it. To alleviate that concern, Fallgatter recommended that the committee approve a small amount of Measure L money to cover that cost.

Sharon Paxton said her attendance was in response to a Daily Independent article in which Clark referenced his hope that the efforts of the committee would be redirected.

“I don’t know if he is talking about where the funds are going, but people voted on this measure with the expectation it would go to the Police Department and roads. If there are thoughts of changing this, I know a lot of people who are upset — they are talking recall in the event that that happens.”

Scott Leahy said he had intended to hold his comments until the mayor’s report on re-visioning expectations, which was scheduled to be presented at the end of the meeting, “but if there is an intent on the part of the council to pull the committee’s teeth or in any way obstruct what the citizens were told at the time, I’m going to find that objectionable myself,” he said.

“Independent work and fact-finding that is crucial in order to determine whether Measure L funds are spend properly is a legitimate avenue of exploration … These funds are collected from the taxpayers, and they have a right to know how that money is being spent.”

He said he hoped the re-visioning was not an attempt to inhibit the committee. “I have been against recalls before, but if that is the case, by golly I will jump on the bandwagon.”

“As someone who spent her time, her money, her energy and put her reputation on the line because we thought this was needed, believe me you’ll hear from me if Measure L is not spent on what it was proposed for,” said Barbara Auld.

Jerry Taylor, who also walked door to door in support of Measure L as a former councilmember, said that the inclusion of the committee was what bought the council credibility in passing the measure. “The idea was to earn the public’s trust. I want to remind everyone here that is the reason this committee is in place.”

“If you can’t tell, committee, you have quite a bit of public support,” said Tom Wiknich, also a former councilmember. “The essence of the committee is being independent — being able to access public information as you see fit, not as the council sees fit. You are citizens and you have a right to that information.”

Committee Chair Eddie Thomas said he was unaware of any threat to remove members. Committeemember Scott Garver, the local deputy district attorney, noted that Clark had made the comment at a previous meeting as a “shot across the bow” of the committee. But he noted that the public had also been paying attention, since public attendance jumped from four to 20.

“Perception is important. It looks like there is an effort to intimidate this committee,” said Phil Salvatore.

Thomas said that since he had heard no evidence that any members would be removed, “We are in full operation and will continue to go forward.”

Clark did not show up for his presentation, though City Manager Dennis Speer read an prepared statement on the mayor’s behalf, as well as an outline of council expectations of the committee.

“As your newly elected mayor, I want to personally apologize to each and every one of you for the city’s lack of direction relative to your job description, duties, responsibilities and vision,” said the statement, which went on to say how changes in city staff and council were “counterproductive” to the shared working relationship.

“The purpose of this item is to express the city council’s understanding of the Measure L ordinance, its expectations of the committee and the limitations of staff participation,” Speer said in introducing the outline.

“The City Council believes that it was very unfortunate that very little direction was given to the committee after its formation. However, to reconcile this situation and to clarify these points, an outline entitled ‘Measure L Notes’ was prepared.”

That outline stated that staff members would be available to meet with the committee only once per quarter, that the committee could no longer request financial documents without the city manager’s approval, that oversight was limited to a review of how the tax was spent and that “Committee members are reminded that they serve at the pleasure of the City Council.”

Several members objected to Speer giving direction on behalf of the council that was not discussed or voted on at a public meeting. Speer later said he did not know what the consensus of the council was on the issue, and that the statements were prepared only by Clark and the city attorney. Meeting attendees then questioned whether it was legal for the mayor — who has no more authority than any other councilmember — to give the city manager direction on behalf of the council.

Salvatore said he was getting a vibe from city officials that they were opposed to the committee shining a light on actions of the council.

“I don’t envy your unfortunate position as the face to the public on this,” Garver told Speer, adding that the outline “serves to neuter the committee into irrelevance.”

He questioned why any action was necessary from the council since the ordinance outlines committee duties. “Guidance from the city has not been invited. And to offer it uninvited, to put it charitably, is insulting.”

Garver objected to the mayor speaking on behalf of the council and said that Clark’s recommendations do not facilitate open discussion or reasonable debate in a topic that holds such high public interest.

“‘Please remember that you serve at the will of the council’ … that sounds like a veiled threat,” said Salvatore.

Huey noted that the council’s actions validated his reasons for opposing Measure L. “I could see in the fine print that the council could damn well do what they wanted with this.”

Fallgatter called the document unfortunate. “Looking at the threat that you can be replaced — what are we talking about here? We are talking about replacing the committee the citizens of Ridgecrest voted for? You are saying to people who have put in a lot of hours as volunteers that ‘If you don’t do what you’re told we’ll replace you’? This stinks … this sounds like something out of Russia.”

When the councilmembers in attendance were questioned on whether the topic was discussed, Mayor Pro Tem Jason Patin declined to comment. Councilmember Jim Sanders said it was not discussed and the outline did not reflect his position.

Neel said that if that was the case, the document was a lie. “I have seen some disgusting things in my six years watching the council. But this is the worst I have ever seen.”

“I think it is very unethical, the direction that’s being taken,” said Paxton.

“I am alarmed at the mayor acting in voice for the council, and I believe that is actually a violation of California law,” said Leahy. “This is one of the things I was afraid of with an elected mayor — someone acting as an executive rather than one of five.”

He also said that he did not believe the expense to the city in staff support justified the document. “There is another annoyance factor that is going on here.”

Taylor pointed out that the staff cost was a moot point in any case, since the “start-up” investment of staff time had already taken place, and would not be an issue from here on out.

Several members of the committee and the public requested that an item be placed on the City Council agenda. Garver added he would also like to see a “free and open” Town-Hall-style discussion on the issue. “I think the public deserves to be heard on this issue … it’s been a very enlightening evening.”

“I also want to express my sincere gratitude to the members of the public in attendance,” said Salvatore. “All we have is the ability to shine a light and hope the public comes charging when necessary.”

Story First Published: 2013-01-16