Potential Brown Act violation in hiring process

City Manager Dennis Speer continued to distance himself from the process of hiring a special consultant who will report directly to the members of the Ridgecrest City Council, after an apparent Brown Act violation was raised last week.

At the May 7 council meeting, members of the public criticized an item placed on the agenda by Mayor Dan Clark to hire Justin O’Neill for “unique services” to the council. Most complaints were on the grounds that the city should not hire to fill the position without putting it out for competition, and the fact that the agenda did not include any detail regarding the scope of the responsibilities.

Speer said in an interview with the News Review that the irregular hiring process was a result of creating a special position that did not answer to the manager and did not have any duties relating to the operation of City Hall. He added that there is currently no funding for the position and that members of the council would have to cut something to make room in the budget for the proposed $26,000 salary, which constitutes a total cost to the city of some $40,000.

After hearing many concerns expressed from the public microphone during the meeting, the council decided to form an ad hoc committee to develop a responsibilities, expectations and a process of hiring related to the job. That committee, which included Clark and Councilwoman Lori Acton, met June 3.

According to published reports, Clark introduced at that meeting a document that had been drafted using input from members of staff, three members of the council, and O’Neill himself.

Collaboration from a majority of the council constitutes a violation of the Brown Act — which prohibits negotiations and consensus building outside of the public purview.

The News Review sought a comment from Clark on this point, but as of press time he did not respond.

Although Acton announced the meeting date during the May 21 council meeting, the public was not notified of the meeting where the draft document was generated.

This is not the first time Clark has been called to task for an apparent Brown Act violation, as public ire was similarly raised when Clark directed Speer to read a letter from the council to redirect members of the Citizens Oversight Committee for Measure L. At that time, city officials were not able to produce public notification for a meeting when that statement was drafted.

On the consultant issue, others questioned the fairness of allowing O’Neill to contribute to defining a job that he will be competing for.

Speer declined to comment on the situation, other than to say it was not a staff position.

Story First Published: 2014-06-11