For the past several months, and the foreseeable future, I will be attending Fullerton City Council meetings as a reporter for the Fullerton Observer Newspaper, our town's only independent newspaper (an increasingly rare thing in today's world). Given the recent election and widespread pessimism about America's political future, it's easy to feel powerless and voiceless. In response to this, I would encourage you, my fellow citizens to pay attention to local politics, where you do have a voice. I would encourage you to attend a city council meeting, to see government in action, for better or worse. Here's what happened at the last Fullerton City Council meeting, to be printed in the upcoming issue of The Fullerton Observer...
Before every public City Council meeting, there is a Closed Session, in which Council meets with public employee labor negotiators, developers, and other parties outside view of the public. During this weeks’ closed session, Council discussed the appointment of an interim police chief and acting city manager. They also met with Pacific Coast Homes, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Chevron, who will be developing Coyote Hills, to discuss PCH’s ongoing lawsuit against the City of Fullerton.
City Manager Takes Leave of Absence Pending Investigation
The city attorney gave a statement from city manager Joe Felz regarding a car accident he was involved in on November 9th, which has raised many legal questions from the community (more on this below). In his statement, Felz apologized for the negative attention this has brought to the city, and stated his decision to take at least a two week personal time off and leave of absence, pending investigation of this incident (Felz was not present at the meeting). The city attorney stated that there have been many public records requests from the community related to this incident; however, these will remain confidential as long as the criminal investigation continues. City Council voted unanimously to appoint Gretchen Beatty as acting city manager. Additionally, in light of Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes’ retirement, Mayor Fitzgerald announced the pending appointment of David H. Heinig (retired Police Chief from Arcadia) as interim Police Chief.
Presentations: kaBOOM! Playground and Veteran’s Parade
Hugo Curiel of the Parks and Recreation Department gave a presentation on a city partnership with nonprofit organization kaBOOM! who will be building a new playground at Gilbert Park beginning this December. Marilyn Harris gave a presentation on the City’s 29th Annual Veteran’s Day parade and program, which took place at the Hillcrest Park veteran’s memorials. The event featured JROTC units from Fullerton area high schools, Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Fullerton American Legion, and numerous local veterans.
A member of the public spoke of a conspiracy involving an alien Mother ship, and “humans” with electronic eyes and methanol blood, who are determined to blow up cars and train cars remotely as part of a nefarious agenda.
Another member of the public proposed the City-owned Hunt Branch Library as a potential homeless shelter location.
Mary Francis Gable, founding member of Fullerton College Neighborhood Action Council, spoke against the proposed building of a football stadium at Fullerton College.
Local attorney Judith Kaluzny spoke of the ongoing Chevron/Pacific Coast Homes lawsuit against the City of Fullerton, suggesting that it is a pretext for Closed Session access to council. “This is a lawsuit that’s been going on for about seven years,” Kaluzny stated, “Since there’s an ongoing lawsuit, and continuing closed session negotiations between the city and Chevron/Pacific Coast Homes, I think it’s a violation of the Brown Act.” The Ralph M. Brown Act was enacted by the California State Legislature in 1953 in response to mounting public concerns over informal, undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials. The official Introduction to the Brown Act states its general purpose: “It is the intent of the law that their [local elected officials] actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the governing bodies they have created.”
City Manager/Police Conduct Criticized
The majority of public commenters spoke about alleged misconduct by City Manager Joe Felz and the Fullerton Police Department in the early morning hours of November 9th. Barb Pollinger, who lives at the house where Felz crashed into a small tree, gave her description of what happened. She described hearing a loud noise that sounded like a car hitting another car, and screeching. Through her window, she saw a white minivan up on the curb with the front wheel spinning. The driver then tried to dislodge the vehicle from where it was stuck, moving forward and backward. Concerned, Pollinger called the police, and while she was on the phone with the dispatcher, the driver attempted to drive away. “In my mind,” said Pollinger, “That’s hit and run.”
|The scene of the accident. Photo courtesy of The Fullerton Rag.|
Sean Paden criticized the appearance of preferential treatment Mr. Felz received from the Fullerton Police Department that evening: “I don’t think anybody who was a private citizen who did not have the connections Mr. Felz had would have been treated in this manner,” Paden said, “We need to look at how the police department handled this.” Many of the public commenters suggested that not only had Mr. Felz committed a crime (hit and run, perhaps under the influence of alcohol), but that (because of his position), he was not arrested or penalized in any way until after this incident received pubic attention through local media.
Local resident Stephan Baxter stated,“All these things happened because we have a corrupt police department.” Local resident Jane Rands spoke in favor of creating a Civilian Police Oversight Committee, and hiring a new chief who would be in favor of this. She cited other cities in California, like Richmond, who have Civilian Police Oversight, in which residents can review complaints against officers—to improve transparency and prevent corruption. Citizen Matt Leslie echoed this sentiment, stating that “transparency cannot happen with an internal investigation, but needs to happen in the context of Civilian Police Oversight.” (a proposal which was previously rejected by the current council)
|A novel idea.|
AJ Redkey of In League Press gave a theatrical re-enactment of how he thought the late night phone conversation between City Manager Joe Felz and Police Chief Dan Hughes might have gone, humorously suggesting that personal friendship superseded legality.
Mayor Pro Tem Jan Flory spoke of “the balance that our City Council has to walk between providing information to the public and protecting Joe Felz’s rights, and what liability the city may sustain if we don’t honor those boundaries.” The city attorney stated: “It’s a very difficult process when you’re dealing with a public employee, and also the public’s desire to have information. Public employees have been protected in terms of certain levels of privacy.” It seems, for now, that most information related to the investigation will not be made available to the public. Council member Bruce Whitaker urged a timely and truthful investigation of the Felz incident.
Acting City Manager Gretchen Beatty gave report on the latest agreement between City of Fullerton and the Fullerton police union which will be in effect until 2019, and includes pay raises and changes to health benefits. City Council voted to postpone the appointment of members to the newly-created and much-criticized North Orange County Cities Joint Powers Authority (which is shaping up to be a merger between the Fullerton and Brea Fire Departments) until after newly-elected Council Member Jesus Silva is sworn in.
Two aspects of Fullerton City Council meetings have the appearance of non-transparency. The first is the aforementioned Closed Session. The second is something called the “Consent Calendar.” This is a series of items voted on en masse (i.e. with a single vote), usually without discussion or explanation. Often, the number of “consent calendar” items exceeds the number of “regular business” items, and that was certainly the case with this meeting.
There were two “regular business” items, and twelve “consent calendar” items. On the “meeting agenda” handed out to the public, some of these “consent calendar” items have little to no explanation of their actual content. For example, Item #4, entitled “Monthly Legislative Update” contained no explanatory content save three words: “Receive and file.” Presumably, these documents may be separately requested from the city, but if the purpose of these meetings is not just to vote on things, but to keep the public informed, the “consent calendar” does not achieve this goal.
Thus, it is possible to attend an entire council meeting (as I did), take careful notes, and still leave profoundly uninformed about what the council actually voted on. One simple solution to this problem would be to have an independent legislative analyst explain to the public (and the council), as clearly as possible, the actual content of each item voted on (including the “consent calendar”). In fact, the very existence of a “Consent Calendar” suggests that the council has already made up their minds about what they agree on before the meeting, precluding meaningful input from the public.
Members of council or the public may “Pull” consent calendar items for further discussion, and that’s just what local resident Jane Rands did. She pulled item 13, and asked that there be pubic meetings to explain this to the public. It’s a good thing she did, because your intrepid reporter was confused about item 13, entitled “Resolution of Intention Ordinance Amendment Pertaining to Limited Second Dwelling Units and Density Bonuses.” Because Rands requested it, the council actually voted to create a special workshop explaining it. See, you can make a difference.
The next City Council Meeting will be Tuesday, December 6th at 6:30pm at City Hall. Come see your local government in action (or, as is sometimes the case, inaction).