Grand jury blasts City Council in annual report | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Grand jury blasts City Council in annual report

Adam Jensen / Tahoe Daily Tribune

“Major changes” are needed to a South Lake Tahoe City Council that is constantly bickering, routinely drops controversial issues, and operates at a “barely functional level,” according to the 2009-2010 El Dorado County grand jury report.

The report, posted to the grand jury’s Web site this weekend, recommends further training for South Lake Tahoe’s elected officials and senior staff, taking stronger stances towards inappropriate conduct, changing the city’s nepotism policy and adhering to the city’s written policies rather than using historically accepted practices.

The report also recommends the city hire an independent consultant to review city practices and make a report available to District Attorney Vern Pierson for possible legal action.

Under California law, the City Council has 90 days to respond to El Dorado County Superior Court’s presiding judge, Suzanne Kingsbury, regarding the report’s findings and recommendations.

The grand jury is composed of 19 citizen volunteers who conducted “extensive investigations” over the past year, according to a letter from Foreman Rene Van Asten in the report.

Highlights from the report include:

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– “Constant hostility and bickering among members of the City Council and their unprofessional conduct has resulted in a consistent 3/2 split vote creating two ‘camps’ of Council members. The voting often appears to be the result of Council members pursuing personal agendas rather than operating in the best interests of the City. The bickering and nitpicking between Council members during meetings, combined with hostile comments to media outlets and behind the scenes ‘back biting’ has resulted in the failure to address routine and important business entrusted to the Council by the citizens of the City of South Lake Tahoe.”

– “Council members and senior staff are unwilling or afraid to address and deal with the existing hostile work environment. In a matter that involved an inappropriate written poem (involving sexual comments from one Council member to another), the City Manager and the City Council failed to take action until questioned by the Grand Jury.”

– “When a City Attorney recommended that the City Finance Director be placed under the direct control of the City Council, rather than the City Manager, the Finance Director expressed strong opposition. This action came after the City Attorney had challenged the Finance Director about the propriety and amounts of an expenditure made by the City. This move for the Finance Director to be placed under City Council control was a suggestion that had been made by a City Council member in prior years. The City Manager, fearing loss of supervisory control of the Finance Director, advised the City Council that the Finance Director would probably file an official complaint against the City Attorney and the City charging them with harassment if the move took place. This statement was viewed by some employees as a threat by the City Manager.”

– “During a contentious June 30, 2009 City Council meeting it was suggested that the City Manger should resign. Testimony received indicated the City Manager later threatened to file a Workers Compensation claim, hire outside counsel, and sue the City.”

– “The City Manager used intimidation to retain control over parts of government. The City Manager attempted to keep the Finance Director under his direct control. He informed the City Attorney that he could make the Finance Director’s complaints against the City Attorney “go away” if the City Attorney dropped the suggestion to move the Finance Director under the direct control of the City Council as an ‘at will’ employee.”

– “Based on testimony received by the Grand Jury the public impression is that the City of South Lake Tahoe has a ‘bush league’ City Council, which is incapable of maintaining confidences, operates in an atmosphere of intimidation, and is frequently distracted from important City business by personal feuds. The Council operates at an inconsistent and barely functional level.”

– “Prior to being interview by the Grand Jury, some employees were counseled by the City Attorney on how to testify in a manner that was designed to limit the information that the Grand Jury would receive. City employees who had been subpoenaed to testify before the Grand Jury were instructed by memo that they should not volunteer any information, and they should not attempt to refresh their memories when asked about specific events or topics. The memorandum and the counseling go beyond normal and acceptable witness preparation for testimony in Grand Jury proceedings.”

– “The City’s government employs a notable number of married couples and family members among its employees, commission members, and elected officials. Some of the related employees are in positions of significant influence. Although the policy relating to nepotism does not seem to have been violated, the existence of these close relationships has resulted in an atmosphere where many employees are afraid to discuss operational problems in the City. They are concerned that their observations might be viewed as criticism of family members. In testimony received, there is ‘angst’ by City employees who believe, that employees who have spoken about problems within City government have ended up on ‘layoff lists.’ This fear is so pervasive that some witnesses requested assurance, when they appeared before the Grand Jury, that members of the Grand Jury were not related to officers and employees of the South Lake Tahoe City government before they testified.”

– “City Council members and City officials have varying degrees of understanding and openly disagree with the Brown Act. Although bound by the laws of the State of California to obey the same, some violate them on a regular basis.”

– “A City Council member filed a complaint with the Grand Jury that the City Manager was operating without authority and not doing his job. The Council member also made these remarks in public. The Grand Jury received testimony and found these accusations without merit and misleading. The City Council hires and supervises the City Manager and apparently was unwilling to conduct its own investigation to address these accusations. Instead, the Council attempted to use the Grand Jury as its tool to correct a situation that was completely within their jurisdiction.”

– “Testimony supports that City officers and employees at times operate using accepted historical practices that conflict with official written policy. This has resulted in misunderstandings, contentious City Council meetings, and a public impression that the City’s government operates outside the law. These misconceptions could expose the city to lawsuits.”

– “A member of the City Council requested reimbursement for legal fees paid to an outside law firm. The legal advice consisted of a legal opinion and preparation of a letter to the Fair Political Practices Commission. No contract had been signed and the City Council had not approved the expenditure in advance. The City Manager stated that he gave verbal approval for the expenditure. California State Law clearly states that government contracts for payment may not be backdated. All unusual expenditures should be approved in open session. The City’s Purchasing Policy and Procedural Manual calls for the presence of written contracts when professional services are sought, and makes no provision for payment and reimbursement absent the presence of a contract.”

– “The City Council, in its reports, procedures and by evidence received by the Grand Jury, points to a severely handicapped organization that needs major changes. The 2009-2010 Grand Jury has recommended to the County Supervisor for District V, that the City of South Lake Tahoe needs a ‘Management and Procedural Review’ to be conducted by an independent consultant. The consultant should make their report to the District Attorney for possible legal action. This Grand Jury is of the opinion that an accusation for malfeasance or nonfeasance by this City Council may be appropriate after the study is concluded. The Grand Jury only touched the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in its investigation and recommends that the citizens of South Lake Tahoe get involved with their City government. It is up to the citizens to establish the kind of governance they desire, to exercise their democratic right to vote, and get a City government that works for the common good and in an efficient manner for its citizens.”

Read more about the grand jury report in the Wednesday edition of the Tribune.

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