Supes stand by their colleague
Taxpayer-funded legal representation for an El Dorado County supervisor will be allowed when a three-year-old grand jury accusation is formally handed down.
The Board of Supervisors deliberated five hours behind closed doors Monday on whether a supervisor should seek private or county counsel.
As early as Friday, several counts of misconduct are expected to be filed against an elected official – purported to be supervisor Mark Nielsen. Nielsen, who represents the county’s Third District, requested the closed session meeting through board chairman Walt Shultz.
Nielsen wasn’t in attendance nor was fellow supervisor and arch-rival Sam Bradley. The board voted unanimously, 3-0, to grant the supervisor appropriate legal resources.
“If one can be gone after by a grand jury and expected to dig into their own pocket, it isn’t a good policy,” said Supervisor John Upton, who added he never contemplated being at financial risk when he ran for office. Upton also stated that public officials should be protected from vengeful grand jury members, as has been alleged with this particular body.
“Not supplying a defense for an accusation is indefensible in my opinion,” Shultz said.
The supervisors went ahead with the motion against one county counsel’s recommendation that the board’s actions may be premature. To provide defense for a public official, two requirements must be met: 1) the claims were made in the supervisor’s scope of employment and 2) that he believed his actions were in the best interest of the county.
“If I was the supervisor, I would hire a lawyer as soon as possible,” said El Dorado County Counsel Louis Green.
A touchy-yet-debatable topic among El Dorado residents is opening the county’s purse to defend a public representative. In the private sector, organizations come to the rescue of an employee when damaging allegations are made. But in the realm of local government, an elected official has the tough assignment of convincing the public – the same group which has brought forth the charges – to expend county funds.
The county may employ special or outside counsel to represent the said defendant. The projected legal costs will be drawn from a $11.4 million risk management fund. The fund is primarily dedicated to providing self-insurance and employee benefits programs but also covers lawsuits against the county.
If legal costs exceed what the county can reasonably afford, the defendant will pick up the difference.
A 1994-95 grand jury investigation discovered that a board supervisor, purported to be Nielsen, violated the state’s open meeting law by discussing government matters in private and failed to mention a potential conflict-of-interest over a county lawsuit with fellow supervisors.
When presented with the allegations, Lacy cited the three counts of misconduct lacked legal and factual merit. First District Supervisor Sam Bradley then sued Lacy because of his hesitation. After a Superior Court judge ruled in Lacy’s favor, Bradley took his argument to an appellate court, which sided with him. Lacy fought back, appealing to the state Supreme Court, but he was denied a hearing.
The supervisor could face a jury trial if court proceedings advance. Violations of the Brown Act may be punished as a criminal offense, prompting a removal from office if found guilty.
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