City Council Punts on Passing Ethics Rules for Itself Until After Election. Ponders Possibly Creating Ethics for Future Councils.


City Council Punts on Passing Ethics Rules for Itself Until After Election. Ponders Possibly Creating Ethics for Future Councils.

Last night’s City Council meeting dissolved into a bizarre spectacle as the Council voted not to move on ethics rules proposed by city staff, the same rules the council asked the city attorney to draft at their last meeting. The Council did vote unanimously to take the ethics standards it applies to city employees and also apply it to appointed members of the city’s boards and commissions, but some members found applying those standards to themselves to be “too political.” The motion to create ethics standards for the volunteer board and commissions but not the Council was authored by Mayor Phil Brock, passed 6-1. Councilmember Caroline Torosis cast a protest vote against passing a standard for other that didn’t apply to the City Council.

Councilmembers Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra were joined by Mayor Phil Brock and Vice-Mayor Lana Negrete in opposing efforts to create ethics rules for the City Council, concerned that it could lead to investigations of which Councilmembers had leaked confidential information from “closed session meetings.” Leaking information from these meetings is a clear violation of “The Brown Act’, a state law that sets rules for how governments handle information and run meetings.

In addition to passing ethics standards for everyone except themselves, the Council voted to ask City Attorney Doug Sloan to investigate what ethics standards other cities hold their elected officials too. Sloan, formerly the City Attorney for the City of Fresno, based the proposed rules that were rejected by the Council for itself last night, on the rules used in Fresno.

The Brock motion also makes clear that any rules that any standards the Council decides the Council should follow would only apply to future City Councils. Passing ethical standards for the current one, he reasoned, would politicize the process as the city is about to kick off its election season.

But it was Brock and his previous and perhaps future slate-mate de la Torre that politicized last night’s debate by repeatedly bringing up previous votes where they were in the majority to reject investigating violations of the Brown Act. At no point during the meeting did any member state something in the proposed rules that they objected to. With the exception of Parra who questioned the process, all of the complaints were based on the Councilmembers’ politics.

After Sloan presented options for the council to consider and Torosis quickly offered her support for passing ethics rules for the Council, Parra questioned whether-or-not the proposed rules were the best ones. She asked if Sloan and his staff had asked other cities about their ethics standards. When he responded that they had not, she then pushed to postpone passing the standards until they had done that outreach. While one can question whether or not it was the right call to delay a vote as Parra suggested, she kept her comments to the proposal that was in front of her.

Councilmember Gleam Davis countered Parra by arguing that the standards Sloan proposed weren’t anything new, they were the ones that the city requires of employees.

“All we’re doing is taking the language that applies to employees, and making it apply to Councilmembers (and board and commission members),” Davis replied.

It was after Davis spoke, that de la Torre made things political. He went on an angry rant against Davis, accusing her of launching investigations when she didn’t like political results. He openly questioned Davis’ ethics and motivations claiming she only wanted to do investigations to hinder the potential poltiical campaigns of himself, Brock and Parra.

“They’re politically motivated,” de la Torre said of Davis’ past efforts to investigate violations of state disclosure and public information laws. “If there’s a decision that’s made or something was allegedly leaked, you launch an investigation. This process becomes weaponized, we’re in an election cycle.”

Davis countered that she has called for investigations, but never launched one on her own as that is outside her purview as a Councilmember. Both times she asked for investigations, the Council had hard information that there were leaks from closed session meetings. Both times the Council voted not to investigate which of its members were violating state law.

“Quite honestly it diminishes the credibility of this body,” she concluded.

She also noted several times that the investigations she called for would have applied to all Councilmembers, including herself. The timing of the investigations (in 2021 and a couple of weeks ago) came after they received this information and had nothing to do with elections…indeed the 2021 motion to investigate happened shortly after the 2020 election.

“Quite honestly it diminishes the credibility of this body,” Davis said of the leaks and the city’s unwillingness and inability to do anything about it. “We also know we have issues with certain members of boards and commissions, but can’t do anything as we don’t have policies in place to deal with that.”

De la Torre continued his attacks on Davis and returned the conversation to her past efforts to investigate leaks, instead of focusing his comments on the standards presented by the City Attorney for the Council to approve. He disparaged both the impact and the idea that those past leaks damaged the city. 

The 2021 leak Davis wanted to see investigated had to do with information from an interview for City Manager were publicly leaked. De la Torre scoffed that he talked to the candidate, Rene Bobadilla and stated that there was no indication he rejected the offer to serve as City Manager because of the leak.

However, in his rejection of the position, Bobadilla stated that he knew of a leak and that it had left him with a poor view of the city.

“I am, however, truly disappointed by the way this matter became public. Unfortunately, this significantly compromised the situation and impacted my ability to have robust, confidential, communications without undue external influence,” he wrote in a letter rejecting the job offer to then-mayor Sue Himmelrich.

De la Torre also questioned the motives behind the proposed leak investigation the Council rejected earlier this month, commenting that he didn’t even know what the leak was about. Davis countered that it was the City Attorney who emailed the entire Council last month that a leak had happened that led her, along with Councilmembers Torosis and Jesse Zwick, to propose an investigation.

A tense moment followed when she offered that if de la Torre was confused, that the Council could vote to waive attorney-client privilege and the City Attorney could brief everyone in public on the matter immediately. She made a motion to do that and offered to let de la Torre join her by seconding the motion. The two stared at each other before another Councilmember seconded the motion. Unfortunately, the Brock motion superseded it so it was never voted on.

Zwick then tried to bring the meeting back to a discussion of the matter at hand, the proposed ethics standards the City Attorney had brought to Council at their direction. However, Brock brought the issue directly back to politics.

After “both sidesing” the issue, Brock returned to discussing the previous attempts by Davis to investigate violations of state law. 

“It’s over, let’s move on. If anyone leaks again, at that point we need to pursue it,” Brock argued of the illegal actions of unknown Councilmembers. 

It was then that he proposed that the Council take a longer process to create rules, and that any rules they make should take effect on December 10, after the new Council is seated. It should be noted, that by the standards Brock himself created, the Councul would be unable to pursue action should “anyone leaks again” before December 10.

In what was perhaps an unintentionally revealing moment, Sloan clarified that what Brock was asking for was that his office “Bring back a new resolution that applies to everyone but the Council for now.” 

Brock didn’t like the way that sounded, and verbosely explained that what he wanted was for the city attorney to do more research and create new ethics rules for city commissions and board members; but that these rules would not apply to the City Council until later.

Next, City Manager David Sloan politely pleaded with the Council to at least pass ethics standards for members of boards and commissions, citing specific complaints from employees and low morale it caused. Most Councilmembers fell in line with the idea of trying to do something to help the workforce, even if it created a clear picture that the current Council majority doesn’t want ethics standards to apply to them.

“At least we can protect our city workforce,” sighed Zwick before reluctantly casting a “yes” vote.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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