Claremont Insider: Legal Briefs

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Legal Briefs

The Daily Bulletin had a couple articles mentioning public agencies that use the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger (BB&K), the same firm that supplies Claremont with its city attorney, Sonia Carvalho.


The first Bulletin article concerned the Jurupa Community Services District (JCSD), which supplies water and sewer utilities to unincorporated areas in western Riverside County.

Apparently, the JCSD, which has used BB&K for 30 years, may seek another firm for legal counsel. According to the Bulletin article:

There has been some discord between [Board President R. M. "Cook"] Barela and the counsel. Last month, the firm sent a four-page confidential letter to everyone on the board except Barela regarding the firm's qualifications as legal counsel for the district.

The letter was in response to a comment that Barela allegedly made at a Dec. 10 meeting regarding Best, Best and Krieger's services.

"Director Barela stated that the district has not been receiving good legal advice and service from our firm and told Mr. Horst that he wanted him to solicit proposals for general counsel legal services," the letter stated.

It went on to state, "Jurupa Community Services District has been a valued client of our firm for more than 30 years, and we hope the relationship will continue for a long time in the future."

The Riverside Press-Enterprise explored the matter in more detail in a January 14th article:

Barela's suggestion that the community services district look at proposals from other legal firms prompted a letter from Best Best & Krieger attorney Richard Anderson touting his firm's accomplishments on behalf of the district since 1976.

Anderson, who served as the district's legal counsel until May 2007, called the land sale to the Calvert partnership "an unfortunate mistake" but stressed that he was never consulted before the property was sold.

Anderson said he was not at the meeting at which the sale was approved and did not learn of the transaction until after it was completed.

Anderson's letter also was openly critical of Barela. It was sent to [JCSD Board Directors] Jane Anderson, Betty Anderson, [Kathryn] Bogart and Kenneth McLaughlin, but not Barela. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Jane and Betty Anderson are not related to Richard Anderson or to each other.]

Noting that he had not received a copy, Barela called the letter an attempt to divide the board.

Barela said last week that his Dec. 10 comments were not meant to disparage the work of Best Best & Krieger and that the law firm would be able to submit a proposal.


Another BB&K client in the news is the Jurupa Unfied School District, where boardmember Michael Rodriguez was censured in January, 2007.

BB&K has some prior experience with the censure process in the Inland Empire.

In January, 2003, the city of Ontario, which also used BB&K, censured Councilperson Debbie Acker. According to a Bulletin article published on 8/17/2004:

Acker was officially reprimanded by her colleagues through a censure resolution in January 2003.

A five-month independent investigation found that her conduct with city employees violated laws or city policies and could result in claims against the city.

As a result, she was required to make all her inquiries to a handful of staff members through a special phone line - a number she has never used - and was barred from nonpublic places in City Hall without prior appointment.

Acker insists that her dealings with employees were within her rights as a council member.

And in 2005, then-Claremont City Manager Glenn Southard accused Claremont Councilperson Jackie McHenry of creating a hostile work environment. Other city staffers, former city councilmembers like Paul Held and Sandy Baldonado, and many Claremont 400 members jumped on the censure bandwagon with the zeal and bloodlust of a mob at a Salem witchhunt.

As in the Acker case, Claremont proposed having an independent investigation conducted. In the Claremont case, there certainly did not seem to be broad public support for censure, and a number of citizens spoke out against it. The city council voted against an investigation, and Southard, possibly sensing that he risked making McHenry into a martyr, backed off.

The matter was dropped, though it quickly segued into the Preserve Claremont campaign against McHenry and current councilmember Corey Calaycay. Many of the same people who railed against McHenry, including some city staffers, became involved in Preserve Claremont's unsuccessful and discredited smear campaign for the March, 2005, city election.

* * *

In the Jurupa Unified School District matter, JUSD Board Member Michael Rodriguez was censured on January, 2007, after complaints of sexual and verbal harassment by some district employees against Rodriguez.

The Daily Bulletin reported today that Rodriguez has filed a lawsuit against JUSD Superintendent Elliot Duchon and Board President Carl Harris, alleging they and the district violated Rodriguez's civil rights and his right to due process. The article also said that the JUSD Board has voted against distributing Rodriguez's lawsuit to residents.

Fortunately, if you're so inclined, the Riverside County Courts have a great website with civil case information, including many scanned documents. The complaint for Rodriguez's suit can be seen here (click on the little camera icon on the line that says "complaint").

No answer to the complaint has been filed yet, but a January 9th Press-Enterprise article indicated the community was divided over the lawsuit. One of the people quoted in the article as being sympathetic to the Jurupa school board was former school board representative R. M. "Cook" Barela, the same person who is president of the Jurupa Community Services District.

The article indicates that Rodriguez feels his censure was done as retribution for his dissent on the board. Rodriguez now faces a recall campaign to remove him from office.


We can't speak to the truth behind the allegations in these cases, but we can say that in the one in Claremont in 2005, there did seem to be the witchhunt aspect that we mentioned earlier in this post. To be fair, we do recall in that instance the city attorney appearing to be counseling the city towards moderation, and the McHenry censure was averted, though by the time of the council vote on whether or not to go forward with an investigation, it was pretty clear that the public wasn't biting on the censure idea.

When you consider the expense that an elected official threatened with censure has to endure to provide a competent defense against a public agency's considerable resources, even the mere threat of censure could potentially have a chilling effect on dissent. So you could have non-elected officials acting as a de facto Praetorian guard, making and unmaking empires.

We would be extremely concerned if censure started becoming a common practice and if it were ever used to silence an elected official unfairly. We'd also be interested in any academic studies of censure in local politics - studies perhaps examining the frequency, the cost to defend and the public cost to carry out a censure, the actual charges presented (harassment and hostile work environment seem pretty common), the underlying political environment.

We could easily see a hypothetical situation where a city staff member, perhaps seeking to conceal some activity, could make false accusations of harrassment or false claims of a hostile work environment in order to initiate a censure proceeding against an elected official seeking to look into that staffer's activities. In such a case, censure could be improperly used to cut off a legitimate inquiry, much to the public's detriment.

We wonder, has anyone ever really studied what are the ultimate effects on local democracy when public agencies seek to censure, and is that process ever abused?