For two long hours, the Tulare City Council argued, debated, talked over each other, and eventually directed staff to formulate an update streamlining the city’s rental policy for the Council Chambers at the Tulare Public Library.
At the end of discussions lasting nearly two hours at the August 15 meeting, the main sticking point ironically remained whether others using the room would be allowed to hold meetings lasting past 7pm, should hypothetical future meetings run late. The Council vote on the matter came after 9 o’clock, during a meeting that started late.
A draft of the new policy was to be presented for consideration at the Council’s Tuesday, September 5, meeting.
City Versus the Hospital
The often contentious discussion at the August 15 Council meeting stemmed from Mayor Carlton Jones sharing reports from citizens about a fear of violence erupting at meetings of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) Board of Directors.
That board has occasionally used the city’s meeting facility during the recent changes in its makeup, most recently following the ouster of Dr. Parmod Kumar by recall in a landslide vote against him.
Tulare Police Chief Wes Hensley said his department has been called to TLHCD meetings several times during the last three or four years in response to arguments and fights, including an incident on city property.
“The reason you’re seeing an officer present at the (TLHCD) meetings now is because I’ve had a number of citizens call me, both sides of this issue … with concerns about the potential for volatility,” he said.
Hensley also expressed concern for the safety of library patrons while TCLHD meetings are in progress.
Mayor on the Spot
Infighting at the hospital, both among board members, and between new board members and management firm Health Care Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), has led to canceled meetings, and recently to a lockout of the majority of the Board at TLHCD’s Evolutions fitness facility.
At the City Council meeting held August 1, Jones named the TLHCD Board’s contentious meetings as the reason for revisiting the policy for renting the Council Chambers, with the possibility of excluding them.
At the August 15 meeting, he denied that connection or that he had referenced it, but the Mayor was met with resistance in the form of his own words, and it came from a handful of individuals who have been at the forefront of the ongoing trouble at TLHCD.
“I was quite shocked at your comments that had complete untruths in them,” former TLHCD board member Deanne Martin-Soares said during the public comment period.
She then quoted Jones’s comments from the previous meeting.
“If you’ve ever been in recent times to the meetings they [TLHCD] have at their facility, they go pretty negative, to the point [hospital board members] have been threatened,” Jones said at the August 1 Council meeting. “To protect our public and our library, they [TLHCD] shouldn’t be allowed to have meetings in our chambers.”
Martin-Soares agreed the TLHCD meetings are contentious, saying HCCA intentionally encourages the chaotic atmosphere.
HCCA and its CEO Dr. Yorai “Benny” Benzeevi both donated separately to Jones’ campaign, as well as that of Councilwoman Maritsa Castellanoz, leading Martin-Soares to question the pair’s loyalty and motives.
Jones, she said, has accused Citizens for Hospital Accountability, a group she helps lead, with wanting a war with the TLHCD Board.
“I find it extremely offensive that you call these chambers ‘our chambers,’ referencing the Council,” she said. “As a business owner, a homeowner and a taxpaying citizen, I find these comments to be extremely arrogant and self-serving. These chambers are the community’s, not for the five of you to use them as you see fit.”
Alberto Aguilar, a former member of the bond oversight committee tasked with monitoring spending of funds intended for expansion of Tulare Regional Medical Center, an issue that became the focus of a negative report by the Tulare County Grand Jury, agreed with Martin-Soares’ sentiments.
“We have people [on the Council]that supported the hospital, and they don’t want to go ahead and let go of the fact that the person who was there has been recalled and is no longer there,” he said. “It is not about this facility. It’s time we put politics aside, Mr. Jones, Maritsa, and we start doing what’s best for the city.”
“I’m sorry if you think that if one of my friends donated money to my campaign, they buy my vote. Nobody buys my vote. I’m better than that,” he said. “Kumar’s out. Senovia [Gutierrez is] in. Make something happen. Stop arguing. Stop fighting.”
At the center of the disquiet among the Council were Jones and newly elected Councilman Jose Sigala, who immediately contradicted Jones about his motives for changing the rental policy.
“Everyone is welcome to read the minutes of the last meeting, and you’ll see the reason why this is on the agenda,” he said, referring to Jones’ comments at the Council meeting on the evening of August 1.
This seemed to also contradict another of Jones’ earlier comments.
“I apologize to anyone who thought the reason this was on the agenda was you’re going to come see a knock-out, drag-out, ugly meeting,” Jones had said. “We’re not going to have that.”
The exchange between Jones and Sigala came in the middle of the hours-long discussion.
Moments earlier, Sigala had stopped while talking over policy amendments with City Attorney Heather Phillips, announcing Jones had quietly asked him to be more respectful to her.
“Just real quick, the Mayor is telling me to not be disrespectful to you, and I believe I’m not,” Sigala said. “If I am, I apologize. He’s whispering in my ear to not be disrespectful, but I’m asking questions I think are legitimate.”
Phillips agreed Sigala was respectful and that his questions were germane.
Hospital is the Cause
Sigala’s remarks to Phillips regarded why no written recommendation was presented to the Council and established why the policy was being revisited.
“I made it very clear that this issue was highlighted based on something that occurred following a hospital board meeting,” Phillips said. “That is the reason why the Mayor brought this up as an item of concern and wanted to look at that.”
The agenda, which the city’s attorney agreed was poorly worded, included the possibility of a vote to change policy at the August 15 meeting.
Policy changes, she said, were needed not specifically because of the issues with TLHCD meetings.
City staff has expressed concerns, she said, as have members of the public.
“It’s simply what highlighted this issue for the city, and that’s why we’re talking about it today,” she said.
Councilman Greg Nunley then reminded all involved of the lasting and widespread effects of any decision they may make.
“This is more of a policy to treat not just for the hospital, but everyone who wants to use this room, fairly and consistently,” he said. “So, I know we’re going to be talking about the hospital here, but whatever we vote on here tonight or discuss, it’s not just the hospital using this room; it’s everyone else, every citizen, everyone else that wants to use this room. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Options on the Table
Phillips presented the Council with a pair of directions for revision of the current policy.
The first would limit use by groups other than the city to the hours when the library is open, set guidelines for behavior, and require renters to state the number of attendees they expect.
The policy should name the misbehavior that could lead to a ban, she said.
A second option would end rentals to outside groups entirely.
Councilman David Macedo, however, presented a third option.
City Services Director Rob Hunt maintains the city can find no one willing to work the minimal hours the city offers for the minimum wage the city is willing to pay to keep the room open after the library closes at 7pm.
Certainly, he said, no one at that pay-grade would be qualified to operate the complicated and costly audio-visual equipment there.
Yet Macedo feels it’s important the city make the room as available as it can to as many people as possible, including offering it for after-hours use.
“I don’t think we want to stop anybody from using this room,” he said. “Let’s look at what it would look like if we let it go to 7:30 or 8 o’clock.”
Any changes to policy were to be voted on at the September 5 meeting. The next meeting of the Tulare City Council is 7pm Tuesday, September 12, at the Tulare Public Library, 475 North M Street.