The political disquiet continues to deepen in Lindsay, with residents now asking for a Grand Jury investigation of city council action in the wake of the resignation of city manager and public safety chief Rich Wilkinson in June.
The current upset began in August of 2014, when fired Lindsay police lieutenant Bryan Clower filed a wrongful termination suit against the city, alleging he had been improperly dismissed from his position in February of that year. Those allegations became much more serious in April of this year, when Clower claimed in a deposition three of the city’s council members had encouraged him to file the suit in an apparent effort to remove Wilkinson.
According to his sworn testimony, Clower said he was approached separately by Mayor Ramona Villarreal-Padilla, Mayor Pro-Tem Rosaena Sanchez and Councilman Steve Mecum, and was encouraged by all three to file the lawsuit, which is still ongoing. The trio, Clower alleged, hoped the suit would allow them to fire Wilkinson with cause, thus avoiding paying the former head of city operations a hefty severance package guaranteed by his contract with the city.
Villarreal-Padilla, Sanchez and Mecum have denied Clower’s accusations of wrongdoing, and the city has filed a counterclaim against Clower. Clower’s deposition also alleges he was assured there would be no reprisal from the city for his lawsuit.
Following the allegations of a conspiracy to remove him, Wilkinson penned a letter to the city listing his own complaints, including fraud, harassment and violations of the Lindsay City Charter. Wilkinson’s May 12 letter accuses Villarreal-Padilla, Sanchez and Mecum of committing “moral turpitude by making false statements” to Clower and describes “an effort to publicly and professionally embarrass me and to avoid triggering the severance clause in my employment contract, thus defrauding me of my rights of severance.”
The city has since agreed to honor that severance agreement, and will pay Wilkinson a package worth more than $240,000 over the next two years. The agreement signed by the parties also ensures Wilkinson will not sue the city. Wilkinson also agreed to fulfill any remaining legal obligations he has with the city in exchange for expenses.
Wilkinson and the city ended their formal relationship effective June 2.
The announcement of Wilkinson’s separation from the city came at a special council meeting held June 2, but it was not the first time the two parties had considered altering their relationship. In February, Wilkinson presented a plan to the council that would have seen him step down as city manager while retaining his title as chief of public safety and his salary.
The council declined the proposal in 4-1 vote.
Wilkinson became city manager in 2011, after the departure of former city manager Scot Townsend in 2010. Townsend’s tenure was a contentious time for the city, marked by questions of corruption and misuse of funds.
Wilkinson was named Lindsay’s Man of the Year in 2013.
Public wants closer look
Despite the resolution of the dispute between the city and Wilkinson, some residents are still seeking a deeper investigation of the matter.
“There is an appearance of impropriety,” Lindsay resident Brian Watson told the Council at its June 23 meeting.
Watson said new information has come to light, and that he and other Lindsay residents have already forwarded it to the Tulare County Grand Jury, requesting that body investigate the allegations.
“But there has become of late information that many members of the community feel must be investigated because of the seriousness of the charges,” Watson said. “These amounts of information, some have been public, some have not been public yet, but many of us feel must be researched by an investigative body, and so many of us are sending information to the Grand Jury of Tulare County for investigation into potential Brown Act violations, city charter violations, possible quid pro quo violations.”
Quid pro quo wrongdoing involves public officials using their offices for personal gain. Watson did not elaborate on how members of the council had done so. Such conduct would be a felony violation of the Hobbs Act, a federal anti-corruption law.
Acting with regret
Watson said although he and those he claimed to represent regretted having to call for outside investigation, they hoped there would be benefit to all involved.
“It is with a heavy heart we do this, because we don’t want any of our members, especially the city council, to be found, and we’re not casting any aspersions, but, found even guilty of a misdemeanor, let alone a potential felony,” he said. “That does you no good, certainly does the city no good, and we would appreciate serious consideration and respectful consideration into just a few ideas or thoughts that might mitigate these potentially serious issues, and we’re very concerned about the budget deficit.”
Specifically, Watson urged the council to continue using an acting city manager and chief of police as a cost-saving measure, rather than hiring interim personnel, and called on staff at City Hall to contact the Grand Jury to provide information on “potential violations.”
Yolanda Flores, another resident who addressed the council at the June 23 meeting, was not hopeful an investigation would lead to change. She recalled a similar outcry during Townsend’s tenure.
“When there was so much corruption in this town, as a group there were over 300 community members that also went to the Grand Jury, that also went to the Department of Justice, and really nothing was done, so I’m not sure what could be done now,” she said. “During that time, there was misappropriation of funds, there were rumors of kickbacks to city council members. There were a lot of things going on. So, believe me when I tell you that this is not the first time.”
Despite her misgivings, Flores was upbeat about the future.
“I’m hopeful that this city council will unite and do great things,” she said.
Civic business marches on
Despite the current kerfuffle, day-to-day operations remain smooth at Lindsay City Hall. At its June 9 meeting, the council appointed City Clerk Carmen Wilson as acting city manager. Lt. Chris Hughs had previously been named acting chief of public safety.
Wilson was upbeat when asked about the mood among staff at city hall.
“We have a great team. Everybody’s working together,” she said. “Obviously, it’s not always easy, but everyone works really hard.”
The public reaction has also been good, Wilson said, and the staff has received “lots of support.”
In a closed session June 23, council members met to review applications for the interim city manager and chief of public safety positions and to set dates for candidate interviews. The result of that session are expected to be made public at the council’s next regular meeting on July 7.