Finally, there was no infighting at a meeting of the Tulare City Council, but only because most of the members didn’t show up for July’s only scheduled session.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a meeting tonight,” said Mayor David Macedo as he stood in the parking lot before the scheduled start time. “I don’t think we’re going to have a quorum. Since 4 o’clock we’ve had one, then two, then three say they weren’t going to make it, so…”
The missed meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday, July 24, at 7pm in the Council Chambers, 491 North M Street.
Macedo and Councilman Jose Sigala only learned of the lack of quorum after arriving for the meeting. Macedo, who replaced Carlton Jones as mayor last month in an unusual off-cycle reorganization, found out his predecessor would not be attending the night’s meeting when he was approached by Interim City Manager Willard Epps in the parking lot.
“Very unusual, yes,” Macedo said of the situation. “I know (Vice Mayor) Maritsa (Castellanzo) had texted earlier she was out of town on business, and then (Councilman) Greg (Nunley) texted me probably shortly thereafter, and then Will just told me he didn’t know if Carlton was going to make it.”
Macedo and Sigala sat alone on the council dais awaiting the arrival of any of their missing colleagues for some 15 minutes before the Mayor officially moved the meeting back one week.
The Devil and the Hospital
After giving word of the new meeting date, Macedo asked those who had gathered for the evening’s business to pray for the city council. The ongoing infighting on the council, he said, was an open invitation to evil.
“So, we can’t ask for God to come into our meetings, and then once we start our bickering and fighting among ourselves, the only one we’ve allowed in is the Devil,” Macedo said. “So, let’s pray about that for next meeting, and we will be here a week from Tuesday night.”
The mayor, as he asked for divine help, also pointed to trouble at the Tulare Local Health Care District and Tulare Regional Medical Center as the origin of the city’s ongoing trouble at the leadership level.
“I would ask each and every one of you to go home and pray about this,” Macedo said. “You know, we pray before every meeting to invite God into our meetings, and it just seems like the city of Tulare–and it goes back for many, many years, starting with the hospital–has had a lot of dissension.”
The agenda for the evening was fairly routine, with the exception of the hiring of a new city attorney, the approval of a handful of items dealing with Councilman Nunley’s property developments, and a time-sensitive agreement between the city and the county.
It was the third item that prompted the scheduling of a meeting on July 24.
“There’s a deadline for the city to set assessments for landscaping in special districts with the county,” said City Engineer Mike Miller. “It takes two meetings, and we only have two meetings (before the deadline).”
One of those meetings was the quorum-less meeting of July 17, and so the decision on landscaping assessments will be taken up at the rescheduled session. So too will the hiring of a new city attorney. Epps, the interim city manager, said the Council appeared ready to hire the Hanford-based law firm Griswold, LaSalle, Cobb, Down and Gin.
“I sensed that it would go,” he said.
Attorneys from the law firm have already begun working as the city’s interim legal council. About two weeks have passed since the city’s new counselors began advising staff at City Hall. All is going well, Epps reports.
“Things have really been good for us,” he said.
Non-Standard Hiring Procedure
The vote to remove the law firm representing the city, Goyette and Associates, came by a 5-0 vote during the closed session portion of the council’s meeting on June 19.
Heather Phillips, who served as Tulare’s city attorney, had no previous experience with municipal law, a reason cited by Macedo for voting to remove Phillips and her firm. It also appears standard city practice was not followed when Goyette and Associates was originally hired in April of last year.
Minutes of the council meeting from March 21 show a closed-session review of the performance of then City Attorney David Hale, who abruptly resigned his position without explanation just 10 days later at a special meeting on March 31.
It appears the Council then directed former Mayor Jones to find a new attorney. He chose Phillips, who served previously as counsel to the Fresno-area firefighters union Jones once headed. She first appeared as a member of city staff on April 4.
Phillips firm was paid a flat $30,000 monthly for its work for the city, a figure that brought some criticism for being too high. It also appears a formal request for proposal (RFP) asking for bids from competing law firms was never issued by the city. RFP are required by law for high-dollar items and contracts.
Nunley Called for Review
The review of Phillips’ performance as city attorney was requested by Councilman Greg Nunley, who found himself on the defensive last month when he was accused of possible state fair election law violations. The accusations–made by attorney Michael Noland, who represents Visalia-based investors and land developers the Lagomarsino Group–include Nunley using his position to gain favorable treatment for his real estate developments.
The possible violations–ones Nunley strongly denies–stem from the councilman’s attempts to negotiate an extension of a development agreement with city for his Tesori subdivision. By attempting to influence the council’s decision, Noland says Nunley has run afoul of Section 1090 of the state Government Code. The action, which was eventually approved by the council, is the second such extension Nunley has received.
“Remember that you provided an extension of the subdivision agreement for the Tesori subdivision last year at this time, and the amendment to that agreement … constitutes a violation of government code section 1090, because it creates a new agreement between the City of Tulare and Councilmember Nunley’s company,” Noland told the Council at its June 19 meeting. “Section 1090 of the Government Code strictly prohibits that type of agreement between a sitting councilmember or other member of a governmental body and that governmental entity itself.”
Nunley’s call for a review of Phillips’ performance came after the attorney provided documents about Nunley’s dealings with the city to attorneys investigating his behavior.
Despite the agreement between Nunley and the city being in place for nearly a decade, the move to extend it came at the last possible moment. The council, with Nunley abstaining and Councilman David Macedo absent, eventually voted 3-0 to approve an extension of the agreement, provided Nunley could prove he holds bonds that will cover the cost of street improvements should Nunley fail to cover them. Nunley provided a letter from Cavignac and Associates detailing the terms of the bond to the council.
Had the council failed to act, the agreement with Nunley would have expired that night. Councilman Jose Sigala was the first to comment on the coincidence of timing.
“I guess the question is how long have we known about this,” Sigala said. “Did it just come up yesterday, or was there enough time to put that stuff in place?”
City Engineer, Mike Miller said City Hall began working on the extension about 30 days ago, which is the normal procedure.
Vice Mayor Castellanzo saw the lateness of Nunley’s request for an extension of his contract as a problem.
“We are put in a bind here with the timing,” she said.
Nunley, who had recused himself from the debate and vote over the contract extension at the June 19 Council meeting, took a seat in the audience but didn’t stay there long. Following comments by Noland, Nunley addressed the Council from the side of the podium usually reserved for the public, claiming he was “speaking as a citizen, not as a councilman.”
Nunley told the Council a letter from the Fair Political Practices Committee (FPPC) says the law allows him to make agreements with the city regarding his real estate development projects.
City Attorney Heather Phillips confirmed the letter’s existence to the council, as well as its content.
“I just want to make the council aware that we have checked with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the FPPC,” she said. “They’ve provided us with a written opinion that the councilmember (Nunley) is allowed to enter into contracts with respect to subdivisions.”
Conditions of Participation
What neither Nunley or Phillips revealed were the conditions under which Nunley could do such business. Besides disclosing directly his financial interests, Nunley was also advised by lawyers for the FPPC to recuse himself from the vote, and to leave the room for any discussion of matters involving his business interests, which Nunley did not do at the June 19 meeting.
The letter from the FPPC covers very specific circumstances under which Nunley may form a contract with the city. He may only “submit formal requests to the city of Tulare for zoning changes and general plan amendments applicable to property he wholly owns,” it reads.
The letter does not cover the renegotiation of developers’ agreements. It also does not make allowances for properties Nunley owns in partnership with others. Del Lago Place LLC, the company which owns the Tesori Subdivision, is not owned by Nunley alone. At least two partners are listed with the state.
Substantiated violations of 1090, depending on the intent of the individual who violated the law, can result in both civil and criminal penalties.
Visalia-based attorney Michael Lampe, who was also on hand for the debate at the June 19 meeting, denied the letter from the FPPC allowed the city and Nunley to extend their current agreement.
“I would think–I don’t think, I know that this is a new agreement. It’s not a subdivision agreement under 1090.1,” Lampe said. “And it would be a violation of Section 1090 of the Government Code to enter into such an agreement.”
At the June 19 meeting, Nunley also launched into a lengthy complaint about what he says is the city’s failure to issue a reimbursement agreement to his company.
Nunley says some $700,000 in improvements to the area around Tesori subdivision should be paid out of the city’s portion of the State Highway Fund. Nunley’s company has yet to make the improvements required by the state.
Nunley also mentioned what he apparently views as unfairly good treatment by City Hall of developers of the San Joaquin Valley Homes subdivision, which sits in the same area as Tesori.
San Joaquin’s ownership received a reimbursement agreement from the city within six months of requesting one, according to Nunley, and the Councilman seemed seemed to imply the involvement of Lagomarsino Group owner Fred Lagomarsino helped influence the quickness of that action.
“I believe Mr. Lagomarsino was part of (San Joaquin Valley Homes) … in some way,” Nunley said.
Despite Nunley’s assertion, it appears the ball is actually in his court when it comes to a reimbursement agreement with the city.
“The reimbursement agreement has been prepared by city staff, has been reviewed by the city attorney, has been forwarded to the applicant,” said Tulare’s Community and Economic Development Director, Josh McDonnell. “The applicant has reviewed it and asked a number of questions. Staff has responded to those questions within the last week, and we are awaiting a response from the applicant.”
Had the meeting scheduled for this week been held, Nunley would have found himself missing more votes as the council again took up matters dealing with his business interests.
Conditional approval of final documents for the Quail Creek subdivision will have to wait until the council reconvenes at its special meeting on July 24.