Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Grand jury blasts Taft city government, urges citizen engagement

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer | Tuesday, Feb 09 2010 02:28 PM

Last Updated Tuesday, Feb 09 2010 02:28 PM

The Kern County grand jury issued a blazing condemnation of Taft City Manager Robert Gorson and the Taft City Council Tuesday.

It paints a picture of a fractured, under-educated city council that is incapable of holding a rogue city manager in check and calls on the citizens of Taft to become informed and involved in cleaning up their government.

The report finds Gorson ignored state law and Taft ordinances to dole out large raises to his top management staff without a vote of the Taft City Council.

And it states that council members were ignorant of the law and failed to hold Gorson accountable.

The grand jury report also blasts Gorson and Taft City Councilman Cliff Thompson for failing to publically disclose a $200,000 investment Gorson made in Thompson's business.

Contacted Tuesday, Gorson was polite but would only repeat a single phrase as an answer to questions.

"I don't have a response," he said.


Taft Mayor Dave Noerr dismissed the grand jury report as "opinion" and said the full council would consider the report and establish its own path forward.

Noerr said jurors overreached by taking one disputed issue and making the blanket statement that the city council has failed in the whole of its fiduciary duty.

Debate sparked in September after The Californian reported on the raises -- seven of which a defiant Gorson handed out against the advice of Taft City Attorney Ed Gordon of the Gibson & Gibson firm.

Gorson said last year that Taft ordinances and city custom allowed him to hire employees, negotiate their contracts and set their pay without a council vote.

Gibson's opinion and the grand jury say Gorson is wrong.

"The City Manager has opted to pick and chose only the portions of City Codes that will be convenient to meet his needs," the grand jury report states.

In the fall, as the controversy over the raises and the relationship between Gorson and Thompson exploded in Taft, city council members hired attorney Michael Jenkins to draft a second legal opinion about Gorson's actions.

Jenkins' opinion backed up Gorson's argument.


But Tuesday's grand jury report states that Jenkins' opinion gave Gorson "unaccountable financial powers to redistribute budgeted salary funds within a fiscal year," was based on legal case law that had "no relevance to the issues under review," and the council's motivation for hiring Jenkins was suspect.

Hiring an attorney for a second opinion is within the city council's power, said grand jury Foreman John Mainland.

But, Mainland said, "just because you don't like an opinion, you can always find one you can agree with."

The grand jury reported that during a Dec. 15 meeting, council members officially refused to accept a "comprehensive rebuttal" of Jenkins' opinion issued by the city attorney firm of Gibson and Gibson.

Council members Thompson and Craig Noble asked for the memo to be placed on the agenda, Thompson said.

Minutes of the meeting show that Noerr, Councilman Paul Linder and Mayor Pro-Tem Randy Miller all voted against filing the memo from Gibson and Gibson.

Noerr said the council already had two opposing opinions on the issue -- meaning that the question of Gorson's actions was ambiguous enough legally that the council could act on its discretion.

Miller stated, during the meeting, that the issue of employee raises issued by Gorson was "water under the bridge."

The council also voted, on Dec. 15, against a Thompson/Noble agenda item that would have asked the California attorney general's office to issue a ruling on Gorson's actions.

"I didn't think it was necessary," Noerr said.

The grand jury report said the council picked the legal opinion it preferred.

"The City Council has spent too much time trying to circumvent the City Attorney's opinions," the report states.


The grand jury report also takes Thompson to task for failing to accurately complete financial disclosure forms and voting on Gorson's contract while he was in a business relationship with the city manager.

Thompson said the grand jury "did a great job" and he took responsibility for failing to file his paperwork correctly.

"It was done out of not knowing how to fill them out," Thompson said. "I was wrong, completely."

He also said he never got enough training, as a council member, to know that he should have abstained from votes related to Gorson's job performance.

Mainland had a different take on the Taft City Council claims it wasn't aware of the proper way to do things.

"You took an oath. You need to know what laws you have to abide by. 'I don't know' or 'I didn't know' has never been an excuse," Mainland said.


The grand jury recommends the city council hold Gorson accountable for violating the law. But it also calls for Taft citizens to hold the council accountable.

"The only follow-up is the people in Taft," Mainland said. "There is a situation there and it needs to be addressed by the voters. If the people don't get involved then they deserve what they get."

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