Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taft city manager accused of more wrongdoing

Attorneys for the city of Taft on Tuesday issued council members a legal opinion that portrays raises handed out retroactively to top city managers by Taft City Manager Robert Gorson as an illegal gift of public funds.

The opinion also outlines a questionable relationship between those raises and the fact Gorson went months without paying rent on the city-owned home where he was living, before finally bringing his account current.

The debate over contracts, complete with a Kern County grand jury report that was sharply critical of Gorson and a second attorney's opinion exonerating him from fault, has split the Taft City Council and launched the city into turmoil.

The public release of the document added fuel to the conflict.

Tuesday's report from the Gibson & Gibson firm states Gorson used the illegal raises to buy loyalty from top managers.

And in one case, the opinion says, those raises paid off personally for Gorson.

City Finance Director Teresa Statler got two retroactive raises, together worth $2,337 a month, from contracts implemented by Gorson without the knowledge of the Taft City Council in 2007 and 2009, the opinion states.

When Gorson failed to pay the $1,425 in monthly rent he owed the city of Taft for his home on Hillard Street for nearly seven months, the opinion states, Statler did not collect the debt and did not report the delinquency to the Taft City Council.

The opinion says Gorson paid seven months worth of rent in June 2009, bringing his account up to date, paid the rent due at the beginning of July on time, then failed to pay rent on time for the next four months.

Statler, despite being instructed in June 2009 to report any further late payments to Gibson & Gibson and the Taft City Council, did not report Gorson's late payments for July, August, September and October of 2009.

"To summarize, the City Manager has only made a single timely rental payment from July 2008 to February 2010," the opinion states. "The finance director should never have allowed the City Manager to either pay rent months late, or pay no rent at all for periods of several months. The result was effectively an additional gift of public funds to the City Manager, whose failure to pay timely rent resulted in the City's loss of interest on the unpaid rents."

Gorson said Wednesday he had not received a copy of the opinion and when asked about the late rents, suggested it was not his role to comment on information in the opinion.

"It's in the hands of the city council. I defer policy decisions to the city council," he said.

A call to Statler was not returned.

Taft Councilman Paul Linder said the issue of late rents has been resolved.

"We have taken prudent action regarding the non-payment of rent," he said.

Katherine Gibson, a principal of Gibson & Gibson, said the opinion was not a public document and was designed to offer a frank, honest assessment of legal issues to the council privately.

"I don't feel it should have have been released to the newspaper," she said.

Linder, who joined with Mayor Dave Noerr and Councilman Randy Miller to defend Gorson's contract decisions in a city response to grand jury accusations, said the document wasn't marked as protected by the attorney-client relationship.

But he said its release doesn't help solve problems in Taft.

"This should have been an attorney-client privileged document," Linder said. "I am disappointed that we as a council have not been able to address this in a more formal manner. Three of us are trying to put this stuff to bed."

Those three members have called on their chief opponent, controversial former Mayor Cliff Thompson, to resign from the council.

Linder said Thompson and Councilman Craig Noble have "conflicted themselves out of being able to deal with these issues" because they are involved with, or may be involved with, claims against the city of Taft.

Thompson said the illegal contracts and rent issues outlined in the Gibson & Gibson opinion are bad for the city of Taft.

"I put my faith in the grand jury," Thompson said.

Council members Miller and Noerr said Wednesday afternoon that they had not read the opinion and could not comment on it. Noble declined to comment.


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