Thursday, December 29, 2011

Patterson Irrigator - Rough ride in 2011 for city politics, by Nick Rappley

Big shoes to fill

More than 11 months after his death, the gap left by Cuellar continues to leave a mark on city affairs, council members say.

“I don’t know that we’ve replaced Sam,” Smith said this week. “With Sam, there was institutional knowledge and experience, and that’s not something you can replace overnight. His life experience and his council experience is not something you can replace without years and years.”

“He was a very consistent councilmember,” Molina said this week regarding the councilmember he regarded as a friend and mentor. “He was reinvigorated by his re-election and I think there would’ve been more respectful dialogue.”.

No sooner did the city begin to heal after Cuellar’s death than controversy filled City Hall regarding how to fill the seat of the iconic councilman, who had been elected two months earlier to another four-year term.

The remaining council members agreed unanimously not to pursue a costly special election. Based solely on the results of the November 2010 election, the council appointed the next highest vote-getter, Larry Buehner, on Feb. 8, with Smith, Councilman Dominic Farinha and newly elected Councilwoman Deborah Novelli voting in favor and Molina dissenting.

A week later, after much public discussion and audience opposition within the council chambers, the council rescinded the appointment with another 3-1 vote, this time with Smith dissenting, on the night Buehner was to be sworn in.

The council decided instead to interview 10 candidates, including several who had run in the November election, starting Feb. 28.

As an advocate for the interview process, Reyes Cuellar, Sam Cuellar’s wife, expressed happiness after the meeting.

“I am very pleased and proud of what the council members decided tonight,” she said. “I certainly didn’t expect this to happen, but I’m glad it did. I know (Sam) was pleased, too.”

Following the interviews, however, the council decided unanimously and without comment to appoint Buehner again, and he was sworn in March 7.

Criticism by community members and political opponents in the following weeks centered on Buehner’s business interests and perceived conflicts of interest. Buehner disclosed ownership or partial ownership of 29 rental properties throughout Patterson and of undeveloped land interests outside city limits that are expected to be annexed. But council members and city staff, including interim City Attorney Tom Hallinan, said there was little to worry about.

“He’ll be just like anyone else on the council,” Hallinan said. “Although he may have more potential conflicts of interest than average, it’s not unusual for council members to have to conflict out of decisions sometimes.”

Grand jury dustup

Just as the political seas seemed to calm, an uproar broke out June 29 when the civil grand jury released a scathing report that named former city staff and present and past City Council members.

Most affected were Smith, former Mayor Becky Campo and former City Attorney George Logan.

The civil grand jury recommended that Smith resign or be recalled and that Campo pay back money she received as mayor because of allegations that she lived outside city limits.

It also stated that the city should file a complaint with the California State Bar to chastise Logan for alleged improprieties. Those included failing to be in the room when the council voted to reimburse developer John Ramos for $27,000 in legal fees he incurred as he sought to block the Del Puerto Health Center from moving to the Keystone Pacific Business Park in western Patterson. The grand jury suggested that Ramos, the health center’s present landlord, should return that money to the city.

In July, Campo blamed Molina for the grand jury investigation, alleging that he was behind the investigation and was a complainant.

“I was not a complainant,” Molina said in July. “I was called as a witness by the civil grand jury, but I never filled out a complaint.”

The city’s official response three months later, in a letter to the grand jury written by Hallinan, appeared defiant.

“This is the most outrageous and inappropriate recommendation our City Attorney has seen in 17 years of reviewing Grand Jury reports,” Hallinan wrote in response to the resignation-or-recall recommendation. “To engage in political advocacy is completely and utterly contrary to the charge of the Grand Jury.

“This recommendation cannot be implemented by (the city) and as such, shouldn’t even be included in this report.”

While the council voted unanimously to send off the response, Molina was apprehensive about the tone of the letter, calling it “harsh.”

Returning fire

The grand jury report prompted two related lawsuits — one from Smith and one from Logan.

On Sept. 28, Smith filed a federal suit against Stanislaus County and the civil grand jury for defamation of character and violation of her civil rights.

“I don’t want to see anyone else to have to go through something like this,” she said this week. “It was clear that there was a conspiracy to target myself, Mayor Campo and Dominic Farinha,

“It was hearsay, nonsense and outright made up. I will not stop this lawsuit until I uncover those that perjured themselves in front of this grand jury.”

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Federal Court in Sacramento, seeks an injunction against the grand jury to stop further alleged abuse of authority and publication of transcripts from the investigation. The suit also calls for the jury to revise its findings and seeks unspecified damages and attorney fees.

Smith said she was never given an opportunity to respond formally to the allegations, as the grand jury asked only the city for a response, not the people identified in the report.

Meanwhile, former civil grand jury foreman Denis France — along with Stanislaus County Counsel Jack Doering, who later recused himself from the case because of possible conflict of interests — began pursuing a contempt-of-court charge against Logan.

The court asked the county for $10,000 to hire Modesto civil attorney Dean Petrulakis to pursue the contempt charge against Logan for discussing and writing in local newspapers about his civil grand jury testimony in April and May.

Logan wrote op-eds in the Patterson Irrigator and the Modesto Bee and also responded to questions from the Irrigator for a story about the grand jury investigation.

“I knew they were just going to try and crucify me and my reputation, along with the others (they brought in as witnesses),” Logan said in late May.

In court documents, Logan has cited legal precedent that he has a right to freedom of speech in the matter if no one is endangered by his testimony.

More ahead In early December, criticism of Molina arose regarding his dual roles as mayor of Patterson and chairman of the Stanislaus County Office of Education board.

Smith asked at the Dec. 6 Patterson City Council meeting that Molina’s dual offices be publicly discussed at the council’s next regular meeting Jan. 17. Smith has said she wants the attorney general’s opinion on the matter, while Molina has contended that the offices are compatible and can coexist. Legal opinions have been murky.

Such incidents hint that there may be more council drama ahead in 2012, as the political year will begin apace with Molina’s debate and Logan’s court date.

• Nick Rappley can be reached at 892-6187 or

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