Friday, July 13, 2012

(Orange Co) City officials abused power, grand jury says

by Teri Sforza, Orange County Register staff writer

The Orange County grand jury has accused two city councilmen of “misfeasance” in a report issued Thursday, saying they misused their positions to interfere with academic freedom at Brandman University in the wake of a critical report on city manager compensation.

The two city councilmen say the grand jury got it all wrong, and came to bogus and illogical conclusions.

The Brandman professor who says he was pressured to step down as a result of the brouhaha apparently feels vindicated.

And the woman who kicked off the whole enchilada is calling for at least one councilman’s resignation.

Confused yet? Backstory here will prove vital.


Rewind to 2010, before the Bell scandal broke: Barbara “Stir the Pot” Kogerman was running for city council in Laguna Hills, and felt that her long-time city council was paying its long-time city manager way too much money. To see if that was true, she began an enormous project: Nailing down the total compensation for O.C.’s 34 city managers.

It was a maddening task, and two interns from Brandman, a division of Chapman University, eventually came on to help. Those students were assigned to Kogerman’s project by Fred Smoller, who was then the director of Brandman’s graduate program in public administration. Kogerman’s report landed like a stink bomb in official circles: She concluded that Laguna Hills City Manager Bruce Channing had the highest total comp in O.C., at $460,809 – and she laid out her numbers for every other city manager in O.C. as well.

Suffice to say city execs were enraged. The grand jury got minutes from a meeting of city-types saying that Laguna Hills officials were “extremely upset” that Brandman could be so irresponsible, “and that the Orange County Register would put a Watchdog column on the front page…. A response is necessary in significant fashion, as the article indicates, first of a series. “‘


Now, the original version of Kogerman’s report credited those two Brandman students with authorship, and used the university’s name on the cover. That, her critics said, gave a blatantly political tract an air of authority it did not deserve. Smoller, the professor, was vilified for sending students smack into the belly of the beast and letting them be used; Smoller countered that if public administration students don’t understand the whipsaw of small town politics, they are dead, and he defended the data they produced as an important bit of public service.

Pressure intensified. According to our own sniffing around last year — as well as the grand jury’s report — Laguna Hills City Councilman Allan Songstad Jr. and Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante paid a visit to Chapman University President Jim Doti, a marked-up copy of Kogerman’s report in hand, to sound off. With them was Lacy Kelly, head of the O.C. branch of the League of California Cities, a nonprofit whose funding comes from dues paid by local cities with public funds.

Doti told us that they complained about the authorship issue, and Doti, too, was aghast. The president suggested that Smoller set the record straight; Smoller publicly declared that “this was not a Brandman University report, and it was unethical of the campaign to try to pass it off as if it were. Also, I was wrong for not immediately publicly criticizing the Kogerman campaign for doing so. This was a political tract, not a scholarly study.” Kogerman apologized, explaining that she gave the students bylines because they worked their tails off for three months, and issued an amended cover page and introduction to the report to reflect her authorship. She had always made clear that the writing and analysis were hers, she said.

As the Bell scandal exploded, Kogerman and the interns were whisked by limousine to appear on national news shows and received awards and accolades for their work.


Now, Kogerman wasn’t mad at Smoller for the public smack; she felt for him. “I know Dr. Smoller is under serious threat of losing his job at Brandman University,” she wrote last year. “Dr. Smoller was forced to appease his seniors to keep his professional assignment.”

Nearly a year passed. Smoller didn’t just sic public administration students on public administrator pay — he committed other bits of public administration blasphemy, such as opining about efficiency and the logic of merging some of O.C.’s 34 cities. Kelly, of the cities association, called this thinking “out of the mainstream.”

And in October, Smoller resigned as director of Bradman’s graduate program in public administration. “I resigned because it was clear to me that a breakaway group from the (non-profit corporation) and other disgruntled elected leaders had convinced (university) administrators that I could no longer be an effective public face for the program,” said Smoller’s resignation letter.
Outraged, Kogerman filed a complaint with the grand jury, asking it to investigate the harassment of Smoller. And that is why we are gathered here today.


The grand jury called in Kelly, Amante and Songstad, among others, and focused on that meeting at Chapman with Doti. Were the officials threatening to blackball graduates of the university by not hiring them? Songstad indicated “it was obvious to all concerned that it was not the best thing for them to do, i.e. to be criticizing city managers when they are the ones that do the hiring. And that the university president and the professor were bright individuals who could see the relationship and that it wouldn’t be smart to slam city managers. He acknowledged that there wasn’t any threat but it was just sort of self evident,” the grand jury says.
It is apparent that Songstad, of Laguna Hills, “was influencing certain actions of the professor in that some of the exact language that was to be used in the professor’s letter was the same as that which was communicated by the councilman,” the grand jury wrote. “It is equally apparent that the professor felt compromised and was attempting to defend the actions of himself and the students in raising public interest in the political process. The issue of crediting the students with the authorship of the report on the cover page, notwithstanding the rather elaborate explanation in the attending foreword, was magnified beyond its significance, apparently for political reasons.

“The history of the communications is evidence of the existence of the pressure being brought to bear upon the university and the professor.

“If, by express statement or by implication, it was stated or implied to the university officials that their students may or may not have altered employment expectations based upon the outcome of those concerns as represented by the elected city officials and the representations which were made regarding the compensation report, then an ethical breach was certainly taking place. And if not, there still remains a significant cloud of impropriety and circumspection over the entire affair.
“The Orange County Grand Jury is concerned that these efforts were an attempt to interfere with the academic freedom and the curriculum of an educational institution, and that these elected officials misused their position as directors of a publically funded, non-profit political organization, and their political offices, to attempt to influence the operation of an independent university, its governing officials, and its faculty and students. Equally important, their conduct inadvertently or otherwise, may have brought negative influences to bear on the continuing career of an education professional.

In addition, it appears that the university, its governing officials, faculty, and students were being influenced by the public officials for the purpose of manipulating circumstances related to a local election. If, for example, the report in question could be discredited, it would reflect badly upon the candidate who generated the report (Kogerman) and who was using its results as the cornerstone of her campaign efforts.

“There are many reasons why the curriculum and operations of educational institutions are considered sacrosanct, and many reasons why ethical considerations by public officials must be followed. This is certainly one.”


There were, officially, four findings:

City officials apparently misused their membership in a non-profit corporation established on behalf of public entities to promote their own political agenda by using their status with that organization in an effort to influence the officials at a local university.

City officials arranged a meeting with the office of a university president indicating they were to introduce the executive director of the non-profit entity, when their intentions were to influence the university to investigate and discredit the report where students were assigned as interns to a political campaign by the Masters in Public Administration department.

The influence wielded by city officials appears to have been an attempt to cause the officials of a local university, to exert influence on a member of their faculty.
City officials may not have been forthcoming with the Orange County Grand Jury in their testimony about the primary purpose in meeting with university officials and the facts and circumstances related thereto.

Laguna Hills and Tustin should review the conduct of Songstad and Amante “and determine what action should be taken so as to prevent future acts of misfeasance,” and get them “continuing ethical training;” and the cities “should refrain from attempting to exercise influence over public and private educational institutions,” the grand jury said.


Smoller, for his part, would only say this: “I am gratified that a neutral third party has investigated and reviewed this matter.”

Kogerman, by email, said that the report “demonstrates a level of unfettered arrogance that is all too often associated with career politicians” and “reveals an alarming, politically-motivated, organized attempt by individuals in positions of influence to misuse taxpayer assets in their efforts to manipulate the outcome of a political campaign. Whether uncovered or not, such activities have a chilling effect on challenging the status quo.”

If Songstad acted illegally or unethically, he should resign, she said.
Songstad and Amante are shaking their heads over the grand jury’s conclusions.
“I think they are completely way off base,” Songstad said. “I was not involved in trying to influence any personnel decision at the university — nor could I. My concern was with the association of Kogerman’s campaign piece with Brandman. That was the concern. The grand jury just got it all wrong.”

The point of the meeting was to make sure Doti understood that his university was being cited as the source of the report. “We weren’t acting on behalf of anybody but ourselves,” he said. “I have a right to go talk to anybody I want to, if I think that someone is acting unethically and attributing a report to someone who didn’t write it. I have a right. It’s disappointing the grand jury would think this was worthy of their time.”

Smoller resigned many, many months after the meeting with Doti, and Songstad doesn’t see how the two can even be connected. And no, Songstad has no plans to resign — and Kogerman has a lot of nerve to suggest he should, when she is the one who acted unethically by putting Brandman’s name on her report, he said.

Amante agrees. “I don’t know how the grand jury got it wrong, but they’ve gotten it wrong,” he said. “The findings don’t make any sense given what really occurred.”
Amante said he went to the Doti meeting to introduce Kelly from the League of Cities to him — and to tell him about an educational program for elected officials that the League was putting together that could be an internship opportunity for Chapman/Brandman students.

The idea that a couple of councilmen from Tustin and Laguna Hills could threaten to lock Chapman/Brandman students out of public sector jobs in every Orange County city is ludicrous, they said.”A single council person, alone, has zero power,” Amante said. “No council person can exert power without colleagues in agreement at public meeting with discussion. And the irony is that neither of the cities had anything to do with the meeting with Doti.”

The cities have 90 days to respond formally to the grand jury. We’ll keep you posted.

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