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By Shawn Raymundo
San Clemente councilmembers looking to request information or assistance from city staff and department heads must first go through the city manager, according to an updated procedural policy that the council approved this month.
In a unanimous decision, councilmembers voted on Nov. 2 to adhere to the amended policy when it comes to communicating with department directors, city employees and contractors, following a “series of concerns over council-staff interface,” City Attorney Scott Smith explained.
Previous language in the city’s policy stipulated that “all substantial requests” from councilmembers must be sent to the city manager’s office for review and approval, but that questions “of a simple nature” could be posed directly to a department head.
Under the revised rules, “all requests” must be directed to the city manager’s office, with the exception of small, or quick asks, as those can still be sent to department heads. However, a caveat states that department heads can only respond after receiving city manager approval.
Smith last week told San Clemente Times that he doesn’t foresee the new policy “significantly” interfering with City Manager Erik Sund’s time spent on other responsibilities, noting that the oversight duties can be carried out by anyone within his office.
“I think it’s been thought through and that shouldn’t be a problem,” Smith said.
Asked whether there’s a penalty for councilmembers who don’t comply with the revised rule, Smith said there are no remedies in the city policy.
“Well, there’s no remedies in there (the updated policy),” he said. “I know other agencies have limited all contact. I’ve heard of other agencies say that if you can’t play by the rules, you’re not entitled to call staff, but this policy doesn’t have a remedy in it.”
Councilmember Laura Ferguson—who has, on numerous occasions, lamented the amount of time it takes for Sund to respond to her emailed inquiries—said during the Nov. 2 meeting that she would support the policy change, but she wanted Sund’s assurance that he’d respond to her requests in a timely manner.
“I can support this, I can vote yes, as long as the city manager agrees to be responsive to me, because he hasn’t been. So, if the city manager will be the one that we go to for all requests and information, I just need you to note that I require you to be responsive to me,” Ferguson said.
“I will respond to all the councilmembers equally in terms of addressing their concerns. Sometimes, their concerns require direction from three (councilmembers), and I will communicate that to you in my correspondence as well,” Sund said.
According to Smith’s report to the council, the change in the policy is meant to “ensure that Councilmember expectations for staff support are managed and that misunderstandings that may arise due to Councilmember requests are reduced.”
While Smith acknowledged that the series of council-staff interface concerns prompted the update, he declined to cite a specific instance involving a council request to city staff, other than to state that there have been several points of contention regarding requests taking up staff time.
“Requests had come in from a councilmember that may request work or information that’s contrary to the direction (of the council),” Smith said. “They might give direction that violates—that’s inconsistent—with council direction.”
The policy change on council-staff interaction does come a few months after the city contracted an investigator, Kristine J. Exton of Norman A. Traub & Associates, to review allegations of bullying and harassment that a city employee had filed against Ferguson.
Mayor Pro Tem Gene James had first brought the investigation to light in late September when asked to comment on a lawsuit Ferguson had filed against the city over Public Records Act (PRA) violations.
According to city records that SC Times obtained through PRA requests, the employee, whose name was redacted, accused Ferguson around mid-May of harassment, bullying and creating a hostile work environment, impacting the staffer’s ability to perform assigned duties.
Exton’s summary of the investigation on Aug. 13 found that while certain facts of the complaint against Ferguson were true, it concluded that the specific claims of “harassment” and being “bullied” were not applicable to the case.
Ferguson last week said that, in her opinion, the narrative has been manufactured to “go after” and “defame” her. She also that she didn’t violate any laws, adding that her actions didn’t represent examples of bullying or harassment.
In her summary, Exton outlined a couple examples of the perceived harassment, including an “inappropriate” email that Ferguson sent to the staffer, wherein the elected official complains that working with the employee was a waste of her time.
Acknowledging the email in question, Ferguson explained that the correspondence had stemmed from a PRA request, which had sought several of her communications related to a series of unfounded accusations.
According to Ferguson, the city employee, who was tasked with collecting the records from her, continued to ask the councilmember for more responses and documents despite having already received all related materials.
“That was a repetitive request where I stated that I already gave everything I had,” Ferguson said, adding: “The person was asking me for public records and more records and more emails.”
Based on Exton’s report, the email exchange between Ferguson and the staffer turned confrontational when the councilmember asked whether anyone at city hall was instructing the employee to harass Ferguson, and also asked, “What is unclear about the word ‘no’?”
The investigative summary also pointed to a couple of Facebook posts that Ferguson made in September and December of last year, in which she stated, among other things, that the city “avoids transparency at every turn.”
Ferguson, however, said those social media posts weren’t attacks on a city staffer or any employee.
“I’m not blaming the city employees, I’m blaming the city … because they will not divulge information,” Ferguson said, referring to her requests for information. “I’m not attacking any particular employee.”
Exton’s summary of the investigation found that Ferguson’s email was “directly accusatory, condescending, demeaning and disrespectful” toward the staffer, and that the employee “has been negatively affected” by the councilmember.
It went on to state and concluded that “although the complaining party stated she felt ‘harassed’ and ‘bullied,’ the investigator determined these terms of art were inapplicable here.”
Expounding on the findings, Smith explained that “the terms, the word harassment, is a legal term of art, so the investigator concluded that the facts were true, but they didn’t create a cause of action of harassment.”
Ferguson, who’s up for reelection next year, said that she expects to face, what she believes, are ongoing political attacks in 2022, but is determined to “continue doing my job,” as she’s “very proud to be a councilmember” and “won’t go anywhere.”
“I’m not quitting, I’m going to keep doing my job,” she said. “I wish they wouldn’t keep spending taxpayer resources to go after me; this seems a real misuse of taxpayer money and time and resources. There’s so many other issues in this town.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.