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By Shawn Raymundo
Sparks flew near the conclusion of the city council’s meeting this week, when acting Mayor Laura Ferguson admonished city officials and her fellow councilmembers over an alleged plot to remove her from the role of mayor pro tem.
Ferguson on Tuesday, July 7, took aim at acting City Manager Erik Sund, City Attorney Scott Smith and her elected colleagues, namely Councilmember Gene James, laying out accusations of unprofessionalism, verbal mistreatment, and Brown Act violations related to the alleged effort to have her ousted from the mayoral seat.
“For my colleagues to now want to eliminate my ability to serve as either mayor pro tem and appoint a mayor because they don’t appreciate me serving as acting mayor is just absolutely ridiculous,” said Ferguson, who as this year’s mayor pro tem has presided over council meetings as acting mayor since former Mayor Dan Bane’s departure from the council in April.
According to Ferguson, the matter was initiated in the council’s closed session meeting late Tuesday afternoon, when councilors discussed stripping her title of mayor pro tem because she prefers to communicate with the city manager and attorney through email and not over the phone.
“To use the reason that I won’t communicate on the phone or in person with Erik Sund and Scott Smith, I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong,” she said, later adding: “To be concerned about how I communicate is my business . . . communication via email has been fine.”
Ferguson had noted there’s “bad blood” between her and Sund that stemmed from her years-long tenure as a city staffer. She called it “wrong” and “unprofessional” that she, as a sitting councilmember, has had to file public records requests just to get documents because her inquiries and emails go unanswered.
“We have some history; there’s been bad blood, and I have been completely misinformed at times on council and not communicated with when over half my emails and inquiries go unanswered,” Ferguson said. “So that’s not appropriate; that’s not professional.”
As Tuesday’s meeting began to wind down, Councilmember James delivered some remarks during the council comments portion in which he noted that while councilors don’t need to be “teammates” or “friends,” they need to be colleagues to do the business of the city.
He went on to state that the council should be “committed to the success of our interim City Manager Erik Sund,” using the metaphor that Sund is the pilot of the ship.
“When I get on an airplane, I’m rooting for the pilot,” James said.
Before concluding his remarks, James encouraged the council to communicate with Sund and Smith, and to pick up the phone and call them when an issue arises, rather posting the matter on Facebook—actions that both James and Ferguson have done.
Councilmember Chris Hamm said he, too, is “rooting for the pilot of the ship,” while Councilmember Kathy Ward simply thanked James for his comments.
Seeing James’ comments as a veiled jab toward her that originated from the closed session discussion, Ferguson began to share what those talks entailed, “because it was a violation of the Brown Act” that needed to be reported to the public, which couldn’t comment beforehand.
“I am talking about it, because it wasn’t on the agenda; it is a Brown Act violation that it wasn’t on the agenda, and I’m telling you now, because the public can’t comment on it, either,” she said.
As Ferguson was speaking, Smith attempted several times to interject without success. Ferguson had stated that when she told the rest of the council during closed session that if they wished to remove her as acting mayor, they had to do so in the public session. However, she said, Smith instructed them that they couldn’t do so.
“At the end is when the city attorney said when it was illegal to be talking about it,” she said, later concluding: “You don’t get to tell me not to talk when you all broke the law.”
Both Smith and James declined to comment for this story. In an email to San Clemente Times, James wrote: “What occurs in Closed Session stays in Closed Session. It is the law.”
Following Ferguson’s lashing, James said, “This is unfortunate.”
“You started it, Gene; you’re the one who suggested to take away my role as acting city mayor,” Ferguson fired back. “You can pile it on me and have me not respond? That’s my right to respond. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“All I’m asking is to be a leader,” James said.
“I have been, and you don’t appreciate it; none of you like me,” responded Ferguson, who had previously stated she had been subjected to mistreatment from Sund and other councilmembers over the years.
“I know I ran as a reformer; I know this place doesn’t appreciate that . . . you don’t either,” Ferguson continued, adding: “I’m going to be vocal, and I will speak out whenever I want to speak out. . . . I use my Facebook page to communicate with my constituents.”
As of this posting, Sund had not responded to a request for comment.
The city council won’t meet again until Aug. 18.
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.