Stanislaus County Grand Jury: 3 should quit Hughson's council

Panel says councilmen violated laws and conspired against staff

December 22, 2009 

HUGHSON -- Three city councilmen should be removed from office because they broke state laws, conspired against their staff and promoted their personal agendas, the Stanislaus County civil grand jury said.

The report, published Tuesday, does not name its subjects, referring to them as Councilmen A, B and C. However, it offers key details -- such as employment and previous experience in city politics -- that show A is Councilman Thom Crowder, B is Doug Humphreys and C is Ben Manley.

It accuses them of violating the Brown Act, which governs public meetings in California. The grand jury also found that Crowder violated ethics laws in trying to influence council decisions pertaining to property near his home and in promising to use his political influence while seeking a job.

Crowder, who has been on the City Council on and off since the early 1990s, denied the accusations, calling the report "shameful."

"I think the grand jury made a horrible mistake," he said.

Crowder initiated the complaint that led to the grand jury investigation but wound up being its focus.

He faulted jurors for not looking further into his original allegations that city staff had committed acts of "willful misconduct," such as sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

City Manager Joe Donabed said he was gratified the grand jury did not find evidence to support Crowder's charges.

"I know how hard I've worked in Hughson and that there was no willful misconduct," Donabed said. "It's not so much that I feel vindicated by the report (but) that I'm glad the public can see a responsible party like the grand jury has made that finding."

The report adds another layer of drama to Hughson politics. Since June, the council has held several meetings in which Crowder, Humphreys and Manley have sought to investigate city administrators.

They voted to fire Donabed in October but rescinded his termination last month under the threat of a lawsuit from Donabed.

E-mails singled out

The grand jury found that the three councilmen "disregarded their fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Hughson." They also orchestrated the attempted firing of the city manager, clerk and engineer since June, the jury said.

E-mails sent among the three regarding a city streetscape project and plans to hire a new city manager violated the Brown Act, the grand jury said. The Brown Act prohibits a majority of the members of a governing board from discussing public business outside of advertised public meetings.

Crowder denied any Brown Act violations.

"I have not polled the council, or contacted more than one other City Council member on an issue," he said.

He also denied the grand jury's assertion that he e-mailed an ambulance company Oct. 9, seeking a job and saying, "I have tremendous influence with the (Stanislaus County) Board of Supervisors, and could lend my name as an employee of your company."

"I have no recollection of sending that kind of an e-mail," said Crowder, owner of Hughson Ambulance Serv-ice.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who represents Hughson, said he was "disappointed" to read the report.

"Thom is a constituent," he said. "He has the same access as every other person in Stanislaus County, no more and no less."

Chiesa said the scathing grand jury report affects more than just Hughson.

"Something like this splashes onto all of us," he said. "People already mistrust elected officials, and this makes it harder for those of us who are working hard for folks, trying to do what's right."

Hughson Councilman Matt Beekman echoed that sentiment and said the report is yet another distraction in the city's tumultuous recent history.

"My primary concern is that it gets dealt with in a timely manner," Beekman said. "The three need to respond to these accusations as quickly as possible so we can get on with the business at hand."

Beekman and Mayor Ramon Bawanan -- who could not be reached for comment -- cast the two votes against firing Donabed in October.

Crowder, Humphreys and Manley have had a contentious relationship with their city manager for several months, peaking in their move to fire Donabed in October.

Crowder said Tuesday that the council rescinded Donabed's termination notice only because the city can't afford to pay Donabed's severance, and his contract won't be renewed when it expires in May.

The grand jury recommends that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley resign, be removed by the Fair Political Practices Committee or the state attorney general's office, or be subject to a recall vote.

Crowder says he's staying

Crowder said he has no intention of stepping down, and that Humphreys and Manley -- who could not be reached for comment Tuesday -- shouldn't either.

"Absolutely not," he said. "If you lost the three council members that they're requesting resign, you would lose all credibility in town."

Crowder's term ends next year. Manley and Humphreys are up for re-election in 2012.

The grand jury's recommendations hold little weight. Grand juries have no legal authority.

The FPPC, the state's political watchdog agency, also can't remove a council member from office, said executive director Roman Porter. It can, however, levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

The attorney general's office can strip a council member of his job, press secretary Christine Gasparac said. But someone has to file a complaint with the office, which has not happened, to spur an investigation.

The grand jury said members reviewed e-mails and documents, including council meeting minutes and newspaper articles, listened to recorded conversations and interviewed staff, the mayor, council members and the city attorney.

The report was issued Tuesday, an unusual publication date for a grand jury report. They normally are published in June. Foreman Denis France said this year's group decided to issue reports as they're completed instead of waiting for the deadline.

Although he wasn't on the committee that investigated Hughson, France said the report is based on fact.

"It's a strong statement, but I believe the evidence that I've seen backs it up," he said. "They were thorough."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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