Tempers flare at Hughson council meeting

April 12, 2010 

HUGHSON -- The brief but nasty squall that moved through the city just before the City Council meeting started Monday night offered a good sign of what was to come: Accusations and finger-pointing that have become a regular part of business in Stanislaus County's smallest city.

Fingers pointed at council members, staff and even the audience at a tempestuous meeting that stretched nearly three hours at the Community/Senior Center.

The upshot: A proposal to restructure City Hall, taking authority away from the city manager and moving it to the City Council, failed.

The city accepted findings from Interim City Clerk Annabelle Aguilar that a recall petition collected enough signatures. And audience members, some waving "Resign now" signs, beseeched three embattled councilmen to step down.

Barbara Swier, a member of Citizens for Better City Government, said collecting the signatures seeking the recall of Councilmen Thom Crowder, Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley was easy. Half of the six people who declined to sign said they were in favor but feared retribution.

"The word that kept coming up was 'arrogance,' " she said. "They're ashamed for you. And of you."

Another member of the group, Todd Brownell, presented the council with copies of an e-mail Crowder, who owns an ambulance company, sent to a competitor seeking a partnership.

The Stanislaus County civil grand jury cited the e-mails as part of a report it issued in December, finding that Crowder tried to use his status as an elected official to sway the company, offering to serve as a lobbyist. The grand jury also found that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley violated state open meeting law, conspiring to fire City Manager Joe Donabed.

Crowder previously said he didn't remember any such e-mail, and that if someone could produce it, he would step down.

"At the last meeting, I asked Councilman Crowder to stand by his word," Councilman Matt Beekman said. "He did not. Thom, you sent the e-mails. Do everyone a favor and stand down."

Crowder told Brownell that he didn't read the e-mail the same way.

And he told Beekman he's not going anywhere.

"You can kick me out," he said. "I'm not stepping down."

Mayor Ramon Bawanan also asked the three men to resign.

"The recall will happen," he said. "It is not a matter of if, but when. Please save the city of Hughson the cost of a special election and resign. Let the healing begin."

As for the when, the election will be scheduled at the council's next regular meeting, April 26. It will take place between July 23 and Aug. 29, in accordance with election law.

Residents will be asked to vote in two elections: Whether the men should be recalled, and if they are recalled, who should take their seats.

The grand jury report came up again Monday night, as Bawanan received a letter from the foreman saying that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley had not responded individually, as they had agreed to do, 90 days after the report was issued.

Humphreys said he had sent a response and wasn't sure why it didn't reach the grand jury. He said he would give Bawanan another copy to send. Crowder said he would come up with a response and give it to City Attorney John Stovall to craft into a letter.

That set off another argument over whether that's Stovall's job.

"He represents the City Council as a whole," Bawanan said. Crowder disagreed.

Manley said he would respond to the grand jury "within three weeks."

A proposal by Manley to restructure City Hall, establishing a deputy city manager and a public safety director, and making them, along with the city clerk, report directly to the City Council, failed.

"I don't think the city manager should have as much power as he has," Manley said. "I think we should have a little more say-so on who he hires and who he fires and so on."

A clearly disgusted Beekman took the microphone.

"That doesn't even dignify a response," he said.

Bawanan said it's the job of the city manager to oversee city administration, and it's the job of the council to oversee the city manager.

"We've been told many times by labor attorneys not to get involved in personnel issues," he said. "We are the executive branch ... we set policy. We have a code of conduct to tell us what our job is. That's why we hire a city manager to do their job."

Bawanan removed an item he'd placed on the agenda considering a censure of Crowder.

"I should have spoken with Mr. Crowder about this personally," he said. But he asked that it be put on the next meeting's agenda.

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

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