Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Governmental Ethics: How Does a Bird Teach an Elephant How to Fly?

UPDATE: City Manager Brad Hudson now says at city council meeting that the original "at will" contract for former Deputy Chief Pete Esquivel exists in his office and are available for public review. Contradicting a May 11, 2007 letter sent by City Attorney Gregory Priamos in response to a CPRA request that no such contract existed. The comments are during the public comment portion of the meeting and the audio is available online at the city's site.

To be continued...

Riverside City Government Undergoes Ethics Training

Yes, Ethics Training

[City officials receiving ethics training included (from left to right) Councilman Paul Davis, Mayor Ron Loveridge and Councilman Mike Gardner]

[(l. to r.) City Clerk Colleen Nicol, Councilman Chris MacArthur and Councilman Steve Adams listen to a lecture on ethics in government. One would hope that Adams in particular was listening very closely. ]

I've had readers ask me a lot of questions about the city government in Riverside mostly in terms of where it's been in the past six months, and the one I get asked a lot is whether or not elected officials and their direct employees undergo any type of ethics training. The answer is yes, they do, that which is required by state law pertaining to elected officials even in local government. Above are the photos proving that the city officials received that ethics training during the noon hour on June 13, 2010. It was presented by City Attorney Gregory Priamos who didn't seem happy to see someone there taking photos of the process and got a little flustered, having to stop talking while I took the bottom photo even some distance from where he stood. But then he's always been a bit high strung which perhaps any municipal legal eagle would be in his position right now as head counsel for City Hall.

It's interesting that Priamos is giving the ethics training given the legal advice he apparently gave to pay attorney fees for an elected official sued as a developer during a closed session on a collection of lawsuits filed by a grass roots activist organization. Not to mention the decision by his office to hire a former police lieutenant who had never been disciplined inhouse for a racial slur he used in front of one of Priamos' own attorneys at the same time defending the city from a lawsuit filed by a police detective who was fired by the same acting chief he had sued, purportedly in connection to racial remarks. Not to mention the attorney who told his bosses on the city council that alcohol played no role in the now-known-as-the-DUI incident involving the former police chief. Not to mention...oh never mind. But Priamos apparently said it best when he has two main responsibilities as the city's attorney and that's to first, protect the city council and mayor and second, to protect the city from civic liability.

What's interesting is that someone actually asked Priamos what he was protecting the city government from and he couldn't respond. The other interesting quandary takes place when it's the city officials who are generating the risk of civil liability, then what's an employee like Priamos to do? Protect the city official even if their behavior puts the city at risk of civil liability or protect the other city officials from the one who's putting the city at risk? Priamos is also encharged to prosecute violations of the city's charter which is problematic namely because if the elected officials are the ones violating it, then how does he go about filing charges and prosecuting his employers?

He can't do that anymore than former Riverside Police Chief Leach could have told city management employees, his bosses, to stuff it when they asked him for their police toys, including those like cold plates and firearms that it wasn't legal for them to obtain. There's a pecking order and people follow it and they don't step out of order. The only way for a direct employee of the city government to avoid it is to learn and master how to play one or more elected officials against each other and only one is skilled enough to do that. But it's hard to really feel that excited about the idea and even the reality of the elected officials attending ethics training because more and more people are wondering if ethics has any place inside that building. Over and over, again and again, is the question as to why the city council and mayor have said nothing about the ethical...lapses and even illegal conduct that's taken place inside City Hall, except for Adams who called it "old news". How convenient for him because a) some of that alleged conduct included him and b) it's only "old" to the elected officials who tried as a legislative body to keep it "buried" news for the residents who they represent. The same residents whose best interests they are supposed to consider which in this case, was decided that it should involve keeping them in the dark.

The absence of City Manager Brad Hudson and any of his staff except Asst. City Manager Paul Sundeen who's also in charge of the city's finances was somewhat noticeable. Yes, in charge because even though that's supposed to be the purview and responsibility of the city council, the body in a series of majority votes in the past five years have happily given away most of their financial oversight mechanisms, the latest which is their Finance Committee which has been placed on mothballs once again, its next meeting tentatively scheduled for early August. Most likely, like other meetings before it, it will be canceled by its current chair, Councilwoman Nancy Hart or her advisor and some say boss, Sundeen. It's met three times this year which is much better than 2009 but there still needs to be improvement and more closer scrutiny of the Riverside Renaissance projects in light of accounts of questionable bidding processes, numerous change orders, double/triple billing and cases where city employees have had to redo jobs given out to independent contractors. And why there' s already discussion of Riverside Renaissance Pt. II when the first one isn't even completed or is it because the financial resources for part one have been tapped out?

The Finance Committee could play an oversight role in this process but that's not likely to happen as long as the city management office gets to decide when its bosses' subcommittee even meets and what it discusses.

[Riverside Councilwoman Nancy Hart currently chairs the pretty much defunct Finance Committee, which only meets when the city management tells them they have a reason to meet, according to Hart. Some say she doesn't want to jeopardize projects in her ward, others that she wishes she had the guts to take a stand but regardless, many view the council's only female member as hamstrung even as she plans to seek reelection in 2013.]

It was interesting to watch Priamos cite examples of corruption in other places some closer to home like Grand Terrace, San Bernardino County (where Priamos sniffed, the city attorney's elected) and some places further, like Birmingham, Alabama. But though I didn't stay very long, it's very unlikely that they used some examples of problematic behavior in municipalities that was very much closer to him, meaning no examples taking place in Riverside's very own City Hall. Which is a shame really, because it's the examples that are the closest to him which offer the most meaningful and lasting lessons. If you definitely came here to hear Priamos espouse on the problems inherent in a Bradley Estate or in police departments that sell guns illegally to city management employees or engaging in the manufacture of illegal badges or the issuance of illegal cold plates, this wasn't the place for you. The members of Riverside's city government weren't going to discuss those actions taken more closely to home.

Some say that the city council taking ethics training is useful mostly because these trainings are documented in the public record (and hopefully not on post-its) and then if something happens, the electeds involved can't plead ignorance by claiming that they weren't informed or educated on the issues involved. But it's debatable whether ethics training beyond informing the city officials on changes in state laws or procedures pertaining to ethics in government is really useful at all. Some say it's akin to teaching an elephant how to fly, at that point if someone's leaning a certain why, mere training isn't going to change their path. Most elected officials are individuals who are somewhat older, have a variety of life experiences and have had time to shape their ethics and core values for better or for worse.

Some had problems before getting elected that worsen after while others appeared ethical before entering public office and then are corrupted by the power they weld, the privileges they enjoy as part of their elected position. Some have businesses that they try to enrich through their elected positions as has been the case of property developers who have also served in elected office including the handful who have gotten into trouble. There's a lot that's seductive about the power and status that comes from serving in elected office and then there's the tendency of some to forget that it's they who are the public servants serving at the will of the voters and not the other way around.

But when it comes to creating a syllabus on ethics training in Riverside, including the examples of what's perhaps not ethical or even legal, there needs to be some additions to what is being addressed in the city's ethics training. If only to avoid repeating history if one chooses to learn from one's mistakes.

Here's some to start with, to get the ball rolling in any ethics training class.

Riverside's Hall of Ethical Lapses

[The city-owned vehicle that was involved in the DUI incident involving former Chief Russ Leach. Was everyone in City Hall truly in the dark? There's been no "sweeping" or "independent" probe of that yet. ]

[The original report written by Sgt. Frank Orta (now medically retired) which revealed the original disposition of the "traffic collision" involving Leach. Leach was later investigated by the California Highway Patrol and eventually charged and convicted of DUI in relation to this incident.]

[First page of a letter written in 2007 by a representative of the State Attorney General's office's criminal division addressing allegations of illegal badges and an illegal guns transaction involving city management employees and the police department. Did the city government sanction the city management for engaging in such behavior?]

[Hudson's very own badge to use when confronted while stopping his vehicle and tearing down illegally posted signs. The badge was later ordered confiscated by the State Attorney General's office as the use of it could constitute a misdemeanor violation.]

[One of the trail of papers in connection with the illegal gun sale involving the city management and the police department, which wasn't a licensed vendor of firearms. The department later had to retrieve the weapons and essentially "launder" the gun sale through a local dealer. Why was the police department and one of its police sergeants put in the position of serving as an illegal vendor and did city council investigate? Did this issue arise for discussion in Hudson's performance review by the city council and mayor?]

[List of cold plated city-owned vehicles in Riverside's City Hall. The cold plating of vehicles used by city management employees and an elected official or two was illegal. Why is there contradictory testimony under oath as to who authorized the issuance of the illegal plates and what did the city government do to investigate these discrepancies involving the office of one of its direct employees?]

The above list of ethical lapses involving City Hall in the past several years should serve as sterling examples of behavior which should be addressed by City Hall in any type of inhouse ethics training. If these ethical lapses were addressed in any training on that issue, how would the students, meaning the elected officials, respond? Probably not by saying very much because as a legislative body or even individually, there's not much been said by individuals on the dais regarding any of the above. In fact, the only collective action by the city government took place behind closed doors and that was to spend quite an impressive sum of money to settle two lawsuits filed by lieutenants in hopes that the public would never find out about the misconduct and even illegal behavior that took place inside City Hall involving city management employees and at least one elected official.

It's not likely that the city council or mayor ever investigated or pushed for the investigation of these ethical lapses including those involving direct employees. Yet they clearly continue to give Hudson favorable performance evaluations even after he had been caught by the State Attorney General's office engaging in problematic or "troubling" behavior that violated state laws. Whether it took corrective action regarding Hudson's transgressions and those of his staff members isn't clear but again, doesn't appear very likely.

So the elected body's collective response to unethical or illegal behavior within the walls of City Hall is to keep anyone from finding out about it even if that means paying out large sums of money as the city's apparently self-insured when it comes to paying out on litigation filed against it. Did they take any corrective measures first, before engaging in what amounts to attempting to cover up? Luckily, they weren't any better at doing that than police management employees were at covering up Leach's DUI incident.

How is the public to be assured that similar behavior won't be repeated by individuals at City Hall if there's no really oversight of the highest echelon of employees there, the ones hired and overseen by the city government? There really is no public assurance, none has been given and in fact, the city government continues to pretend that there's been no serious ethical transgressions, no illegal conduct that had to be corrected on order of the state's highest law enforcement agency and continue onward doing less and less governing and handing off more of that to a city management team that's already given the city leadership to be cautious about doing just this. Instead of investigating the propensity of their own employees to engage in questionable behavior (with three known incidents in only several years), they continue to hand over more oversight mechanisms to it.

Many people who have been watching this take place have many, many questions about the city government's apathy towards what's been taking place and its inaction to insure that these behaviors won't be repeated. Questions that they will bring into the next election cycle in 2011 when four city council seats will be up for election. At least four candidates are considering competing with incumbent Mike Gardner for the Ward One seat (which is always popular) and up to three for Steve Adams' seat in the seventh ward. There's rumors of at least one candidate in Rusty Bailey's ward as well. The words accountability and transparency are showing up already in campaign mottoes and there will be a lot of receptive people to those kinds of messages in the wake of what's been going on the past six months.

Because many of the city's residents are clued into it even as the city officials appear to be in a different world.

And speaking of ethics, the city's ethics code and complaint process is coming up for its annual review possibly in September in front of the Governmental Affairs Committee which is chaired by Councilman Andrew Melendrez and has Bailey and Adams as members. It provides an opportunity for city members to weigh in on this process and offer recommendations. At the very least, it should prove to be very interesting and maybe even entertaining.

One of the main bones of contention between the electeds and the community residents who have followed the ethics code process has been the conflict of interest of having elected officials rule on ethics complaints rather than an independent panel. It will be interesting to see what direction that topic takes at this year's annual review given that the city council has put on display its inability to address the behavior of one of its members, Adams, not to mention its own employees. Was Priamos honest to his bosses when he briefed them on the Leach incident shortly after it happened? Was Hudson or Priamos honest about when they were first notified of the incident? Were any of these questions (and they've been asked by many city residents) ever investigated by the city government?

Public trust is low in both the police department and at City Hall right now as many of these questions not to mention others remain unanswered. Don't expect the illusion of state-sanctioned ethics training to change that. These changes might have to be at the voting polls, which as one elected official has said is the ultimate ethics code and complaint process...with teeth.

Riverside City Council is set to vote on changes being made to hire outside employees to fill positions as assistant or deputy police chiefs. This generated a huge uproar in March 2007 when it pertained to inhouse employees elevated to these positions but the changes in the resolution apparently only apply to those outside who come in which most likely will happen with the selection of the assistant chief and possibly the deputy chief as well.

A Hemet city councilwoman returns the keys to her city-issued car. One wonders with all the budget cuts in Hemet how they find enough funding to supply vehicles to elected officials.

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