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

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Killing the Messenger Inside a Self-Insured City

[Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz (r. with Deputy Chief Mike Blakely) made the decision not to investigate an alleged off-duty physical altercation involving two of his lieutenants several weeks ago at one's residence. One lieutenant allegedly either entered or kicked his way into the other's residence and then a physical altercation. One of the lieutenants went on vacation soon after and didn't want to file a complaint on the matter while a third officer is applying for assignment to another division. Diaz and Asst. Chief Chris Vicino when notified about it apparently called it an off-duty matter. But as lower ranked officers had been investigated for off-duty incidents including a former patrol officer involved in a bar fight, what's the department's policy on investigating off-duty incidents?]

[Riverside City Manager Brad Hudson (l.) is interviewed by members of the Charter Review Committee]

[Did Riverside City Attorney Greg Priamos fire a whistle blower?]

"She was an at-will employee sitting at the pleasure of the city attorney, and ... I determined that the termination of that agreement was in the best interests of the city."

---Riverside City Attorney Gregory Priamos to Press Enterprise after he fired one of his employees who had dared complain about allegations of favoritism in contracting involving City Hall.

"She was being forced out of her job that she had been working for 14 years for doing nothing wrong, in fact for doing the right thing."

---Sterling's attorney Russell Perry to Press Enterprise

Another whistle blowing employee was sent packing by City Hall, this time Deputy City Attorney Raychele Sterling was fired by her boss, City Attorney Gregory Priamos on May 13. His statement on the matter is included above and it's actually as eloquent as any string of words that this attorney has ever said during his noteworthy career at City Hall.

This happened around the time or after the SEIU Local, the city's largest bargaining unit announced it was adopting a two-tier pension plan for current and future employees. Actually the deal that it cut for its current employees wasn't too bad. And as for any prospective ones, they can just raise the salaries to make Riverside competitive with those cities around it not engaging in two-tiered pension reform so that they can attract the best and the brightest now that they can't compete pension wise. That's probably going to happen certainly with the police department if say, the two tier was like 2.5 at 55 or something like that. After all, there's certain aspects of working for River City which aren't included in either the recruitment or hiring packages which will be covered in greater depth below.

Like you'd better not do anything foolish like report any misconduct being requested or demanded of you by supervisors in your department or by management. Lately, when that's happened, employees said they've been fired by the city in response and the number of grievances, complaints and lawsuits has grown even higher. They cost the tax payers quite a bit of money from our self-insured little city especially since the city loses many of these cases including at the stage before they would become lawsuits.

At the time that this new deal on pension reform was brokered, employees from Public Works and Park and Recreation, both departments who have representation in the SEIU had made allegations including through Sterling that any attempts to address issues of favoritism in contracting including by City Manager Brad Hudson would be met with retaliation. Has the SEIU or anyone else launched any investigative energy into the allegations made by these employees and others? It's not that pension reform isn't a major issue but some questions should be answered before any union signs at the dotted line for any Hudson "reform" plan.

Did anyone pay attention when a former employee who was related to another one walked away from the city several years after her initial volunteer position became a paid one where she averaged a six figure income at least two consecutive years? She made nearly $10,000 for less than two weeks of work which would average to $240,000 annually and City Hall and the unions are rallying behind pension reform? If I were a member of the union, I'd be asking why this lucrative part-time job position wasn't opened up to the competitive hiring process when the city made it a paying job.

Did anyone pay attention that monies paid directly to this volunteer turned part-time employee came from a variety of city departments that had nothing to do with that position's scope of duties including from one highly restricted funding source monitored by the feds?

If so, what would have anyone done about it? I mean who wouldn't want to make around $150,000 annually for a part-time stint? By the way, this apparently all happened under the watchful eye of the city's former auditing firm, Meyer Hoffman McCann which charged that highly restricted funding source for three audits to it in a single fiscal year but apparently it found nothing wrong with it paying for those expenses outside the parameters of its legally designated purpose. A prior auditor, McGladrey and Pullen LLP, before Meyer Hoffman McCann had found irregularities with how the restricted fund had been spent and advised the city on how to address it.

Apparently the city's response to that was simply to change firms the following year so it picked the one which could tell it what it wanted to hear, that it was perfect.

I had a former city council member at a Finance Committee tell me once upon the news that once again Riverside had a perfect audit by telling me, see Riverside can do something right or something like that. But I just said to him, the other committee members and the auditor from Meyer Hoffman McCann that there's really no such thing as a perfect audit.

This was at about the same time the above behavior was allegedly taking place at City Hall during this so-called perfect auditing period. Probably at the same time other cities like Bell and Victorville were either getting perfect audits and/or even winning awards for them. Riverside apparently also won several financial awards on display on the Sixth Floor when the above was going on. But at this point, many people probably have serious concerns about whether this firm could audit a lemonade stand.

No attorney from Priamos' office or Best Best and Krieger for that matter apparently advised those who were responsible of the problems inherent with these actions.

The situation brings up the thorny issue (for the city anyway) of financial accountability and oversight including the checks and balances that used to be in place between the finance department, the city management and the legislative body before the latter essentially either signed or voted all of those mechanisms away. They allowed the city manager to merge the finance department under his own department. They allowed the city manager to raise his discretionary from $25,000 under George Carvalho to $50,000 under City Manager Brad Hudson. They decreased their oversight over interfund transfers and pretty much did away with the Finance Committee for almost a year after greatly decreasing the times it met about five minutes after Hudson's arrival in June 2005.

They got rid of the Neighborhood Advisory Councils, the committees comprised of city residents in different neighborhoods who oversaw the spending of Community Development Block Grant monies to one that gave City Hall much more power in deciding where to spend the funds or just as importantly to be able to move them around which is why Casa Blanca for example saw quite a bit of its own monies going straight to the Fox Theater. They got rid of the citizens' power to pull items from the consent calendar for discussion and not long after that, packed it with high ticketed items for Riverside Renaissance. There's not as much on that calendar these days because there's fewer funding sources to use and it's getting harder to squeeze blood from that turnip so most of the consent calendar is comprised of special projects being carried out mostly in the wards up for reelection with Councilman Rusty Bailey's ward leading the pack.

[Who on the city council will ask questions about the recent firings at City Hall, given that their constituents will be picking up the dime on the city's "defense" in any resulting lawsuits?]

The city council members who claim that there's no evidence of problems with how the city's spent its money as the debt grows needs to investigate that situation much more closely. Here's a news flash too, it's not the only problematic situation. But during the time period when things like this happen while the city residents are blissfully unaware of them was a perfect storm for such questionable and potentially illegal conduct as it turned out if there's a misuse of funds or the use of any of them was misrepresented or misstated.

And a lot of that lies on every city council member who's been on the dais since 2005. The problem is, that the city needs a city council that accepts that responsibility and its members going back earlier in this decade didn't and don't seem to want it.

But it lies with city residents too who needed to pay more attention to what was going on at City Hall. Yes, going to city council can mean subjecting yourself to verbal insults from select council members, disinterest from most of the rest and even in a couple of cases ejection from the chambers by police officers (and two elderly women experienced this both when a certain formal councilman was mayor pro tem at the time) but it's imperative to speak out and to raise concerns and questions about these issues including the massive debt accumulation and the funneling of money to Redevelopment, gambling with over $100 million of the city's money against the dissolution of these agencies. If they dissolve, that money's gone forever and who on the dais has made that clear? Yes, some guy hanging out closely with some elected official or another is going to start posting stuff like if you like wine tasting, you're a drunk or you're pregnant or you're just "filthy" but that's always been the case in River City particularly during election cycles. So far, those tactics haven't helped elected officials get reelected in this region.

No it's not going to go nicely because often the more there's to be concerned about, the more people respond in that fashion for self-protection. But the city residents need to raise these issues and questions because maybe then the city government will blink its collective eyes, wake up and start asking them as well. What's going on impacts every city resident in this city, it will impact every city resident for the next 20-30 years which doesn't exactly make this city a huge draw for immigration from outside areas. It impacts city employees as well including any of those who will be fired or pushed to retire after signing gag agreements for objecting to questionable orders from above.

It's getting even more clear to anyone with common sense that retaliation's apparently remained a tool used at City Hall as the city governmental officials sit by and watch or praise the employees who are apparently doing it. How did Sterling go from having gone on paid leave of her own volition (not the city's) to being terminated?

What happens is that allegations rise that a city employee refuses to perform an improper or even illegal action and the next thing that happens is bingo, they get fired for forced out of the city's employment ranks through "retirements". Others just leave, giving up employment often at older ages in a city that boasts a 15% unemployment rate that's not dropping anytime soon just to get away from the city's workplace. Some like the former budget administrator of Public Works Sean Gill file lawsuits against the city. Others file grievances, complaints and then go onto filing lawsuits. The city litigates all these cases with costly outside law firms at taxpayers' expense claiming usually through the local newspaper that the lawsuits or claims are "frivolous" and the city will aggressively litigate it.

Does the city have its fingers crossed behind its back while making these statements? That's not clear but what's becoming more clear is that the city's not met an employee's lawsuit that it hasn't loved to settle behind closed doors. Maybe one of the reasons is that it doesn't think much of its chances at taking the lawsuits to a jury trial or maybe it's just because they're spending other people's money and not their own. After all, if Priamos fires one of his attorneys after this person's raised concerns, is Priamos footing the legal bill if he and the city's sued after doing so? No, the city residents are footing the bills for these lawsuits done for the "best interests of the city" but we're not being surveyed on whether we even want the city to first of all, put itself at the risk of getting sued through its own behavior and to settle all these lawsuits.

Because you can bet when the city settles these lawsuits behind closed doors, its spokesperson whether Priamos or one of the city's roster of public information officers will tell city residents and the press that the settlements were also done "in the best interests of the city". If asked, elected officials will tell their constituents the same thing.

Just like they likely do if anyone knows to ask why the city's currently and has been funneling over $100 million in "loans" to the Redevelopment Agency knowing full well that if the Agency dissolves, this money will be gone for good and the city will never get a dime of it back to spend on anything. Because it already spent it on the mechanism that they've been telling the city's residents generates income from the city. No, it doesn't, it creates and builds debt on the city to the tune of $1.5 billion. It's not rocket science to figure out if you've been reading the City Council/Redevelopment Agency agendas for the past six months. Just like it's not rocket science to figure out by reading the agendas that the lion share of improvement projects during that time are going to the wards with councilmen up for reelection in June.

[Foster fired Sean Gill when he did the budget on projects for her department]

What did Foster do when Gill pointed out the allegations that have been made in his litigation filed against the city? What did she say when there were allegations of favortism in contracting involving public works projects that are run under her watch? But wait, weren't these getting the contracts close friends with the city management and/or several city council members including two up for reelection who just happen to be getting the lion share of public works projects on the city council agendas?

[Asst. City Manager Belinda Graham, what role did she play in Gill's firing given that Public Works is under her watchful eye?]

If Graham oversees Foster and Park and Recreation's department head, Ralph Nunoz, what's her response to allegations raised by employees in Public Works that they faced retaliation (and in at least one case termination) after raising concerns about favoritism in contracting. What about when Park and Recreation employees allegedly raised concerns about their budget monies being used to subsidize the City Hall Cafeteria after it wasn't making enough money through its sales?

Since her background is in Development and Redevelopment, what are Graham's comments about the very risky funneling of tens of millions of dollars into Redevelopment in light of its possible dissolution by Sacramento? And why is the city still purchasing so many properties in the light of these increasingly fiscally difficult times?

Self Insured and Proud of It!

We Defend Our City Vigorously Until We Settle and then Bill You!

And oh, by the way, the city is now proudly self-insured, some say perhaps because it allegedly lost its insurance carrier some time back when the carrier complained that the city needed to stop settling too many lawsuits and take them to trial instead. One plaintiff who settled a case against the city in 2008 was told by her attorney that the city would have to pay at least part of the hefty settlement out of its own funding sources because it no longer carried insurance.

But ever since the city had its butt handed back to it on a plate from the $1.64 million trial verdict in the lawsuit filed by Officer Roger Sutton, in 2005, settlements are just the way to go. Either settlements or medical retirements to get rid of the employees that just have to be gone because as Priamos so aptly put it, "for the best interests of the city".

He's both right and wrong with that assertion.

Just business as usual at City Hall as it turns out. Only Priamos doesn't really mean that it's for the "best interest" of the city's residents. How can it be when the city residents, not Priamos out of his generous six figure salary and benefits package, is paying the costs...unless this is Priamos way of saying if the city went to trial instead, it would lose its shirt over and over. Priamos alibi that he provided was the second best and most telling excuse provided by a city employee in about a week's time as to why the city settles its lawsuits behind closed doors instead of taking its chances with a jury in a public courtroom. Remember how Hudson said last week at the ethics complaint hearing involving Councilman Steve Adams that the city settled the lawsuits with former police lieutenants, Darryl Hurt and Tim Bacon to "reform" the police department?

Pretty audacious for a management employee who had been caught essentially by the two of them issuing himself and his staff illegal flat badges (which were also provided to elected officials) and cold plates not to mention being somehow caught up in an illicit gun sale done by the police department, an unlicensed vendor at the time. What kind of management employee views whistle blowing primarily against his own conduct that led to criminal inquiries from an outside law enforcement agency "reforming" the department?

[City Manager Brad Hudson, busy being an agent of "reform"]

But the consequences as well as the apparent rewards of Hudson's "reform" plans will come to light further down the road when it's impossible not to pay attention to the little man hiding behind the curtain.

One that gets away with making statements like that one because his employees aren't paying any attention. After all, how many of them have expressed publicly that he's doing a wonderful job? But then you have one former elected official hoping to be reelected who told one group of potential endorsers early on that he should be the choice because Hudson had gotten out of control in recent years and he was the only one who could control or handle him. But then he could be right because despite what he told his supporters, he and two other former council members were instrumental in trying to bring Hudson into the city's fabric possibly going back to even before his predecessor, George Carvalho had been fired by four members of the city council. Is it possible that one of those who voted to keep him, had done so knowing it was a safe vote while behind the scenes something else was happening?

Carvalho was fired before the launching of the Riverside Renaissance project which hasn't begun to pay for itself as approximately $1.5 billion of it was paid for in bonds or loans and that means that money has to be paid back. Most likely through rates increases for utilities and sewer fees.

Some people including Police Chief Sergio Diaz have avowed that the city will fight more lawsuits filed by employees including police employees but has that happened? Will that happen? It will take more than one of Hudson's at will employees to say so even though Diaz' point is a very good one. Sterling's had already lawyered up before her termination, which began when the city allegedly offered her six months administrative leave pay to go find another job but she refused so Priamos put her on leave. Asst. City Manager of Finance/Chief Financial Officer Paul Sundeen commented on her situation by saying that she had voluntarily put herself on leave.

So that's why she's fired now right, why she had lawyered up while volunteering to not come to work? It's not clear why Priamos or anyone of his over 20 syncopates couldn't have spoken up on this issue rather than a head of another city department but Sundeen was chosen to do it instead. As a result, now his own explanation for the Sterling situation looks suspect in the light of her having hired an attorney and then getting terminated.

At any rate, it looks like it's just business in River City and that it will continue onward as everyone waits to see what messenger will be identified and be "killed" next by City Hall. With all the attention focused on that, rather than the messages that have apparently proved worth terminating employees over to try to prevent them from coming to the light of day.

One alternate look at the picture for public sector employees after they retire even as layoffs are set to begin in Riverside County Sheriff's Department. Strange with all the discussion among local politicians about pension reform, there's not explanation as to why elected officials including those who serve less than eight years even get pensions and generous life-long medical coverage at all. Pension reform should always begin with those who ultimately get to decide for everyone it starting at home first before taking your message on the road.

Public Meetings

Monday, May 23 at 5:30 pm. The revised Charter Review Committee will be meeting to discuss this agenda. There will be some ethics training by Priamos after the committee interviews Hudson and City Councilman Andrew Melendrez.

Tuesday, May 24 at 3pm and 6:30 pm, the Riverside City Council will meet to discuss this agenda. Not much there this week except the usual focus on projects being done in the odd numbered wards, the same ones involved in the current election cycle.

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