Kings County judge says no to Councilmember Blair restraining order. 'Declarations' shed light on numerous allegations

By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore councilmembers at their final December meeting.
Lemoore councilmembers at their final December meeting.
Gary Feinstein/Feinsteinfotos

Kings County Superior Court Judge Kathy Ciuffini Thursday (Jan. 31) morning denied the City of Lemoore's petition for a temporary restraining order against Councilmember Holly Blair. But her decision came with caveats.

Thursday's unusual hearing – requesting a temporary restraining order (TRO) against a sitting councilmember – is the latest episode pitting councilmembers and city officials against the verbal assaults and behavior of the first-term councilmember Holly Blair.

Restraining orders are rare in local government. A Google search revealed just a few cases in which a city was forced to file a TRO against one of its council members. The Leader found one case in the City of Patterson, and a case in Ohio.

Thursday’s hearing was the result of a 4-0  Lemoore City Council vote on Jan. 29 initiating litigation the city hoped may lead to a temporary restraining order against the first-term councilmember.

Last week’s court proceeding came complete with detailed "declarations" from Lemoore City Manager Nathan Olson and Lemoore Chief of Police Darryl Smith, outlining allegations of what city officials say are improper actions taken by Blair. Many of the claims concern the police chief and his top commander, Margarita Ochoa. The declarations were in support of the city’s application for the temporary restraining order. A declaration is a formal statement, sworn to be the truth under penalty of perjury by someone with direct knowledge about the issues in a court case. Such declarations are used when filing or responding to motions in court.

While she denied the TRO, Ciuffini ordered the two parties to attend mediation, and if mediation failed, Ciuffini could revisit the restraining order at a future date.

She ordered the mediation occur within 30 days.

The two sides' attorneys deliberated with Judge Ciuffini, and then both parties conferred before returning to the bench, exiting with what witnesses referred to as a "moral commitment." The commitment stipulates that Blair agreed not to speak or post negatively about members of the police department by name. Instead, she will direct her complaints to Mayor Eddie Neal instead of the city manager, Olson. 

For the city's side, officials agree that they would not speak unfavorably of Blair. Ciuffini set a "status" hearing for Feb. 7.

The judge ordered the two parties – Blair and the City of Lemoore – into mediation, and if no reconciliation occurs the two parties may meet again in a "Case Management Conference" scheduled for March 1, 2019, in Department 10 of the Kings County Superior Court.

In their written declarations, Olson and Smith provided the court with a plethora of detailed concerns regarding Blair's behavior, including her interactions concerning the Lemoore Police Department.

Olson focused on Blair’s public comments about Smith and Lemoore Police Commander Ochoa, a long-time officer with the Lemoore Police Department. "Despite a cease-and-desist letter from Smith's attorney, and despite a cease-and-desist letter from Lemoore City Attorney Jenell VanBindsbergen, and despite a Council resolution censuring Respondent (Blair) for these illegal activities and breaches of her fiduciary duties to the City, she continues to make repeated, public adverse statements in improper forums against Chief Darryl Smith and Commander Ochoa that harm the City and endanger public safety."

Olson continued: "Yet, at no time and despite multiple requests for proof, respondent (Blair) has failed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the department, Smith, or Ochoa that would lead to an investigation into their conduct."

According to Olson's official declaration in support of the TRO, he cited a May 10, 2018 council meeting during which Blair stated that (Chief) Smith "lied to her twice, and she wanted an independent investigation into Smith and the (police) department."

Olson stated that Blair then began publicly inquiring into the private, personal matters of both he and Smith. In an open-session meeting, Blair asked whether Olson’s then 20-year-old son was engaged to Smith's daughter. During that meeting, Blair speculated that Smith's daughter and Olson's son were engaged, which they were not, stated Olson. 

Blair suggested that if they were married the relationship would create a conflict of interest in "both Smith and I doing our jobs properly."

Olson also highlights an Oct. 2, 2018 council meeting during which Blair raised concerns about a possible sexual assault she reported to Ochoa, which Blair said she believed the police failed to investigate. During that meeting, Chief Smith advised her that he couldn’t talk about criminal investigations but told Blair that police did, in fact, investigate the allegations.

According to a letter from Ochoa to Assistant City Manager Michelle Speer, dated Oct. 3, 2018, Ochoa stipulated that within minutes of receiving the allegation of sexual assault from Councilmember Blair, she immediately contacted the department's detective sergeant and ordered an investigation into the matter.

"I have been employed with Lemoore Police Department for over 20 years and have successfully investigated several hundred allegations of this nature, and I could assure you I take these matters seriously. Keeping the privacy and dignity of the victims is foremost in my investigations. I personally supervised the investigation and received regular updates as to its progress."

View Censure Resolution 

Ochoa stated that Blair said she had spoken directly to her regarding the incident, which according to Ochoa, was factually inaccurate. "At no time did Ms. Blair ever reach out or attempt to contact myself,  or to my knowledge any staff of the department, inquiring as to the status of the investigation."

On August 21, 2018, the Lemoore City Council publicly censured Blair, and in its resolution stated specific instances of Blair's wrongful conduct in publicly disclosing adverse statements regarding specific public safety officers. Included in the resolution: 

•    Continually asserting unsupported allegations which could create liability for the City and failing to provide specific factual evidence as requested to support such allegations.

•    Discussing personnel matters in public.

•    Failing to take complaints related to staff to the city manager.

•    Engaging in discourteous and unprofessional conduct at public meetings toward the public, staff, and fellow council members.

•    Using unprofessional, inflammatory, belittling and discourteous language in communications with city employees, residents, and council members.

•    Expressing views and statements as if they were opinions of Council, including but not limited to making unsupported allegations of dishonesty about city employees.

•    Engaging in public personal vendettas against the mayor, the city manager and the police chief by attempting to defame the individuals with unsupported allegations or falsehoods.

•    Misusing her position and exceeding her authority by circumventing instructions of the city manager that inquiries to or about department heads be coordinated through the city manager's office.

Regarding the sexual assault allegations, Commander Ochoa responded at the Oct. 2, 2018, council meeting. 

"Due to (Blair's) allegations naming me specifically, it is my concern, that her mere inference to my unprofessionalism and incompetence regarding the handling of this incident has placed my credibility with the members of this community in jeopardy."

She also told council members that she became aware that Blair posted the same allegations to her Twitter and Facebook accounts, once again naming her personally and inferring that Ochoa mishandled the case.

On Nov. 2, 2018, Lemoore's city attorney, Jenell VanBindsbergen, sent Blair a letter requesting the council member cease and desist actions which infringe or could infringe upon the rights of the city employees. VanBindsbergen respectfully requested that any complaints about employees go through proper channels, including dealing directly with the city manager.

Ochoa filed a complaint letter on Jan. 17, 2019 stating that she submitted her Oct. 3, 2018, complaint confidentially believing it would be handled in confidence according to Lemoore Personnel System Guidelines, as are most complaints.

Most recently, in that Jan. 17, 2019 complaint letter, she said she heard Blair publicly discussing her confidential complaint at the Jan. 15, 2019  council meeting, and then on a Jan. 9, 2019 podcast called "Hopper in the Morning."

According to Chief Smith's written declaration, Blair, in or about April of 2018, began complaining openly at council meetings and on social media sites, she said that after being stopped multiple times by Lemoore Police Department officers, she was suspiciously targeted for police attention in the city.

In his declaration, Smith said he looked into the number and types of police interactions Blair had with the police since she joined the Lemoore City Council. He discovered that in 2017 Blair made an illegal U-turn in a school zone and was stopped by a Lemoore police officer and was warned. He added that at the beginning of the new school year Lemoore officers are highly visible in the area, and routine traffic stops are conducted to educate and remind the public of the hazards to school pedestrian traffic if drivers are not diligent. Blair was not the only person stopped that day. Smith said there were a total of 35 traffic stops made in the city that day.

In October 2017 Blair was involved in a traffic accident when she ran a red light in the city. The California Highway Patrol investigated and found Blair responsible.

On Dec. 20, 2017, Blair failed to stop at a stop sign in Lemoore and was pulled over by a Lemoore officer who warned her to be more careful. Again, that same day there were 47 traffic stops made for a variety of traffic violations. 

On March 13, 2018, Smith received an anonymous phone call from a citizen who indicated she saw Blair driving recklessly in a school zone. Smith contacted Blair about the incident in which she was identified and warned her about her driving.

On April 4, 2018, a Lemoore officer stopped Blair for speeding in a school zone. The officer's radar device indicated she was driving 34 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour speed zone. The officer followed her until she stopped to drop her children off at school and then pulled alongside her vehicle to inform Blair of her speeding violation. She asked him for his car number and his name.

At a public council meeting held on April 4, 2018, Blair said she was "skeptical and fearful" of Smith and the department. She raised the issue of a video to prove that a supposed verbal altercation with an officer was false.  She asked for a copy of the report and the video, and "I was then told that none existed."

According to Smith, based on his 29 years in law enforcement, he knows of no police department in the nation "that video or audio records every encounter with every citizen. It is the department's policy to record only at times where an officer believes it would be appropriate or valuable to record events."

Furthermore, in his declaration, Smith said during his time with the Lemoore Police Department did he ever direct anyone in the department to follow or target Blair. "Based on her past conduct, Respondent does not always obey the traffic laws, which resulted in her multiple contacts with my officers. Also, Respondent suggests that, because she sees our officers throughout the community, they must be targeting her or harassing her. Nothing is further from the truth," stated Smith. 

On May 10, 2018, Smith said he attended a council meeting during which Blair stated that the police chief lied to her twice. She wanted an independent investigation into her and the department. Smith noted that Blair never provided any evidence as to what statements he made that she said were false. Blair also began publicly questioning private, personal family matters related to his 22-year-old daughter.

As in Olson’s declaration, Smith wrote that Blair speculated that Olson's son and his daughter were engaged – which they were not. And when they were married, he and Olson would be brothers-in-law, which would not be accurate. She indicated that the relationship would create a conflict-of-interest in both Olson and Smith doing their jobs properly.

There were other incidents as well, including a stop on Aug. 15 when Blair was stopped by a Lemoore officer in a school zone for a "gridlock violation." Police issued no citation. That same day local officers responded to a "missing person critical" call involving a teen male with autism. When police get that type of call, every available officer on duty is mandated to respond to locate the at-risk individual. As a courtesy to councilmembers, Smith said he notifies them, letting them know about the increased visibility.

On that same day, Blair posted several times in social media that she had been canvassing neighborhoods, and she believed that police units were following her. She took photographs of some of the police units and posted them on Facebook. "In light of my prior notice to all of the councilmembers of the increased police activity, I have concerns that she knew her statements on Facebook were false, as she had been informed of the reason for the increased police presence," stated Smith in his declaration.

On July 19, 2018, Smith's attorney, Kris Pedersen, sent a letter to the city, and Blair, directing her to cease and desist her "defamatory comments" against him. But following a Jan. 15, 2019 council meeting where Blair referred to the chief’s "ridiculous employee complaint," Smith submitted a verbal complaint to City Manager Olson on Jan. 17. "I complained about Respondent's public criticism of me in my role as a public safety officer and stated my belief that she was retaliating against me. Respondent's statements about me are unfounded, false and harmful."

He added: "Respondent's accusations have no factual basis, are complete falsehoods, are total fabrications of her own distorted view of reality and have been published by Respondent intentionally to cause me and my reputation harm. Respondent's unsupported allegations harm my professional reputation that I have spent an entire career building, have disturbed and embarrassed my family publicly, and cannot now be taken back."

He added that her false accusations and regular posting of falsehoods on social media and the Internet would be "hanging out there permanently." He's also offended that "she has so casually infringed (upon) due-process rights by violating the protections afforded me under the Police Officers Bill of Rights.

Furthermore, he suggested that her baseless allegations may have compromised and undermined his credibility as a peace officer and his ability to testify in criminal proceedings.

"Respondent continues to make repeated, public, adverse statements against Ochoa and me outside of the proper and legal procedures for such complaints. I understand that as a public law enforcement professional, I am open to criticism all the time. But when the critic is an agent of my employer, I have due process rights under the law as to how those complaints must be handled to avoid undue harm to my reputation, my ability to do my job, and my career. Respondent continues to ignore my and Commander Ochoa's rights regarding her public criticisms," said Smith.

In his declaration, Smith warns that without court action, he suggests that Blair will escalate her public criticism and comments against him and Ochoa without regard to legally protected due process rights. "I strongly urge the Court to enjoin her from any further such behavior while the court determines the parties' respective rights."

Comments powered by Disqus