Kings Grand Jury issues report evaluating 'disruptive and dysfunctional' conduct at Lemoore City Council meetings

By Ed Martin, Editor
Kings Grand Jury issues report evaluating 'disruptive and dysfunctional' conduct at Lemoore City Council meetings

The Kings County Grand Jury, in a report released to the public on Tuesday, June 4, appeared to criticize the Lemoore City Council mayor and its city attorney for their inability to control city council meetings and more specifically the disruptive actions of at least one council member.

The grand jury didn’t mince words in recommending that the city council consider replacing the current city attorney and strongly encouraging council members to reinforce their knowledge of the Brown Act and the city’s rules and procedures.

While the report doesn’t identify the council member in question, the grand jury’s report made it clear that the member in question was formally censured last year by the city council. That member is a first-term council member, Holly Blair.

A copy of the report was obtained by The Leader on Tuesday (June 4). The 19-member grand jury, a part of the Kings County judicial branch of government, oversees all aspects of city and county governments and sometimes initiates its investigations – as it did in the Lemoore case.

Lemoore City Manager Nathan Olson confirmed that the city had received the grand jury’s report. In addition to the city manager, The Leader contacted Mayor Eddie Neal for a comment, but he was not available. The Leader also left messages with Mayor pro tem Chad Billingsley and Councilmember Dave Brown. Brown returned the call to The Leader and indicated he had just received the report and needed to study it before commenting on its findings.

The city has 60 days to review the report and submit its response to the presiding judge. Olson said council members would probably discuss it at the June 18 council meeting.

According to a summary of its latest report, this year’s grand jury was “made aware of the public interest to review and evaluate the disruptive and dysfunctional conduct of the Lemoore City Council members at city council meetings.”

Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedure

During its investigation, the grand jury cited violations and the lack of enforcement of the Brown Act and the city’s rules and procedures. All local elected officials in California are mandated to follow the requirements of the Brown Act.

The grand jury conducted interviews and attended council meetings, where they observed numerous violations. The Ralph M. Brown Act, initially passed in 1953, guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. In a nutshell, the Brown Act prohibits undisclosed (secret) meetings held by local elected officials and requires all council business explicitly, with a couple of exceptions – specifically the discussion of personnel and property issues – to be held in open session.

“Over a period of months grand jury members attended meetings of the city council,” stated the report. “Violations of the Brown Act were noted as well as disruptive behavior of members of the city council. There was a request for the grand jury to investigate the behavior and lack of control of their meetings. The purpose of this investigation was to pinpoint the causes and offer recommendations to assist the city council in conducting its business in a more appropriate manner.”

Grand jury members reviewed the existing Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedures, meeting minutes and internet live feeds, and were determined to evaluate the “awareness and potential actions to resolve the disruption and dysfunction of the city council.”

View the Kings County Grand Jury report at the end of this article

Grand jury members also interviewed the Lemoore’s mayor, Eddie Neal, and the city’s attorney, Jenell Van Bindsbergen, and concluded that “the mayor and city attorney were not able to control the city council meetings. Thus, the ongoing interruptions led to constant violations of the Brown act, Rosenberg Rules of Order, and the Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedures.”

Grand jury members who attended council meetings observed the interruptions of one council member  “which contributed to the disruptions of the meetings. This council member has been formally censured by the city council, but this admonishment has not been enforced.”

Blair’s antics may have also cost taxpayers approximately $100,000 in legal fees. City officials initially brought a case against Blair hoping to impose a restraining order on the first-term council member. On Jan. 29, 2019, voting 4-0, the council authorized the initiation of litigation and filed for a Temporary Restraining Order.

Kings County Superior Court Judge Kathy Ciuffini denied the city’s petition for a restraining order, instead referring the two sides into mediation.

Instead of getting a restraining order, council members, during a special meeting, approved a “Compromise and Release Agreement” with Blair that cost the city nearly $100,000. The agreement included paying Blair’s legal fees – about $38,000. The legal agreement also appeared to lift her censure, mandated initially in August 2018.

The grand jury’s report included an interview with Lemoore Mayor Eddie Neal. “While he is very much ‘pro-Lemoore” and wants to help move the city forward, his lack of leadership experience handicaps him in leading the city council effectively,” stated the report. In the report, Neal said he was told that he “cannot impose any sanctions against this person (Blair).” However, the grand jury's criticism was tempered somewhat by the mayor's inexperience. "The mayor has demonstrated his inexperience in the position of mayor which is not uncommon for a first-time mayor. He has not had time to become familiar with the duties and responsibilities of his position, which has led to his inability to 'control' either the meeting or the city council."

However, the grand jury report cited the Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedures that detail codes of conduct which include remedies beyond censorship.

The grand jury also interviewed the city’s attorney, Van Bindsbergen, who stated “several times” that enforcement of the city’s rules and procedures was the “duty of the city council.” The grand jury, in its report, criticized the city attorney as a “hands-off” legal advisor who saw her role as reviewing documents rather than informing the mayor and council members of procedural violations as they occurred.

The Grand jury reinforced its conclusions after attending a council meeting when the city’s regular attorney was absent, and a substitute attorney from the same law firm took her place. During this meeting, grand jury members in attendance noted that the substitute attorney actively advised the city council members when they violated the Brown Act. “The substitute attorney also actively advised the mayor of proper meeting protocols. The grand jury’s report stated that the meeting was conducted that night in a more orderly manner.

The grand jury also found that not all of Lemoore’s council members attended local ethics and Brown Act training. “Some members chose not to attend, nor was it apparent that the Rules of Procedures were discussed.”

There have been at least two council meetings that offered ethics review and training, and according to city officials, Blair failed to attend those sessions. All council members – except for Blair – have signed the City of Lemoore’s Code of Conduct.

The grand jury recommended that all council members attend the League of California Cities Annual Conference and take part in its Brown Act training. Furthermore, the grand jury report encouraged council members to attend training offered by the city’s attorney, dealing specifically with the Brown Act and the Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedures.

In yet another finding, the grand jury found that due to the mayor’s lack of experience there was no one providing leadership to the city council, and it seemed to place the blame partially on the current city attorney. “The hands-off approach of the current city attorney appears to contribute to this void in leadership.”

The grand jury recommended the city council replace the current city attorney with a more hands-on approach to the enforcement of the City Council Rules of Procedures.

Kings Grand Jury issues report evaluating 'disruptive and dysfunctional' conduct at Lemoore City Council meetings

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