Lemoore Council votes 4-0 to dispute critical grand jury report. City attorney authors response

By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore Council votes 4-0 to dispute critical grand jury report. City attorney authors response

Lemoore city officials are taking exception to the Kings County Grand Jury’s assessment of what the county’s investigative body says is the “disruptive and dysfunctional conduct of the Lemoore City Council members at city council meetings.”

Council members, at their regular June 18 council meeting, in responding to a May 28 Kings County Grand Jury report, disagreed with its critical comments, voting 4-0 to approve a mandated response and forwarding it to the grand jury.

Instead of accepting the grand jury's criticisms, city officials, replied with critical comments of their own, taking issue with several facets of the report, including perceived allegations by the grand jury that city council members – specifically Mayor Eddie Neal and Lemoore City Attorney Jenelle Van Bindsbergen – may have "engaged in misconduct."

Nowhere in the grand jury’s report does it mention that council members or city staff engaged in misconduct.

In a six-page written response authored by the city’s attorney, Van Bindsbergen, and signed by Mayor Neal, city officials claimed that the grand jury "has issued this report in a manner that seems to attack two specific individuals. Additionally, despite the requirement of the grand jury to maintain confidentiality (Penal Code section 924.1), the grand jury chose to cite to the interviews and comments of these two individuals in an effort to support its allegations that they engaged in misconduct, a claim for which the grand jury has provided no facts or evidence in support of the inaccurate allegations."

View the Grand Jury Report and the City of Lemoore's response below

For the record, neither Mayor Eddie Neal nor Lemoore City Attorney Jenelle Van Bindsbergen’s names were mentioned in the Kings County Grand Jury Report.

On Monday, June 24, The Leader sought comments from Mayor Neal and the city attorney. Neither has responded. The Leader also attempted to contact the grand jury foreman but also did not get a response.

The grand jury's initial report makes no mention of any misconduct on the part of the city attorney or Mayor Neal. Instead, it criticized Neal and the city attorney for their inability to "control" council meetings, far from misconduct. But it also suggested that the city attorney needed to be more "hands-on" with council members' actions and recommended that council members may consider utilizing another attorney.

In their interview with the city attorney, the grand jury writes that Van Bindsbergen (while not mentioning her name in the report) stated several times that enforcement of the city’s Rules of Procedures was the “duty of the city council.” Grand jury members concluded that the attorney was a “hands-off” legal advisor who saw her role as reviewing documents rather than informing the mayor and council of procedural violations as they occurred.

This “hands-off” approach by the city attorney appeared to contribute to a void in leadership, stated the grand jury report in one of its key findings.

The grand jury didn't mince many words when it suggested that the Lemoore City Council consider cutting its ties with the current city attorney.  The grand jury recommended that the city "utilize an attorney with a more hands-on approach to the enforcement of the City Council Rules and Procedures” and enforcement of the Brown Act, both of which council members may have violated.

The grand jury also appeared to give Neal a "pass" for his leadership skills at council meetings. "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.  However, grand jury members noted that such inexperience 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 meetings or the City Council."

While Neal is indeed a first-time mayor, he currently is the council’s longest-serving member, having been elected in 2012 and then re-elected in 2016 to a second term.

Grand jury members also referred to what they observed as “ongoing interruptions” which may have led to constant violations of the Brown Act, Rosenberg Rules of Order, and the Lemoore City Council Rules of Procedures – all critical facets of bringing order to government agencies during meetings.

Over months, grand jury members attended city council meetings where they observed apparent Brown Act violations and noted the disruptive behavior of "members" of the Lemoore City Council. 

The purpose of the grand jury's investigation was to pinpoint the causes and offer recommendations to assist the council in conducting its business more appropriately.

On that note, grand jury members attended several council meetings. They immersed themselves in the city’s rules, council minutes, and internet live feeds to evaluate the "awareness and potential actions to resolve the disruption and dysfunction of the City Council."

While the report failed to blame any elected official, the report suggests that the disruptive and dysfunctional conduct could have been attributed to the first-term member Holly Blair. "Grand jury members who attended City Council meetings observed the interruptions of one council member which contributed to the disruptions of the meetings."

The grand jury report mentioned that one council member (Blair), due to her disruptive actions, was censured in 2018 by her fellow council members. Blair has not attended any recent meetings and is expected to be arraigned on July 5 at 8:15 a.m. in Dept. 7 of the Kings County Courthouse on charges that include two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of felony child endangerment, one count of felony evading a peace officer, one count of resisting arrest, and one count of reckless driving.

The numerous charges stem from an incident on Wednesday, June 5 that began in the Lemoore Police Department parking lot at about 2:14 p.m. Blair, driving a Honda Pilot, pulled into the department's rear parking lot, and at a high rate of speed, tore through the lot, disrupting a number of officers and agencies preparing at the time for a mental health awareness event.

Blair made a U-turn in the parking lot and raced out, but not before officers, visitors, and children were forced to run from the car's approach. Blair was later stopped and arrested at the intersection of Cinnamon and Lemoore Avenue. She spent a night in the Kings County Jail before providing bail the next day.

The grand jury indicated that it was "made aware" of the public interest to review and evaluate the disruptive and dysfunctional conduct of the Lemoore council members at city council meetings. After numerous observations and interviews with Mayor Neal and the city attorney, a grand jury team wrote: "There were violations and lack of enforcement of the Brown Act and the city's rules of procedures under which the City Council is required to function."

The grand jury's report also recommended that council members attend the League of California Cities annual conference, which includes Brown Act training as well as other responsibilities pertaining to city councils. Van Bindsbergen cited in her response that council members have attended League training on numerous occasions. The city attorney stated that she has also provided training for council members in ethics and public service, sexual harassment prevention, governance and ethics, and more.

According to Van Bindsbergen, the City has provided numerous training sessions, and most recently the city attorney listed training sessions in May and June 2019 during Lemoore City Council study sessions. However, a review of the meeting agendas in May reveal just one such session, a May 21 makeup of a meeting initially scheduled for May 5.

Also, while the City's response listed training in May and June, there was no training in June according to published meeting agendas.

Councilmember Blair did not attend either the first session or the makeup in May, which the grand jury confirmed when it stated in its report that "some members chose not to attend." The report tends to disprove the city attorney's contention that the grand jury's statement was "wholly inaccurate."

The city's attorney also stated that the grand jury's recommendations, to send all council members to League of California training for ethics, Brown Act, etc., if accepted, could require "the city to expend public funds." The City, she continued, may not be in a position financially to expend the funds for travel to the League of Cities on an annual basis.  Therefore, she said that the city disagrees with the grand jury's recommendation.

All this, even though the City of Lemoore recently paid nearly $100,000 to settle costs associated with an effort to implement a restraining order against Blair. The city also spent roughly $38,000 of that total on Blair's attorneys; money that could have been spent on training.

Lemoore Council votes 4-0 to dispute critical grand jury report. City attorney authors response


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