By Nancy Vigran
Reporter for the Sun-Gazette
It’s a new year and Tulare has two new council members and a new mayor. But, the city still has a lot of the same old problems. Some of those the City hopes to rectify in the near future, said Mayor Jose Sigala.
Tulare has been without a permanent city manager or a permanent police chief since last March. It has been without a permanent city attorney since June. It is also involved in assorted lawsuits either against the City, or that the City has filed against others.
Sigala told the Sun-Gazette he would like to see a permanent city manager, city attorney and police chief appointed as soon as possible. He would also like to see some of the court issues resolved.
Last year council had an open application period for the city manager position which lasted through early May. However, for various circumstances council was unable to review applications until later in the year. By then current council candidates requested the seated council to hold off, as two council members were vacating their seats for two new members, and would want to be a part of the process.
City manager search
Being more than six months out from the application period closing the newly seated council has chosen to reopen the process by hiring an outside recruitment firm, William Avery & Associates, which specializes in municipal executive searches and human resource consulting, up and down the state, said Janice Avila, Tulare’s human resource director.
“We’re lucky to have Mr. Avery handling it himself,” she said, adding he is every experienced in the process.
Avery will be meeting with council members in the upcoming weeks to learn what they each want to see in applicants for the position. It should then take about three to four months for Avery to start a search, receive applications, and narrow down the choices to those council may want to review and interview.
Mario Zamora an attorney with Griswold, LaSalle, Cobb, Dowd & Gin, LLP has been working in an interim capacity since the city’s release in June 2018, of Heather Phillips of Goyette and Associates, Inc. at the end of a one-year contract. He has yet to be named as the City’s permanent attorney.
Those are the only two personnel positions council is responsible for hiring. All other department heads fall under the city manager, permanent or interim, to hire and fire.
Firing of a police chief with no permanent replacement 10 months later
Former Police Chief Wes Hensley was fired on March 20, 2018 by then City Manager Joe Carlini. Hensley had been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 2017 and found himself under investigation in Jan. 2018. The investigation was not completed at the time of Hensley’s firing, and he was let go, Carlini said, because he had lost confidence in the Chief. The notice of dismissal stated:
You are not being dismissed from employment as the result of misconduct.
You are being dismissed to further the goals of this Organization, due to a loss of confidence in your ability to lead the Police Department in a manner that is consistent with the goals of this Organization; having management style that is incompatible with this Organization’s/Administration’s goals and the philosophies of leadership upon which they are based.
The City thanks you for your many years of service to the City of Tulare.
Carlini was himself fired a few hours later by city council with Rob Hunt, the city’s community services director named as interim. However, Hunt was quickly replaced by Willard Epps, the city’s fire chief, in less than one week.
Epps worked in the position through Dec. 2018, when he retired not only from his interim city manager position but from the city’s fire department as well. During his time as interim city manager Epps named no replacement in the permanent police chief position. However, on his way out the door he did appoint Tulare Fire Department Division Chief Luis Nevarez as the new fire chief.
Interim Chief Barry Jones retired from the TPD also in December, and Epps named Cpt. Matt Machado as interim police chief. Hunt was renamed interim city manager by council.
Hensley filed a lawsuit against the City, depositions taken, mediation coming up
Hensley hired Visalia-based attorney Michael Lampe shortly after being put on administrative leave. He filed a lawsuit against the City on May 1, 2018 following his March 20 employment termination.
A mediation hearing for the suit is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 10. In preparation, Lampe shared a Mediation Statement of Facts with the press and the public.
Part of the “facts” were taken from transcripts of depositions in the case including those of Carlini and other city staff including Chief Deputy City Clerk Roxanne Yoder, Finance Director Darlene Thompson, TPD Administrative Assistant Chontelle Adney, Machado, and Community & Economic Development Deputy Director Traci Myers, as well as John McGinness, the outside investigator hired to look into Hensley along with TPD Cpt. Fred Ynclan and Lt. Jerod Boatman.
Ynclan and Boatman had also been placed on paid administrative leave, but not until Nov. 7, 2017. They returned to work on May 29, 2018.
Furthermore, Lampe posted a video deposition taken in the case to his law firms’ website of former mayor and current City Councilman Carlton Jones. The deposition revealed that in October 2018, Jones had received a copy of McGinness’ confidential investigative report prepared for the City along with several confidential witness statements and former grievances filed by TPD staff with regard to the department’s command staff. Jones obtained the documents from previous city attorney Phillips, he said. He shared them with several individuals and posted at least some pages to his personnel Facebook page, before later removing them.
In the opening of his mediation fact sheet, Lampe contends –
Chief Hensley was unexpectedly fired on March 20, 2018. Not for misconduct. Not for insubordination. Chief Hensley was fired because a corrupt politician, in concert with a weak City Manager and a conflicted City Attorney, were bent on sidelining an investigation – initiated by the City Manager – into the former Mayor’s improper use of a City credit card.
Improper use of a City credit card?
The “improper use of a City credit card” incident has widely been reported by the press. It was allegedly improper as then Mayor Jones used it to buy himself, TPD Corporal James Kelly, and retired TPD officer Patrick O’Donohoe dinner at Cattleman’s Restaurant in Selma, while meeting to discuss Tulare, but not TPD business, Jones said. He had the credit card as he had just returned from a League of California Cities conference in Sacramento.
Finance Director Thompson questioned the charge as it had nothing to do with the former mayor’s attendance at the Sacramento conference. She referred the dinner receipt to Carlini, then city manager, saying she could not sign off on it.
Jones contends the use of the card was proper, although his wife paid the city back for the charges. He also contends the conversation with Kelly and O’Donohoe was about management of the city and its finances for which O’Donohoe had shared some “good ideas.” It had nothing to do with police personnel business, which Jones acknowledges would be improper as council has no say with regard to city personnel outside of the city manager and attorney.
Jones did not initiate the meeting, but he told the Sun-Gazette that “as Mayor, you should be meeting with people who work for you.”
Jones’ thoughts went to the city having an open assistant city manager position, and while he could not influence a job hiring, he could make recommendations. On the dinner receipt, Jones had written “Kelly +1,” as O’Donohoe had requested his name kept quiet, according to Jones.
However, Avila told the Sun-Gazette the assistant city manager position was no longer valid at the time of the meeting. An April 2017 realignment of staff positions lead to a new department head position, community and economic development director. Josh McDonnell was hired to fill that position. At the same time, Hunt’s position had been changed from community development director to community services director.
Through the restructure, which council had approved, the assistant city manager position was eliminated, Avila said.
Investigation; police chief placed on leave
After the dinner which took place on Sept. 16, 2017 and the question of the legitimacy of the credit card use came to rise on the 19th, Hensley was placed on leave by Carlini. That was one week later on Sept. 27.
Jones claims the two incidents could be unrelated. There was a lot going on in the City, he said.
But Carlini’s own deposition revealed the two were connected.
Q. Other than the fact that there was some type of investigation regarding the Cattlemens Ranch meeting, which we haven’t even talked about yet, were there any other allegations of misconduct against the chief on September 27, 2017, that factored into your decision to place him on administrative leave?
A. No. That was the only reason.
Q. And the only person you discussed that with before you put the chief on administrative leave was Heather Phillips?
The reason Hensley was fired, according to Carlini’s deposition, was that he had lost confidence in the Chief. According to his deposition:
Q. This notice says, if you look at basically the second bullet point — the first one says, “You are not being dismissed from employment as the result of misconduct.” That’s a true statement, correct?
Q. It goes on to say, “You are being dismissed to further the goals of this organization, due to a loss of confidence in your ability to lead the police department in a manner that is consistent with the goals of this organization.”
Do you see that?
Q. What caused you to lose confidence in the chief’s ability to lead the department between September 27 when he was placed on administrative leave and March 20 when you terminated his employment?
A. I had the conversation with the — the inves – the investigator on the — on that day.
Q. On March 20?
A. Yeah, that’s when — that’s when I —
Q. That was John McGinness, correct?
Q. Your loss of confidence, as I understand your testimony today — and I want you to be real careful about this. Your loss of confidence on March 20 is completely based upon a conversation you had with John McGinness on March 20 in which he told you four things. Those four things being: The chief said the meeting in the library didn’t happen, that the chief said that you initiated the investigation into the credit card charge, there was a discharge of a firearm that you were never told about, and there was a sexual harassment claim that you thought the discipline was rather light on. Right?
Q. Other than that, there was nothing that caused you to issue the notice of termination, correct?
McGinness has a differing recollection of the day. In his written testimony, he stated:
I have reviewed pages 97 through 111, and page 128 of the deposition of former Tulare City Manager Joe Carlini.
In his testimony, Mr. Carlini testified that prior to his termination of Chief Hensley on March 20, 2018, he had a telephone conversation with me which caused him to lose confidence in Chief Hensley.
Although I had a telephone conversation with Mr. Carlini after he terminated Chief Hensley on March 20, none of the issues set forth in the above-referenced testimony were discussed.
During our March 20 telephone conversation, which occurred after 4:24 p.m., Mr. Carlini told me that he had already terminated Chief Hensley.
I was surprised that Mr. Carlini had taken this action as I had previously advised the City Attorney, Heather Phillips, that based upon my investigation firing Chief Hensley for cause would be indefensible.
During our telephone conversation of March 20, Mr. Carlini made it clear to me that he had terminated Chief Hensley because he perceived the termination as essential to his survival as the Tulare City Manager.
I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the foregoing is true and correct.
A city manager under stress
There is little doubt that Carlini was under stress during his last months as city manager. Evaluations of Carlini’s work performance had appeared as agenda items for several council meeting closed sessions.
Jones recalled one experience shortly before the now notorious Cattleman’s dinner in which Hensley had driven Carlini to Fresno, to talk to Jones while Jones was at work.
“Joe was overwhelmed,” Jones said. Carlini had told him, “I feel like everyone’s out to get me.”
“He couldn’t handle the politics part, he wanted to quit,” Jones said.
Carlini remembered the incident as well. Immediately following his deposition, he recalled the incident to Hensley. Lampe asked it be added to the record and Carlini agreed.
Q. Joe, you indicated after we had gone off the record that there was something you would have said, and then you said it, and I’d like to have this on the record. Mario has graciously agreed to allow us to reopen the deposition for the purpose of doing this.
There’s not really a question pending, but if you could say what you said again, with the understanding that you’re still under oath, I would appreciate you doing so. So if you could just sort of take off from where you were.
A. Okay. I just wanted to say that out of all the department directors, the people that were in the power, the heads of the departments, that man right there was the only one who helped me when it came to an issue that I had with Greg Nunley. He actually came to my house at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, and we drove out to Fresno to talk to the mayor. And – and I wanted – I wanted everybody to realize that because I appreciate the man.
A. I – I do.
Q. And “the man” being Chief Hensley?
A. Chief Hensley.
Q. That is a nice thing for you to say. Thank you.
HENSLEY: Thanks, Joe.
Another lawsuit and yet another possible lawsuit
On Dec. 11 2018, the City of Tulare filed a malpractice lawsuit against its former attorney, Phillips, and the firm of Goyette & Associates alleging Phillips and the firm “failed to competently provide legal service.” The filing paperwork includes an alleged improper response to Public Records Act requests by Tulare citizen, Ben Brubaker, who had filed a lawsuit against the City for a lack of transparency. Lampe is also Brubaker’s attorney in that case.
Through the Mediation Statement of Facts in the Hensley case, Lampe suggested yet another lawsuit against the City could be coming. It read:
The remarkably reckless acts of Councilman Jones will certainly spawn future litigation against the City.
Lampe is looking for a pay check, Jones said. He looks for potential problems within the City and then finds someone under whose name he can file a lawsuit, he said.
“He found a Brown Act violation and had Ben Brubaker file a lawsuit,” Jones said.
Lampe also represents retired TPD lieutenant David Frost in a lawsuit filed in August 2017 against Tulare Councilman Greg Nunley. Also included in the suit are various Nunley building companies and the City, facing charges of unpaid development fees, impermissible use of Nunley’s official positon as councilman to influence a governmental decision, a threat of retaliation against city staff, and a violation of the Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) for failure to file a 2018 Statement of Economic Interests form with the city.
These are what prompted Jones, last year, to look into what attorney fees the City had paid out for the past several years. There were a lot payments made to Lampe, and they weren’t for services performed for the City, he said.
“One check was for $230 thousand,” he said. “He’s done this numerous times.”
Lampe negated the comments.
“I have clients,” he said. “I’m representing them to the best of my ability.”
It is possible that Thursday’s medication hearing will result in an agreement in the Hensley lawsuit. Mayor Sigala and Vice Mayor Dennis Mederos are to attend the mediation on the City’s behalf. If Sigala and Mederos along with Interim City Attorney Zamora find common ground with Hensley and Lampe, they will have to come back to the full council for a vote on a final agreement. That could come up as early as next Tuesday, Jan. 15 during the regularly scheduled council meeting.
For related stories please see Details emerge about suspicous dinner, firings after Dec. 20 deposition and Tulare Councilman’s legal woes mounting