Divided Laguna Hills City Council Takes Aim at Critical Report

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A deeply divided Laguna Hills City Council Tuesday began its process of responding to a recent Orange County grand jury report that took issue with how city officials responded to a 2010 Chapman University study on the salaries of city managers.

In a 3-0 vote, council members agreed to appoint a committee that would respond to the grand jury within 90 days.

Laguna Hills City Councilwoman Barbara Kogerman and Councilman L. Allan Songstad abstained from the vote because the grand jury report specifically addressed actions by both elected leaders.

In early 2010, Kogerman commissioned the controversial city manager salary study while she was running for a City Council seat that she ultimately won. The study was done by Chapman professor Fred Smoller.

According to the grand jury report, Kogerman sought out Smoller (who serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board) to help analyze salaries granted to city managers across Orange County.

Smoller assigned several of his students to Kogerman as interns to be attached to her campaign and work on a city manager compensation report. The results, which showed Laguna Hills City Manager Bruce Channing to be one of the highest paid in the county, were controversial.

Kogerman and the students were celebrated for their findings and for confronting the machinery in most cities that keeps top salaries secret.

And in the midst of the scandal over the city of Bell controversy, several elected officials, such as state Senator Lou Correa, began considering legislation to address the issue. Other entities, such as the state attorney general and the state controller, also began considering the issue.

Grand jury members also assessed how members of the California League of Cities and the newly-formed Association of California Cities, Orange County government and city council members in Tustin and Laguna Hills reacted to the report.

The jury took direct aim at elected officials in Laguna Hills and Tustin in their report, issuing four separate findings criticizing those elected officials for pressing Chapman University President James Doti over the work of the students.

This week, Laguna Hills council members considered the grand jury report during a tense session.

“How anything I said or did with Dr. Doti could have affected Dr. Smoller a year later, I have no idea,” Songstad said at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

Songstad took aim at the grand jury, saying it had produced a report full of inaccuracies and innuendo.

“It makes me sick,” Songstad said. “I don’t like being part of the [grand jury] recommendations.”

Songstad further urged City Council members to avoid responding to the grand jury, but City Attorney Gregory Simonian told members they were required to respond.

Kogerman attempted to offer her views on the grand jury report near the end of the meeting during council comments but missed the opportunity offered by Mayor Melody Carruth, who quickly gaveled the meeting adjourned.

“We will listen for those comments [at the next council meeting] in six weeks,” Carruth told Kogerman.

In the meantime, Carruth and Councilman Joel Lautenschleger will begin formulating the city’s response.

— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

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