Former Westminster City Clerk Claims Harassment, Retaliation in Lawsuit

Councilwoman Margie Rice's official city portrait.

Councilwoman Margie Rice's official city portrait.

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A lawsuit by former Westminster City Clerk Robin Roberts demands compensation for damages related to alleged harassment and intimidation after she filed complaints about potential Brown Act violations, unreported campaign contributions and conflicts of interest among city officials, particularly longtime Councilwoman Margie Rice.

According to her complaint, filed in Superior Court late last month, Roberts became the target of harassment after raising issues concerning impropriety by Rice and her “inordinate amount of control within City Hall.”

Rice “berated and belittled” Roberts in front other employees, management, and City Council members. After Roberts reported the councilwoman to the state ethics commission, Rice removed her from the running for a promotion, according to the suit.

Roberts’ attorney, Dennis Wagner, says after he met with city officials to address the harassment, the situation escalated and other council members refused to work with Roberts, turning to her assistant instead.

Roberts, started working for Westminster as city clerk in 2009 and voluntarily left her post in January to be the city clerk of Fountain Valley.

Read the full complaint: Roberts v. City of Westminster

Roberts also voiced concerns about conflicts of interest regarding City Attorney Richard Jones, who receives a full-time salary but only works part-time, according to the suit.

In addition to Jones’ role as city attorney, the city has a contract for legal services with his firm, Jones & Mayer, incentivizing him to “work as little as possible for his salary” while billing services to his firm, the suit alleges.

“I think it’s pretty simple that Margie Rice and Dick Jones wield a lot of power, and when you complain about those two individuals, bad things happen in the workplace,” Wagner said in an interview.

Rice, Jones, and City Manager Eddie Manfro all declined to comment on the allegations, citing confidentiality rules for ongoing litigation.

Jones added in an email that, “While this case saddens and concerns me after nearly 40 years of public service, I must trust in the legal system to resolve these claims.”

Roberts’ complaint is the third lawsuit involving a Westminster city employee in recent years. Last year, a federal jury awarded a $3.5 million settlement to a three Latino police officers who said they were denied promotion and faced discrimination and retaliation from former police chiefs.

The city also recently settled a suit brought by the owner of a Vietnamese bikini bar involved in a 2013 FBI loan sharking sting, who alleged that a Westminster police officer harassed and threatened her on behalf of a businessman to whom she owed money.

“Corruption, Cronyism and Hostility” at City Hall

According to Wagner, the harassment has been ongoing for several years and the city has been anticipating the lawsuit.

Roberts’ suit claims she made numerous complaints about policies or practices at City Hall, including an annual Mayor’s Ball event sponsored by the city where employees are required to volunteer their time after hours without pay, attempts by council members to change items after a vote, and backroom deals.

But much of Roberts’ complaint centers on Rice’s influence at City Hall and the failure of officials to intervene in her harassment and verbal abuse.

She had voiced concerns that Rice was not reporting all her campaign contributions, participated in a City Council vote that involved a contributor to her campaign, and inappropriately received a car from a dealership that does business with the city, according to the suit.

Rice, who was first elected to the city council in 1994 and has served six terms as mayor, would routinely berate Roberts and call her incompetent and stupid, according to the suit.

When city officials failed to take action, Roberts reported the councilwoman to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

That sparked a July 2014 incident in which Rice confronted Roberts at her desk, yelling at her “with her finger just inches away from her face, telling Roberts that Rice knew someone had reported her to the FPPC and whoever did this wasn’t going to get away with it,” according to a letter from Roberts’ attorney to the city.

“Roberts had, in fact, been in contact with the FPPC concerning allegations of Rice’s receipt of a vehicle, campaign contributions received by Rice and whether there were inappropriate votes or actions taken by Rice in her capacity as a City Councilperson,” the letter continues.

Council members also learned that Roberts regularly informed the FBI and other law enforcement agencies of potentially illegal activity in the city, according to the suit.

Roberts claims that the councilwoman retaliated by having her removed from the running of candidates considered for the position of Administrative Services Director, and removed from her duties as city treasurer, effectively demoting her.

Following Rice’s example, all of Roberts’ co-workers and supervisors completely shunned her, the suit says.

Turnover at City Hall

Roberts has since been replaced by Assistant City Clerk Amanda Jensen, who is acting as city clerk until the city hires a full-time replacement.

Roberts’ complaint alleges that Jensen is “unqualified for the position and wouldn’t recognize” illegal activity.

Morale among city employees has suffered in recent years, with devastating staff cuts and budget constraints placing increasing pressure on employees to do more work for less pay.

The pressure has increased in recent weeks, as budget problems have renewed conversations about additional cuts at City Hall.

In addition to the city clerk, another major department head position is vacant; Administrative Service Director Michael Solorza, who took the job Roberts was vying for, was fired in May after miscalculating the size of the city’s deficit.

The city has since hired a local government finance consultant, Irwin Bornstein, as it searches for a new director.

At a council meeting last month, Councilman Sergio Contreras was not shy about publicly expressing his displeasure with Solorza’s mistake.

“We had a finance director that was, I don’t know, out to lunch and decided he wanted to hide what our true deficit was,” Contreras said. “What kind of preventative measures do we have so that he can’t be the sole gatekeeper for our budget, when he puts on his kabuki show?”

The city council will discuss Roberts’ lawsuit in a closed session on Wednesday.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.