Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray might have violated the city's charter when she pressured city staff regarding a permit for her company's employee barbeque.
The charter's "non-interference" clause expressly forbids City Council members to contact any staff other than the city manager except to make inquiries. Violations are misdemeanors punishable by jail, fines or both, according to the charter.
"Except for the purpose of inquiry, the City Council and its members shall deal with the administrative service under the jurisdiction of the city manager solely through the city manager," the charter reads.
As Voice of OC reported Wednesday, Murray sent emails to Fire Department Chief Randy Bruegman complaining that the process to obtain a permit for her company's barbeque was overly demanding.
Murray's company — Willdan Group — ultimately received the permit after she complained and repeatedly requested to speak to the staffer handling her company's request.
"This is seeming very onerous for an open tent permit in a private parking structure," Murray wrote to Bruegman. "This is an employee BBQ for a couple of hours. I don't get it?"
Murray, senior vice president at Willdan, wrote in an email to Voice of OC that she was simply inquiring about the permit process.
"I was merely asking the Chief for information about the process, and specifically did not ask for his assistance to resolve the matter. The department did not take any steps to intervene in this matter on behalf of my company — it was ultimately a miscommunication between the private events company that was handling the matter," Murray wrote.
Yet the email chain shows that Murray was contacting staff to expedite the permit her company was seeking.
"According to our vendor, they have never run into this level of data request for other events in Anaheim or in any other city," Murray wrote in an email to Bruegman, referring to the rental company providing the tent for the barbeque.
Later in the email she wrote: "Our event is next week so time is short."
A number of good-government experts say that non-interference clauses are a basic tenant of the council-manager form of government and are written specifically to protect staffers from overzealous elected officials.
"They [elected officials] might not be advocating for the entire community," said Michele Frisby, director of public information at the Washington-based International City/County Management Association. "This [Murray's contact] is a prime example of that."
The council-manager form of government was introduced just after the turn of the 20th century as part of a reform movement to clean up corruption at city halls and make bureaucracies more competent, said Mike McGrath, chief information officer at the Colorado-based National Civic League and editor of the National Civic Review.
"It's not just a question of corruption but also a question of professionalism," McGrath said.
The experts said elected officials typically don't have the knowledge or experience to make department-level decisions, and they may be tempted to micromanage on behalf of friends and political benefactors.
This is the reason, they said, that under the council-manager structure the city council sets broad policy, allowing staffers to make decisions free from political influences.
According to an article for the Santa Clara University Markkula Center For Applied Ethics by Senior Fellow Judy Nadler, city council members who pressure city staff are acting unethically and, in most cities, breaking laws.
"These relationships also raise ethical issues when elected officials try to circumvent established procedures and priorities to gain an advantage for their friends, family, or constituents. Going over the head of the city manager to pressure a staff member for special consideration is actually illegal," Nadler wrote.
Sources inside Anaheim City Hall said they have witnessed several examples of council members using their influence to obtain building permits and other special actions for politically connected firms and individuals. After a council member intervenes, sources said, the request is outsourced to a private contractor to push it through.
In Murray's case, Willdan officials wanted to throw an open-tent barbeque April 12 on the roof of a parking structure at Willdan's corporate headquarters on Katella Avenue, according to the emails.
City officials wanted structural engineering data to make sure the parking structure could hold the weight of the attendees before issuing the permit, according to the emails.
Murray's intervention proved successful. The emails show that Fire Marshal Jeff Lutz contacted Scott Fazekas, who was head of the building division at the time.
Fazekas replied in an email that according to data provided by Willdan, the structure would be able to hold the weight. Lutz then wrote to another staffer that he is OK with issuing the permit without the additional data requested from Willdan, according to the emails.
"However, I would like to continue to press Willdan for the additional live load calcs [calculations] prior to the event on the 12th just as a precaution and to stay consistent with practice," Lutz wrote.
In an interview, Lutz said he couldn't recall whether Willdan ultimately produced the structural engineering report city staffers had been asking for. However, he denied that he granted Willdan any special favor because it was a firm employing Murray.
"Ultimately we felt comfortable enough to issue the permit," Lutz said.