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While Costa Mesa City Clerk Julie Folcik is officially taking the fall for the city missing the deadline to put a charter proposal on the June ballot, residents and one member of the City Council are saying she is being made a scapegoat.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Franz Miller denied a request by the city to have the charter put on the ballot despite the missed deadline. On Wednesday, the city placed Folcik on administrative leave and opened an investigation into her role in the matter.
Court filings and interviews, however, show that while Folcik was ultimately responsible for the filing, other officials — most notably City Attorney Tom Duarte — were closely monitoring the submission of at least some of the election paperwork.
The missed deadline has been a major setback for the City Council majority, which had fast tracked approval of the controversial charter proposal despite pleas from residents to slow the process and hold more community meetings.
Costa Mesa’s own lawyers declared in court papers that the error was an “inadvertent mistake” by Folcik brought on by a misunderstanding of the legal deadline and a “good faith belief” she was filing all of the documents on time.
“The delay in filing was both a product of Petitioner’s good faith belief concerning the timing for such measures and was only one business day,” wrote attorney Richard Grabowski of the law firm Jones Day in a March 14 filing.
Additionally, Duarte went to the clerk’s office regularly in the hours before the deadline, according to former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis and activist Robin Leffler, who were in City Hall at the time.
Genis said Folcik was under an unusual amount of pressure as the deadline approached.
“Normally she’s so organized and on top of things and sure of herself,” said Genis. The former mayor said city management had pushed back the deadline for other election paperwork — the ballot arguments — by a day. Folcik “just seemed really stressed,” Genis said.
Genis said she saw Duarte in the clerk’s office for “an extended period” between 3 and 4 p.m. And Leffler said “Duarte was down there checking on everything” after around 4:15 p.m. The deadline was 5 p.m.
The city hasn’t publicly placed any responsibility for the mishap on Duarte. City spokesman Bill Lobdell confirmed that the city attorney is not under investigation.
Katrina Foley, a former city councilwoman who opposes the proposed charter, says responsibility should be shared in this situation.
“I think that the city attorney is just as culpable for this missed deadline, because he should have been managing this process better,” said Foley. “They were sending mixed signals about the deadline to different people.”
Folcik has served as Costa Mesa’s city clerk for six years and receives high praise from many city observers. She declined comment for this article.
“Julie has always been very professional in all her duties as the city clerk,” said Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the only member of the council to oppose the proposed city charter.
Duarte didn’t return phone messages seeking comment. Lobdell didn’t dispute that Duarte was overseeing the submission process or that Folcik’s office has faced a greatly increased workload recently. He did say the clerk’s office added a staff member.
Lobdell also declined to say whether Duarte was informed before the deadline of the clerk’s intention to wait. “I can’t talk about any of that stuff,” he said.
Leece says that while Folcik did make a mistake, an investigation is pointless.
“It’s scapegoating, it’s deflecting, it’s distracting. It’s really casting aspersions on a great city clerk, who has performed excellently,” said Leece. “We all make mistakes, but for the grace of God go I.”
Much of the confusion was apparently the result of the city giving an erroneous deadline to charter opponents and later changing it.
The city incorrectly told charter opponents that ballot arguments were due on March 8 so they could be turned in to the county elections office the following day, according to Genis. When she asked that Duarte and city CEO Tom Hatch affirm that in writing, Genis said, the city then corrected the deadline to March 9.
County election officials extended the March 9 ballot arguments deadline to the following Monday, March 12, according to the city, leading Folcik to mistakenly think the deadline for the consolidation paperwork was also pushed back.
Lobdell didn’t immediately respond Thursday when asked whether he disputes Genis’ account of the city’s incorrect information on ballot argument deadlines.