The following is a story by the Foothills Sentry newspaper, a Voice of OC media partner covering Orange, Villa Park, Orange Park Acres, Anaheim Hills, North Tustin, Silverado Canyon, and Modjeska Canyon.
This story was published in the Sentry’s January 2016 edition.
The revelation that Villa Park Mayor Diana Fascenelli was delinquent on medical insurance premiums paid through the city to CalPERS, the state-run carrier, has exposed the underlying vitriol between two city council “factions,” and a former city council member.
Although Fascenelli made good on the $4,689 in back premiums, paid a $1,700 late fee, and issued numerous public apologies, the issue has dominated the last three Villa Park council meetings. Finance Director Michelle Danaher and City Manager Jarad Hildenbrand have assured both the council and residents that the late payments had no fiscal impact on the city. It has been further noted that several former city officials who take advantage of the CalPERS insurance cover age have also been late, with no attendant outrage.
The problem with the city’s insurance payment policy is that it has no policy. Villa Park pays the premiums to CalPERS, and officials covered by that plan reimburse the city. Whether those reimbursements are “late” is not clear, because invoices sent to covered past and present council members have no due date. The city admits that a policy is needed and is prepared to create one.
Can’t say enough
Plans to address the issue at the Dec. 15 council meeting were stalled due to “a lack of response from CalPERS.” Finance Director Danaher reported that the subject will be addressed at the January meeting. Although the payment policy was deferred, public speakers hammered on the mayor’s “financial malfeasance” and helped turn what should have been a simple government meeting into a six-hour marathon of charges and counter charges. Anger over Fascenelli’s delinquency swelled to include purported late payments by City Councilmen Rick Barnett and Greg Mills. Neither had received any overdue notices.
Fascenelli’s defense was offered up by her husband Fred. He was unable to stay for the meeting, but introduced a five-minute (the amount of time Villa Park allots each public speaker) video into the public record. Because his public speaker card was the first submitted, the mayor called him first, which incited an incendiary response from the audience who questioned the appropriateness of the call. Fred Fascenelli’s video suggested that his wife’s payment history was being blown out of proportion by a “cabal” consisting of Councilmen Bill Nelson, Bob Collacott and former Councilwoman Deborah Pauly. He illustrated their relationship by producing correspondence indicating Collacott drafted a letter for Pauly explaining her recent DUI. The letter was, according to documents, subsequently edited by a city clerk before Pauly emailed it to friends and supporters.
Fraud, distaste and misuse
The video also addressed a fraudulent letter written under the signature of the city finance director and mailed to the district attorney by Bill Nelson. The letter addressed to the mayor, advised her of her late insurance payments. Danaher says that she neither wrote nor signed that letter.
Although the video was interrupted by loud complaints from the audience, the mayor insisted it be played in its entirety. On tape, Fred Fascenelli compared what the previous actions of Pauly had cost the city with that of his wife’s “malfeasance.” He noted that when Pauly had made public anti-Muslim remarks back in 2011, the city paid $14,000 to increase security at council meetings. In contrast, he said, the mayor’s late insurance payments cost the city nothing.
When it was her turn to make public comments, Pauly called the video “kabuki theater” saying it was created as a diversion from mayor “Fascist-nelli’s” financial wrongdoing.
After repeated “mea culpas,” Mayor Fascenelli introduced another agendized item, “Inappropriate Code of Conduct of Councilmembers.” She cited a sequence of “disconcerting events” wherein she noted mail was missing from her city inbox; the city finance director inexplicably apologized for an unauthorized letter sent under her signature; the district attorney phoned the city manager to discuss a complaint received concerning Fascenelli’s late payments. She subsequently learned that the complaint to the district attorney, accompanied by a copy of the fraudulent letter, was filed by Nelson in June 2015. Fascenelli alleged that Nelson “failed in his duty to the city” by not reporting any suspected illegal activity to the city council, to the city manager, and/or to the city attorney, and waiting four months (June to October) to act. Nelson rebutted that he could “report to whoever he wanted.”
Changing of the guard
The final agenda item — the election of mayor and mayor pro tem — surfaced after midnight. Greg Mills was unanimously elected mayor for 2016. Collacott nominated Nelson for mayor pro tem; Fascenelli nominated Rick Barnett. The Nelson nomination failed, 2-3. Barnett passed, 3-2, after a long, silent deliberation by the nominee. Barnett reported that he was not voting for himself but voting “against everyone.” He said he will be a mayoral “placeholder,’’ as it would be “unlikely I will be back” to serve as mayor after his term ends this year. He cited the council’s divisiveness, bickering and dissention as his reason for not wanting to return.
Distressed by his failure to be named mayor pro tem, Nelson reminded the others that he and Bob Collacott “received more votes than anyone in the last election.” He also pointed out that some council members had “not been elected.” Barnett, Mills and Fascenelli had run unopposed for three seats in 2012; with the outcome predetermined, the then-council chose not to hold an election but appoint the three candidates running for three seats.
Rick Barnett cast a final jab, reiterating his disappointment with the politics, and noting Collacott’s lack of independence. He told Nelson that, “Bob votes what you vote.” And the perception among some council members is that those votes lead back to Deborah Pauly, who, as a councilmember, was often criticized for being divisive and disruptive.
It is now up to Mayor Greg Mills to restore order to future council meetings.