Laguna Niguel Investigates Complaints Against Mayor And How To Possibly Remove Him

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Laguna Niguel Mayor Jerry Slusiewicz.

The Laguna Niguel City Attorney will investigate a list of complaints and alleged municipal code violations against Mayor Jerry Slusiewicz and explore how to remove the mayor from office, a first for the south Orange County city.

“It’s a witch hunt,” Slusiewicz said during his opening comments on Monday night’s special meeting. “It’s a massive squandering of taxpayer resources.”

The City Council voted 4-1 Monday night to authorize City Attorney Terry Dixon to begin fact-finding on the alleged violations and complaints and come back Aug. 7 with his findings and a process for removing a mayor from office. Slusiewicz voted no.

“I believe it’s a conflict of interest for the Mayor to run this meeting,” Councilwoman Laurie Davies said during opening remarks.

“I’m here to run the meeting,” Slusiewicz shot back. “I’m the Mayor,”

Laguna Niguel, like many OC cities, is a council-manager form of local government. That means the mayor is appointed by the council and steers the council meetings and can place items on the agenda. However, the mayor can’t act on behalf of the City Council — the council has to vote on such directions.

Furthermore, city code prohibits any council member — including the mayor — from bypassing the city manager and giving direct orders to staff.

Since it’s incorporation in 1989, Laguna Niguel has never had a process to remove a mayor.

“In our 28 year history, we’ve never had to consider removing a city mayor. I don’t know, once we have all the information, if that’s something we want to do,” said Councilwoman Elaine Gennawey, adding the city should have already had a policy on how to remove a mayor.

Among the allegations is that Slusiewicz violated the city code by telling Public Works Director Nasser Abbasazadeh to remove the names of just-retired City Manager Rod Foster and former Assistant City Manager Dan Fox from a plaque on a bridge.

Foster retired Monday and Fox left Laguna Niguel for Diamond Bar last month — both due to Slusiewicz, according to a June 8 email from Foster to the City Council and city attorney.

While Slusiewicz didn’t address all of the accusations against him, he did say he was within his rights when he instructed their names be taken down.

“Acting within the scope of my duties as a mayor, that is exactly what I did. Have I bruised some feelings over the past six months? Perhaps. Since when was carrying out my duties as mayor grounds for removal by my colleagues?” Slusiewicz said about removing Foster’s and Fox’s names from the plaque.

Although Dixon didn’t say if Slusiewicz violated city code order or not, he summed up the allegations against Slusiewicz.

“What it really comes down to, to a great extent, is allegations of bullying … by Mayor Slusiewicz,” Dixon said.

“There’s always more than one version of reality,” Slusiewicz said.

Slusiewicz, in a phone interview Sunday, said the allegations surfaced once he started bringing to light possible code violations in a draft financial audit that indicate there are inconsistencies in spending limits within city staff. He also said he has more than 10 years of financial auditing experience, including time on state Sen. John Moorlach’s advisory committee and the city’s investment, banking and audit committee.

“My duty remains solely to the Laguna Niguel taxpayers, if the price of honoring my commitment to the taxpayers costs me the title of mayor, so be it,” Slusiewicz said Tuesday night.

“The audit is a concern of all of us, but the audit is incomplete,” Gennawey said. “I don’t want anyone to think that we are minimizing the audit or any review of the audit.”

Gennawey called on the city attorney to review the audit once it’s complete to make sure it wasn’t interfered with.

However, Finance Director Steve Erlandson said although the draft audit came out in late June, it wasn’t until July 12 that he and Dixon received a copy because of interference from Slusiewicz.

Dixon said Sluciewicz wouldn’t provide a copy of the draft audit and he tried calling the audit firm, but was told they couldn’t provide him with it due to Sluciewicz’ orders.

“That was the first time as city attorney that I was denied that document,” Dixon said, adding he had to “basically, in my opinion, force you to provide me with that draft audit.”

Laguna Niguel has been considered a leader in financial auditing because the mayor and mayor pro tem are permitted to direct the auditing firm to look at areas they instruct, which adds layers of transparency and surprise to the audit that make it harder for staff to hide finances, according to an article published by the OC Register last year.

Others on the council claimed Slusiewicz was sidestepping the real issues at hand by constantly referring back to the audit.

“It sounds like, to me, that you’re using this audit to defer your responsibilities and your behavior how you acted as mayor. And it never has come up yet. You keep talking about the audit,” Davies told Slusiewicz. “It’s your behavior … that’s the bottom line.”

“I support there being a special meeting for one purpose and that is to get out the complaints that were presented to us,” Councilman John Mark Jennings said, reminding residents the meeting wasn’t about the audit. “That’s something I can’t take lightly and you don’t want me to take that lightly.”

Additionally, Slusiewicz allegedly tried to use his city standing to get his daughter a part in a Laguna Niguel Community Theatre play, according to a June 5 email from theatre director Jeremy Golden.

“For the next 26 minutes he yelled at me, stating that he did a favor for me by supporting our fee waivers and allowing us to use city space for our productions and that I had failed to return the favor by granting his daughter a part in the play,” Golden wrote in the letter to Dixon.

Meanwhile, Slusiewicz called on the council to immediately send the draft audit to the District Attorney’s office.

“I don’t want the fox watching the henhouse,” Slusiewicz said.

“At this juncture, to turn over any documents to any other entities, is a little premature,” Mayor Pro Tem Fred Minagar said about turning over the audit, reminding Slusiewicz it wasn’t finalized yet.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at spencercustodio@gmail.com.