The Laguna Niguel City Council will decide Monday on removing the largely ceremonial title of Mayor from Councilman Jerry Slusiewicz, even though the council won’t have its investigative report on the bullying claims against him.
At its July 24 special meeting, the council decided to hire an outside attorney to investigate claims that Slusiewicz used his city office to try to influence a business owner and a local theater. Former City Manager Rod Foster also alleged Slusiewicz tried to intimidate him over a $410,000 overpayment on a city tree trimming contract.
The city hasn’t examined the overpayment yet, although it is part of a financial audit that hasn’t been released to the council or the public. City staff said it isn’t ready for release.
On Friday afternoon, Laguna Niguel’s Community Engagement Manager Calina North said the city hasn’t hired an investigator yet for either the tree trimming contract or the bullying claims and there is no report ready for Monday.
Foster’s claim also is not in the staff report for Monday’s meeting.
The Monday agenda includes a resolution that establishes a procedure to remove the mayor and mayor pro tem and a separate resolution to remove Slusiewicz from office. Claims against Slusiewicz sent via email also are included.
In an Aug. 11 letter to the city attorney’s office obtained by Voice of OC, lawyer Russel Myrick, alleges the city has violated the Brown Act multiple times over the last two months because Foster hired a law firm to investigate claims against Slusiewicz before the council voted on it. The Brown Act requires city councils and county supervisors to conduct business in public.
Voice of OC obtained a copy of the $25,000 contract — the maximum amount a Laguna Niguel department head can sign without council approval — between the city and the law firm Burke, Williams & Sorenson that was signed July 17 by Foster, nine days before the July special council meeting. The contract is for unspecific “general municipal law advice and litigation.”
North, in a Sunday email, said the council on July 24 didn’t vote to hire the Burke law firm and acknowledged the attorney group was hired July 17 for “professional services,” but offered no further explanation.
Myrick’s letter also alleges “Additionally, at the July 24 meeting a vote was held to conduct a meeting on Aug. 7 with two agenda items: (1) the findings of the law firm regarding the process for removing a mayor and mayor pro tem and (2) the findings of the investigation into the Mayor. As you are aware, no meeting was held on August 7. That the meeting was canceled and/or continued without public notice or input suggests yet another decision was made behind closed doors and in violation of the Brown Act,”
In a telephone interview Sunday, Councilman John Mark Jennings said the claims in Myrick’s letter need to be examined.
“It’s (the letter) only just been received. I understand that it alleged the violation of the Brown Act. I’m not aware of any such thing,” Jennings said, who is a business litigation attorney. “I think we need to make a prudent response to that.”
Furthermore, the Orange County Register ran an op-ed by Slusiewicz Sunday, where he said the city should be investigating Foster and the overpaid tree trimming contract.
“Instead, my colleagues called for a July 24 special meeting and voted to squander taxpayer money investigating whether I was a bully during the audit process. I seemingly asked the right questions, but in the wrong tone,” Slusiewicz wrote in the Register.
“In a strange twist, certain council members and the city attorney, in an apparent Brown Act violation, quietly canceled the Aug. 7 meeting. I’m informed that, as of the middle of last week, the investigation has not commenced — there have been zero findings,” Slusiewicz wrote.
The July 24 staff report and agenda also scheduled the meeting Aug. 7.
“The City Council authorizes and directs the City Attorney to report on the status of the matters set forth in this report at a special meeting to be held on or before August 7, 2017,” reads the agenda.
Despite the July 24 agenda and staff report, Councilwoman Elaine Gennawey said Aug. 7 was a “suggested date.”
“August 7 was a suggested date, but a meeting was NOT scheduled for August 7, so anything about a public vote to change the meeting is misleading. A Special City Council Meeting, which requires only 24 hours notice, is scheduled for August 14. When a Special City Council Meeting is scheduled it is publicly noticed on the City website,” Gennawey wrote in an Aug. 8 email to Voice of OC.
If the council decides to remove the Mayor title from Slusiewicz, he will still serve out the rest of his four-year term, which expires in 2020.
Laguna Niguel, like many Orange County cities, is a council-manager form of government. That means the mayor is appointed by the council, 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.
The special City Council meeting is at 7 p.m. at Laguna Niguel city hall.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.