The Laguna Niguel City Council will move ahead with an investigation into claims that Councilman Jerry Slusiewicz, while he was mayor, bullied and intimidated a former city manager even though Slusiewicz resigned last month from the largely ceremonial position of mayor.

Interim Assistant City Manager Debbie Bell said the city has an obligation under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act to investigate the claims against Slusiewicz, or the city could be open to liabilities. The council authorized a $39,000 maximum contract with the Sacramento employment law firm that will handle the investigation, Ellis Buehler Makus LLP.

Title VII prohibits employer discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin or religion.

“Our former city manager — to my knowledge — is a white male of Catholic faith that was born in the United States, which is hardly a test case for the Civil Rights Act,” Slusiewicz, who is white, said during the Sept. 5 council meeting.

Bell said the investigation will “either exonerate council member Slusiewicz or find out what he did. It’s basic American justice, if you will.”

The council originally voted at a July 24 special meeting to hire an outside legal firm to assist City Attorney Terry Dixon investigate five claims against Slusiewicz. The claims were made by a local businesswoman, former City Manager Rod Foster, a local soccer league official, the Laguna Niguel Community Theater director and a claim that Slusiewicz directed public works staff to remove Foster’s name from a Crown Valley Park bridge.

Now the investigation is focusing on Foster’s allegations that Slusiewicz ordered public works staff to remove Foster’s name from the bridge plaque. The investigation also will look at possible interference with a draft audit report and try to determine if Slusiewicz leaked information from the report that may have influenced Foster’s future employment prospects.

The audit found a city tree trimming vendor, West Coast Arborists, was paid $410,000 over its contract without city council approval. Slusiewicz said he added the contract to a city audit after a resident told him the vendor’s truck was seen leaving the then-city manager’s home, even though the company doesn’t normally do residential work.

Councilwoman Elaine Gennawey asked Bell about alternative options to the investigation. Bell said the investigation could be dropped “in conjunction of (Slusiewicz) admitting that the allegations were true.” Bell also said the investigators could work with Slusiewicz on some sort of arrangement that would nullify the investigation, but didn’t offer specifics.

Gennawey, who noted she doesn’t want to spend taxpayer money on the investigation, said the ball is in Slusiewicz’ court.

“I guess it’s in Councilman Slusiewicz’ hands if he would want to comply that way and then we would avoid having to do the investigation and the city would avoid incurring the expense.”

Slusiewicz replied, “we talk about justice in America … We’re all innocent until proven guilty.”

The start of the investigation was postponed until Sept. 15 to give Slusiewicz time to possibly work a deal on “corrective actions” with the firm and avoid the investigation, according to a spokeswoman for the city.

On a separate item at the Sept. 5 meeting, the council authorized a $50,000 increase to the contract, for the Burke, Williams and Sorenson law firm, which brings the total to $75,000. The law firm, which has a Santa Ana office, advised city staff to hire the Ellis firm to do the investigation.

Slusiewicz abstained from voting on both the contract with the investigating law firm and for the contract with the advising law firm because he said the items stem from the July 24 meeting, which he considers a Brown Act violation. The other four council members voted in favor of both.

The rising cost of the investigation irked Slusiewicz, who said the money would be better spent on after school programs or parks.

“I have never heard anything about an offer of corrective action … but I’d be open to hearing anything … to help save $110,000 of taxpayer money,” Slusiewicz said, who maintained the allegations against him are “untrue.”

Meanwhile, Councilman John Mark Jennings, who is an attorney, said it’s better to play it safe in the legal world.

“The reason for entering into such an investigation: if you are in the gray area that get’s into a claim like this, we must err on the side of caution,” Jennings said.

According to the staff report from Bell, there are 28 witnesses who will need to be interviewed throughout the investigation. No timeframe was given for the investigation.

Originally, Slusiewicz was going to be investigated so the council could vote  Aug. 7 on whether to remove him as mayor. That meeting was postponed for a week with no apparent public vote or discussion.

However, Slusiewicz unexpectedly resigned Aug. 14, the same night his fellow council members were to decide on removing him, even though the investigation hadn’t started.

“It seems personal, it really does. It was all about me being the mayor, I stepped down to save the taxpayers from incurring costs for the unnecessary investigation. I did what I was asked the first go-round. Now we’re on another go-round,” Slusiewicz told his colleagues on the dais.

The July 24 vote spurred confusion about who was hired to do what. Foster signed a contract with the law firm Burke, Williams & Sorenson for $25,000, the maximum the city manager can authorize without council approval, on July 17, a week before the council voted at the July Special meeting. The contract is for unspecific “general municipal law advice.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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