Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is being asked to look into the questionable 2016 sale of park land in Westminster to a nearby property owner – a deal deemed “highly irregular” last year by the city’s public attorney, one whose own firm is listed on records as overseeing it.
Much of the investigation will inevitably center on the taxpayer-contracted lawyers who were present for and seemingly approved of Westminster’s sale of Liberty Park space that year, despite being one of Orange County’s most park-poor areas.
Specifically, that focus has fallen directly on City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen and former City Attorney Dick Jones, who Bettenhausen worked for at the time of the park sale.
Last October, Bettenhausen called the sale “highly irregular” and “very problematic” when revisited by council members in a tense debate.
This week, Bettenhausen is listed for a performance review by his elected City Council bosses behind closed doors at this Wednesday’s upcoming meeting, according to the agenda – listed the third time since November last year, just after the park sale controversy erupted.
Jones’ legal advice has also been criticized in retrospect by some officials amongst the handful of Orange County cities who contract with his law firm, Jones & Mayer, over the years.
For example, when the City of Fullerton last year backed away from its lawsuit against local bloggers for publishing police misconduct records, Mayor Bruce Whitaker criticized legal advice the city received from Jones on the matter.
Westminster is another such city that contracts with the firm, and for an hourly rate of $238 per attorney, per the city’s most recent 2018 agreement with the firm which lists Bettenhausen as a partner.
”That’s something that I’ve been mulling over as far as, is it time to look for a new city attorney firm to represent us?” said Westminster Councilmember Carlos Manzo in a Monday interview.
“It’s nothing personal. I really like Christian. I didn’t really get to work with Dick because he was gone when I showed up,” Manzo said. “Personally, I like Christian. Professionally, there have been things that don’t look very good for us. It’s something we might have to look into.”
Reached for comment, Jones offered brief remarks about the Liberty Park sale in a Monday phone call, saying he’s “aware” of the current probe and that “we’ll just have to see how it unfolds.”
He declined to comment on his law firm’s track record for municipal attorney services in Orange County.
In the past, Jones’ efforts to secure a city pension as a contract city attorney also drew considerable attention, including from CalPers.
Westminster City Manager Christine Cordon, in a written response to questions Monday, said it would be “premature” to comment on the scrutiny over Jones & Mayer and its lawyers’ handling of the park land sale, as it’s still under investigation.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office has acknowledged a formal request by the city that it investigate the sale.
“We’re aware of the situation and are coordinating with the City Attorney of Westminster,” wrote District Attorney spokesperson Kimberly Edds in a Monday text message response to questions.
Meanwhile, a private investigation by City Hall is still underway, said Cordon, adding it’s unclear when that inquiry will wrap.
“There is currently a private investigation underway, and Mr. Bettenhausen is not involved with the investigative process in any way. Any correspondence or communication with the investigator is being solely handled through the City Manager’s office,” Cordon said.
Per the council’s direction, the city formally requested an investigation through an Oct. 29 letter to the District Attorney’s office.
“A majority of the council is concerned about the conduct of certain elected officials regarding this transaction. They believe there may have been violations of state law,” it reads.
That’s now being criticized as a “devious waste of time” by Mayor Tri Ta, speaking to Voice of OC in a written response to questions Monday. He’s the dais’ only remaining council member present for the 2016 Liberty Park vote.
Ta actually voted in October for the motion that called on city officials to reach out to the District Attorney for a review.
Yet now, Ta seems to be against any outside review of the sale.
“The city attorney and staff can handle this matter internally and there’s no need to go outside because there’s nothing indicating any wrongdoing by any of the elected officials to begin with,” Ta said.
Asked why he voted for it then, Ta responded in a follow-up email, “Let me clarify that my opinion has not changed. I still believe that the investigation is a waste of time. However, if my colleague wishes to proceed, I honor it.”
He declined to comment on Bettenhausen’s and Jones’ roles in the sale.
To City Hall watchdogs like Terry Rains, Jones’ firm should be held liable in the event of a lawsuit.
She notes the City Attorney’s office is responsible for making sure the city and its leaders follow the law on all matters, and that the residents – the taxpayers – should not be on the hook for officials’ mistakes.
“They may not be the only people liable, but they (the City Attorney’s office) are at the top of the list,” Rains said.
Throughout the county, the city attorney’s office factors greatly into municipal policymaking and can even decide the fate of certain issues with make-or-break legal opinions.
The city attorney can also affect the power balance in places like Huntington Beach, where the office is elected, rather than hired by the City Council – setting the stage for issues like political fighting between the two entities that has created somewhat of a legal conundrum.
Despite her criticism of the City Attorney’s office, Rains questions the idea of looking to contract with a legal firm elsewhere.
“I don’t think now is the time to change firms. I do think now is the time to commit in writing to do better,” Rains said.
Westminster Councilmember Kimberly Ho in a Monday interview said it’s been made “clear” to her that Bettenhausen won’t have a part in handling the investigation’s “after that initial letter.”
“We do want to give it a very thorough investigation and make sure nothing like this happens again and make sure we do the due diligence it takes to get governmental bodies involved and look thoroughly into this,” Ho said. “We cannot brush it aside.”
Despite Bettenhausen being present for the 2016 vote, the current council’s first public discussions revisiting the sale during one October meeting prompted Bettenhausen to publicly describe it as “highly irregular” and “very problematic,” adding that “we should look into it.”
That year, the Liberty Park sale appeared under the consent calendar portion of the meeting’s agenda – a section reserved for non-controversial topics and procedural city business.
“We assumed the item was vetted by the city attorney’s office,” Ta said during the October meeting.
Public land must beforehand typically go through a number of legal steps to be qualified for sale by a city, under state law.
Rains, Ho, and Manzo also voiced interest in having the Orange County Grand Jury take a look.
“We have to wait and see how the investigation plays out,” Rains said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
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