Upland City Council Slates Censure Of One Of Its Members For Next Week

The bad blood between Upland City Councilwoman Janice Elliott and her council colleagues which evolved last year out of her unwillingness to fully endorse the closure of the city’s municipal fire department and the annexation of the entirety of Upland City Limits into a county fire service assessment zone has not abated.
Next week, at a meeting to be held Tuesday rather than on Monday because of the Memorial Day Holiday, the council will consider a resolution censuring her for what some members of the council consider to be conduct unbecoming an elected official in the City of Gracious Living.
The resolution itself reads like a charge sheet, dwelling in some detail with regard to certain accusations against the councilwoman. The resolution pulls up short in relation to other accusations enumerated, however, omitting details with regard to some controversial issues that remain problematic for the city.
According to the resolution, “The city council has determined that Council Member Janice Elliott has engaged in conduct which has brought embarrassment and discredit to the city council and improperly publicly disclosed confidential documents and information.” It further states that Elliott “breached the trust and confidence of the other city council members through public disclosures of confidential and privileged council communications.”
Moreover, according to the resolution, Elliot “improperly exceeded the scope of her authority and duties as a council member by interfering with city staff and management in daily personnel and operational matters and improperly and secretly engaged in communications and settlement negotiations with litigants suing the city without having the advance knowledge or consent of the city, potentially disclosing or prejudicing the city’s litigation confidentiality and strategy.”
Part of the resolution dwells on Elliott’s participation on social media sites, in particular one known as “Upland Uncensored,” a wide-ranging free-for-all in which topics and information germane to Upland, its residents, businesses, institutions and officials are bandied about in a forum that is raucous and often ill-tempered, and facts, conjecture, rumor and inaccuracy are circulated unfiltered, with each posting embodying the personality of its originator, and those offering a perspective from one side or another being skewered and insulted with equal abandon by those offering a different perspective, often in the most meanspirited of tones.
The resolution further takes Elliott to task for “repeatedly speaking publicly about discussions held in closed session, and commenting publicly in a manner that is detrimental to the city’s position in pending litigation only two weeks after agreeing not to discuss or comment on any such litigation” together with “improperly disclosing confidential information regarding a performance of a city employee.”
The resolution cites examples of Elliott having had direct contact with city employees rather than working to influence city policy by direction given to the city manager through a vote of the full council.
The resolution takes issue with Elliott having identified herself as an Upland City Council member when she communicated with Rancho Cucamonga city officials and encouraged them to avoid entirely or severely limit development in or around an existing natural wildlife preserve so that habitat for threatened or endangered species is kept intact. The resolution says this amounted to Elliott “misusing her position as a city council member.”
The resolution and the staff report accompanying it, to say nothing of the general atmosphere in the city during public events associated with City Hall and at city council meetings, indicates Eliott’s council colleagues’ distaste for her. It was not originally so.
Elliott, who was first elected in November 2016 in a neck-and-neck seesaw race against second place finisher and establishment-backed candidate Sid Robinson, at her first council meeting as an elected official was a party to the motion to have Robinson, as the second place finisher in the just-concluded contest, appointed to fill the gap on the city council created when Councilwoman Debbie Stone, in the middle of her second elected term on the council, was elected mayor in the same November 2016 balloting. Already afoot when Elliott came into office was the cash-strapped city’s effort to shutter its 110-year-old fire department and replace it with firefighters with the San Bernardino County Fire Division. That ploy involved annexing the city into a county fire service zone, thereby imposing on all of the city’s property owners a $156 per year per parcel assessment, the upshot of which was that the city was able to generate some $3.5 million in revenue without having to get prior approval from the city’s residents for that tax. Elliott in December 2016, then again in January and February 2017, fell in line with her council colleagues and senior city staff in supporting the municipal fire department closure and annexation, as it was packaged and presented to the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, the government entity that processes annexation applications. In March 2017, however, as more and more residents began to rally against and actively oppose the fire department closure/county service zone annexation, Elliott sought to indulge that protest. Other city officials, feeling it imperative that City Hall stand united in pushing the annexation through, sought, at first somewhat gently and then more firmly, to dissuade Elliott from giving opponents to the city’s action a platform or mouthpiece from which to invite or incite further opposition. When Elliot proved unwilling to ignore the protest against the annexation and rather pushed for a more robust debate on the issue, her four-month honeymoon with her council colleagues came to an end. The souring of the relationship was steep and pronounced. As then-acting city manager Martin Thouvenell sought to preserve the public perception that City Hall stood as a monolith in favor of the annexation, Elliott grew to perceive the efforts to silence her and discredit her, as well as moves to squelch debate and discussion on issues of public import, to be illegitimate. When a document titled “In-House Policy of the Upland City Council” setting forth what was essentially a secret code of conduct for the council members was proffered by councilwoman Carol Timm for consideration by the council during a closed session, Elliott, unlike her four colleagues, did not sign it as she was called upon to do, but had the presence of mind to photograph it with her cell phone after it had been signed by the others. Sensing that the presentation of a behavior code for the council fell outside the subject matter of what is permissible for discussion during a closed session – legitimate issues for such discussions being potential, contemplated, pending or ongoing litigation, information or negotiations relating to real estate transactions, labor negotiations and employee hiring, firing or discipline – Elliott approached the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office to report what she thought was conceivably a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law. Ultimately, the district attorney’s office closed out the matter with an agreement not to prosecute the council members after Upland City Attorney James Markman, faced with the proof of the Brown Act violation in the form of the photograph of the In-House Policy document taken by Elliott, without admitting guilt on the part of his clients acknowledged the violation. Markman committed to prevent any further violations from taking place in the future. The city council, embarrassed over what had occurred and angry with Elliott, in June 2017 moved to strip her of the adjunct board and committee assignments she had been given as a council member, consisting of her role as the alternate Upland representative on the Inland Empire Utility Agency; Upland’s representative on the San Bernardino County Interagency Council on Homelessness; and member of the City of Upland Investments Committee.
Since that time, relations between Elliott and other city officials have remained testy. Simultaneously, with the imposition of the fire district annexation and its accompanying assessments, there has been growing dissatisfaction among residents with the direction of City Hall. Many of those on the outs with the current political establishment in Upland have come to see Elliott as the champion of their various causes. There have been no changes on the city council since last year, and Interim City Manager Martin Thouvenell’s administration of city business has given way to Bill Manis, who was hired into the city manager’s spot earlier this year. Manis and Assistant City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi are attuned to the prerogatives and imperatives of the council majority. With regard to virtually every issue that has come before the city over which Elliott has expressed a substantive difference with her fellow and sister councilors, she has not prevailed. It is common for motions Elliott makes during the course of public council discussions to die from lack of a second. Still the same, as the November elections approach, there is a perception, perhaps mistaken or overblown, that the city council majority in Upland, for all of its seeming absolute power in effectuating governance currently, is out of step with a substantial portion of the city’s population. A central element of that perception is the city’s seeming intolerance for dissent. Mayor Debbie Stone has increasingly made use of her control of the power switch to the public speaker’s podium microphone, cutting off members of the public addressing the council during council meeting in mid-sentence whenever it is her perception that the speaker is broaching, or is on the verge of broaching, a subject of sensitivity to the council or one that is otherwise problematic. This is reflected in some of the language used to repudiate Elliott in the censure resolution, such that the resolution in places comes across as a polemic rather than a straightforward recitation of facts.
“The council wishes it known that this public censure does not arise out of any good faith disagreement by or with Council Member Elliott on any matter, as good faith disagreement and debate are expected, encouraged and welcome,” the resolution states.
It is Elliott, according to the resolution, who is creating an atmosphere in which the free expression of ideas cannot be maintained.
Elliott’s comportment, the resolution says, “has caused all other council members to lose confidence in their ability to speak candidly with Council Member Elliott in both open and closed session, thus impairing the council from engaging in candid discussion and debate on pending matters.”
Elliott told the Sentinel, “These allegations are untrue and/or mischaracterizations of the truth. I have not meshed well with the council’s culture of secrecy and for this reason, I am the target of their political power. I was elected to do a job and this council has done everything in its power to prevent me from doing this. I have nothing to hide.”
Elliott said, “I would like to clarify the reasons I filed a protest statement on the fire service annexation and publicly stated so: I assumed that when residents received their public hearing notice, there would be a form attached that they could complete and submit. I was horrified when the notification came as a tri-fold, stapled form with the Local Agency Formation Commission’s return address. It looked like junk mail that most people recycle upon receipt. When I investigated the protest procedure, I discovered that it was not user friendly; required a computer, the ability to locate the correct case number on the Local Agency Formation Commission’s website, and required the parcel number of the property or the recipient’s name exactly as it appears on your ballot at election time. I thought the process was undemocratic and contrary to Proposition 13 intentions.”
Elliott continued, “At the Local Agency Formation Commission hearing in San Bernardino, I was told by Martin Thouvenell that the fire fees would not be increased after the annexation but that the county projected an increase in revenues because of increased compliance measures. When confronted with evidence that this would not be the case, Martin Thouvenell said he would work something out with the county. I did not believe him.
So although I supported the opportunity to lower the future pension costs and lower disability claims, I felt that the citizens should have the right to vote on this. Those are the reasons why I filed a protest form against the annexation of Upland’s fire services.”
Elliott said, “I have retained the services of an attorney, Thomas D. Allison, who is completely devoted to seeing my rights defended. Thomas is an experienced trial attorney with training and education in public administration and policy. It is my intent to defend myself against these accusations and continue to do the job I was elected to do.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply