By Mark Gutglueck
A power play with overtones extending to the 2020 election cycle played out in Grand Terrace this week, ultimately failing and perhaps strengthening rather than weakening the two potential challengers of the city’s current political status quo the move was intended against.
Jeffrey McConnell and Jeremy Briggs are the two newest members of the Grand Terrace Planning Commission. Last week, Councilman Jeff Allen and Mayor Darcy McNaboe, respectively, working with City Manager G. Harold Duffey, placed items on the Tuesday night, December 10 agenda which called for the consideration of the removal of each.
As noted in the agenda, no cause for the removal of either was cited.
The Grand Terrace Municipal Code and state law does provide that a planning commissioner serves at the pleasure of the governing panel of the city or county wherein the commissioner serves and that the governing panel has the ability to make such a removal without citing cause. Those provisions exist primarily to allow, in the case of the Grand Terrace City Code the city council and in the case of state law any local governing board, autonomy to act and prevent an appointed official from claiming an entitlement to a position to which he or she has not been granted an electoral mandate, as well as to avoid the need for publicly slighting the commissioners. In general practice, most governing boards – city or town councils and county boards of supervisors – offer some level of justifications of their appointments and some rationale for terminating them.
Moreover, in order to obtained support for an appointment or removal, an individual elected officeholder seeking to make such a removal generally needs to provide the rationale for the removal to his elected colleagues.
Of note in Tuesday night’s action was that neither Allen nor McNaboe laid out a case for McConnell’s or Briggs’ removal to their council colleagues, whose backing was required for the removal to take place.
What was doubtless at play in the bid to remove both was Allen’s concern that McConnell will likely manifest as a rival for his reelection to the council next year and McNaboe’s trepidation over Briggs’ trajectory toward political viability in next year’s election, which would potentially provide him with a berth on the city council that could well position him to challenge her for the city’s mayoralty in 2022, when she will be up for reelection.
The request for McConnell’s removal had originated with Allen. The request for Briggs’ sacking had come from McNaboe.
When the council took the matter up on Tuesday night, Councilwoman Sylvia Robles said, “I would like to hear if there’s a reason. If each proposer declines a reason, I’d like to at least hear that and be able to substitute a way of going about this. I would hope that one of the things we could consider is to do a reset, [to provide] some training of all of our appointees. Obviously by this, the two individuals realize there is some big concern, and have some kind of method to [provide them] some training. Either our city attorney can do it or insurance authority can do it. They can sign that they understand the key points of the training. We can do a reset and move on.”
City Attorney Adrian Guerra said, “Under our Municipal Code Section 2.61.030 all members of the planning commission shall serve at the pleasure of the city council and may be removed at any time with or without cause. In this case there is a motion, or at least proposal to remove a commissioner. There is no staff report because there’s no staff action or research or anything that is necessary for this action. This is simply a council motion, second and a vote.”
The removals of Briggs and McConnell were considered separately, with the matter relating to Briggs being taken up first.
As public comment on Briggs’ removal was to take place, Mayor McNaboe noted there were a number of emails received at City Hall with regard to the removal requests. When she asked that the city clerk give a “summary” of the contents of the emails’ contents, several of the substantial number of city residents in attendance within the meeting chamber called for the emails to be read individually. This prompted McNaboe to rap the mayor’s gavel once, and she intoned somewhat determinedly, “Please, I’ve asked the city clerk to summarize the email. That’s what we are going to do.” When that did not cow the crowd, members of which repeated the call for the emails to be read into the record, McNaboe with considerably more force than previously hammered her gavel four times, sending a sharp report around the chambers. “I will put us in recess,” she said, and then did so, declaring a five minute suspension of the proceedings.
When the council resumed the hearing, Robles insisted on making a motion to have the emails read into the record, which was seconded by Councilman Bill Hussey. The motion failed with Robles and Hussey in favor and McNaboe, Councilman Allen and Councilman Doug Wilson voting in opposition.
City Clerk Debra Thomas then told those assembled that the city had received 29 emails from the public in opposition to the removal of Briggs, and she read the names of the senders.
During public comments, Rita Schwark told the council, “I hope this taking him off the planning commission is not personality-related nor is it politically-related. I think the decent thing is we should be told the cause, what is the reason. How would you like to be recalled? We have some representation on the west side. We need more representation on the west side. What you think is bad with their personality, whatever they did, maybe some other person would give them a chance and not think it is bad at all. Different opinions and different views of things are good for the community. That’s what we need. I think Jeremy and Jeff should be allowed to stay on the planning commission.”
Jeremy Rivera said that Jeremy Briggs was “a little bit passionate and a little bit outspoken. Some people can’t handle that in our little country bumpkin town of 13,000 with overpaid city officials. The planning commissioners are volunteers. And you are removing volunteers? You can’t even get a quorum for the park and rec[reation] committee. I think it’s something personnel. I think it’s something very personal. I do not want to see Jeremy Brigg’s removed. He does a lot for his city. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He helps the youth. He’s here for the kid’s. It’s a little difference, and we’re going to kick him off because we can.”
McConnell spoke against Briggs’ removal.
“This municipal code that is being quoted has no due process,” McConnell said. “It should have some due process. Some here are totally ignoring the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. We weren’t even notified to come here. We’re being publicly humiliated and kicked off, and we weren’t even notified to come here. What kind of message does this send to volunteers? This is a volunteer community. This is spreading around town. This is one of the reasons people don’t want to get involved, especially in politics, because of all the backstabbing. We have a general plan update coming up. I’ve been going to the planning commission for 18 years. I sat through the last 2016 general plan update. Experience is needed on the planning commission, whether it’s my experience as a general contractor and in real estate or Jeremy’s experience in the trucking world. We would both be a valuable asset. It is a very long, boring and arduous procedure. For political reasons, you are getting rid of experience and the city’s going to suffer for it.”
Briggs told the council that what was being done to him was a “blindside attack to my personal character. I don’t see why this should have been brought to the agenda. When I first got on the planning commission, I came to you, mayor, and asked for a sit-down meeting with you, to talk eye-to-eye with you. I knew from that meeting you wanted to have nothing to do with me. You tried to steer me in a different direction, put my efforts somewhere else. I knew what that meant from day one. Now this comes up from nowhere because I have been more vocal during the planning commission meetings. I have been having to say when something doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not going to sit back and be a guy who lays down, be the guy who goes along with the agenda that’s behind doors. We know what that agenda is behind doors. It is the secret that lies over here that we don’t talk about. But because I’m not part of that plan, let’s get rid of me. That’s exactly what it looks like. If there’s no due process, no staff report, no reasoning why this is, and we’re just going to make a vote on it, but you can’t tell me why? I put my heart and effort into this city the last six years. I have kids, right here. The reason I’m standing up here tonight is for those three girls and everyone that I’ve coached. I could come home everyday from work and be with my family and that’s it. I care about the girls and I care about every kid I ever coached in this city. I will continue to coach in this city. I will always put my heart and my effort into everything I do. To be blindsided… I’m just going to remove you without talking to you, tell you what you’re doing wrong… As a manager, I’ve always brought in employees that were failing and done nothing but to turn them around. I ask for the same thing, but obviously I don’t get that respect. So this shows me this is nothing but a personal attack against me and my colleague over here. It doesn’t show anything else. If there’s no staff report, no due diligence, why are we even here tonight? Why are we talking about his? I don’t understand this at all. This seems like a backstab move coming up to an election year. Removing me, removing Jeffrey off the commission takes up whole new eyes. We want the five same thoughts on the planning commission? We don’t want the five same thoughts sitting up there. It doesn’t do anything for us if there’s no controversy, no diversity on the board. We want to take that away? You want five people that vote the exact way that you want to vote.”
McNaboe then made a motion to remove Briggs. Allen seconded the motion. The motion failed 2-to-2, with McNaboe and Allen in favor, Councilman Bill Hussey and Councilwoman Sylvia Robles in opposition, and Councilman Doug Wilson abstaining.
The council then moved on a discussion of the removal of McConnell.
City Clerk Thomas said there were six emails from the public in opposition to McConnell’s removal, and she read the names of those submitting them.
Rita Schwark again inveighed against McConnell’s removal, saying she had known McConnell for many years. “Jeffrey has given his volunteer time,” she said. “He has helped me personally. He has helped many of the neighbors. He’s a very good neighbor and he does want to represent us. Jeffrey McConnell needs to stay on the planning commission. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s very experienced. He might have different opinions, different views, but come on, guys! Grow up! This is life. If you have different opinions or different views, we’re all adults here. Work it out. We need him in this community. He knows what is going on in this city.”
Jeremy Rivera said, “I know Jeffrey can be rough, but I know he’s passionate and I know he’s good for our city. I don’t think there is any malicious intent that Jeffrey McConnell has brought forth towards the city. I think he’s only trying to better it. It’s important there are people on the planning commission that understand building and codes. We had two recent spec[ulation] tracts put in, one on Greenbrier Lane, I believe. Have you walked that tract? There’s not enough room on the driveways for cars to park on the driveway so you can walk on the sidewalk. That’s not neighborhood friendly. Then on my street, Van Buren, there was another tract of 17 houses, I think, on a little less than an an acre-and-a-half. Same thing. Driveways are not long enough to where you can walk on the sidewalk if the resident parks their car in the driveway. On top of that they put in two story houses that abut right up on Van Buren instead of a single story house. If you would have had somebody with some knowledge, perhaps like Jeffrey, you probably would have caught those things. So now I’m not going to walk in that tract of houses because I can’t walk on the sidewalk. I have to walk on the street, with my five-year-old. It’s important to have experience. I know sometimes roughness can come with a little liability, but we all do things that cause a little liability. I know there’s some personality conflicts. Mr. [City Manager Harold] Duffey and Jeffrey have had some issues that ended up in San Bernardino Superior Court this year. That worries me, but he needs to stay on the planning commission. You guys appointed him last year with Jeffrey Allen. Now, one person wants to yank him off? With Jeremy Briggs you all voted for him. There were six applicants when Jeremy Brings went [before you]. You chose him. We need people with experience and that’s why he should stay on.”
Jeremy Briggs said of McConnell, “He is a wealth of knowledge. I can look on him as a mentor since I have been appointed to the planning commission. He’s always steered me the right way. To take a guy like this off for personal reasons – which we all know it is definitely personal reasons why we’re trying to take him off the planning commission – to take someone off who has his years of general contracting experience, the community that loves him, I’m still flabbergasted that I’m even up here talking about this right now. Removing volunteers! At the end of the day, we’re trying to remove people that actually care about the community and not their own agenda. This is what it is, a personal attack over two men that care. They’re passionate. They speak their mind. They don’t do it for themselves. They do it for the people around them, the people they love. Jeffrey McConnell is not the person to move off of the planning commission. He is Farmer Jeff to all the kids. Do you want to badmouth Farmer Jeff to all the youth? He has probably done more than all of you up there. And you want to remove him? This is unbelievable, that this is where we stand as a city, a community so divided.”
Don Smith characterized the process McConnell and Briggs were facing as a “kangaroo court. It says here ‘without cause.’ How can the City of Grand Terrace, even in a pissing contest, remove somebody without cause? Is that Constitutional? Is that legal? Is that legitimate? Without cause? I really wonder at that very simple part. We need someone who’s not a moron. We need someone who’s got a little experience. You can’t cast him out.”
Darryl Moore said, “This proposed vote to remove Jeff [has] no requirement for proving any crimes or misbehavior, so the public in general has no idea why this is happening. However, just like at the national level, in would be very bad for our little city to get involved in popularity contests, petty squabbles, factions and vendettas. If Jeff did something wrong or deeply offensive and this vote came in 5-to-0 to remove, it would look justified. But if it passes narrowly 3-to-2, it’s going to smell like a vendetta. Anybody who serves in a city post makes a big investment in time and energy with no expectation to get rich, and deserves recognition and thanks. Jeff has been in the city a long time. He faithfully attends all the meetings. He keeps himself informed. He’s a very knowledgeable person in building and development. We have many issues coming, including the general plan update, and his knowledge would be very valuable. He worked on the last one. It’s the kind of thing that people really don’t want to work on, like reading the New York City Phone Book. It’s very boring. But it’s work that needs to be done. I would ask each person to consider this carefully before voting and I urge you not to remove Jeffrey.”
Janese Makshanoff said, “I am personally shocked that you are allowed to publicly humiliate someone for a volunteer job. If you are going to humiliate someone like that, you should at least have the nerve to say why.”
Jennifer Katuls said that McConnell was “always there to provide help around my home and our neighbor’s home. He has an awareness of what is going to happen at these meetings and lets us now what is going on in the community. At different events around town I’ve seen him there working.”
McConnell asked, “What is this really all about?” Referencing Allen, McConnel said, ” He won’t tell you,” McConnell said, referring to Allen. “There’s a lot of rumors going around. I ran against him in the last election. He’s up for reelection again next year. He just wants to humiliate us, so anyone won’t run against him. I am being publicly humiliated for doing my duty.”
Thereafter, Allen made a motion to remove McConnell, which was seconded by McNaboe.
In the discussion before the vote, Councilwoman Robles offered her comment that she believed the action the council was engaged in was “against the spirit of the Brown Act.”
The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law.
“Everything we do has to be transparent,” Robles said. “It has to be noticed to the public and really, there ought to be reasons why. When it comes to staff, they have rights, so we don’t disparage our staff in public. We have to go into closed session, but we are still obligated to come out and report any action that we take. I think there’s a problem when we don’t say why we’re doing something and explain to your peers why we’re doing something. I’m very strong on due process. I think as an elected official that is something we really have got to protect.”
Robles noted that in appointing Briggs the council had shown enthusiasm and was less excited about McConnell. She said that a recent controversy involving McConnell’s appearance before the planning commission not as a member but as a property owner on an issue relating to his land raised eyebrows, but she said that was mitigated by the consideration that he was there to “protect his property rights.” She acknowledged previous political differences with McConnell but said, “I let it go.”
Robles then said, “We don’t do things without cause. It’s not in the spirit of the Constitution. It’s not in the spirit of due process. It’s not in the spirit of a good community.”
Councilman Bill Hussey said, “Without cause leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know it’s written in there ‘without cause.’ I don’t know why it’s written in there. It’s something that’s got to be changed. I think that if somebody is doing something wrong, it should be [dealt with] through a process. You know, ‘Hey, this is your counseling: This is is what’s going to happen this time. Don’t do it.’ But when we raise our hand and we take these positions, we get a little passionate, but we also have to use our integrity, our good judgment and sometimes it gets the best of us, but I don’t like it without the cause. People have got to know what’s wrong and then we’ve got to work with them and hone those skills. One thing I don’t like is if people ever use their position to manipulate staff or yell at staff or cuss staff out. That is not what we’re here for. I would want to be held accountable if I cuss staff out. I hope one of the council people gets on me for that. Staff members are not here to be our servants. They’re here for the betterment of the city, the residents. We’re here to be the voice of the residents, and we’re not here to belittle them, talk down to them, or treat them like you know what. So, I don’t know; without the cause [being stated], I don’t have a clear conscience in voting. I want to hear a cause. That’s something we need to look into changing in the future if we do have somebody giving [someone] a hard time on the council or even on the planning commission and it’s not working, it’s leaving a hostile environment, we need to bring it to the attention [of the council] so we don’t have a hostile chamber.”
The vote to remove McConnell failed 2-to-2, with Allen and McNaboe supporting the removal, Robles and Hussey opposed and Councilman Doug Wilson abstaining.
By Mark Gutglueck