Four-Member Big Bear Lake Ruling Council Coaliton Set To Rebuke Dissident Lee

The four-member ruling coalition on the Big Bear Lake City Council is on the verge of officially issuing a reprimand to their one colleague who has fallen outside of the panel’s mainstream over the course of the nearly 15 months he has been in office.
Mayor Rick Herrick and council members Randall Putz, Bynette Mote and Penni Melnick on February 25 voted to use the reprimand process as an officially recorded signal of displeasure with Councilman Alan Lee. The February 25 meeting was specially called, and was intended, according to its agenda, to allow the council to “engage in discussion about the current city council group dynamic and individual council member conduct, and will consider the need for and substance of any desired amendments to the city council rules of order.”
Encoded within that language was the discontent Lee’s council colleagues have with him.
Lee did not show up at the February 25 meeting, which thereupon turned into a diatribe on Lee’s public comportment, personality, all-around demeanor and attitude.
Councilman Putz encapsulated the beef with Lee. He said that Lee’s failure to show up for the meeting illustrated Lee’s unwillingness to work cooperatively with his council colleagues. “I am disappointed that he’s not here,” said Putz. “I would welcome to be able to have a frank conversation with him, but I think this is just another indication that he doesn’t want to work with us, he doesn’t want to solve problems and that he is not prioritizing the effective operation of our city.”
Putz said that at an annual League of California Cities conference when he greeted Lee and attempted to shake his hand, Lee demurred and chided Putz for seeking “to play nice,” to which Putz remarked that he was simply trying to greet him. This prompted Lee, Putz said, to remark that he would greet Putz upon their return to Big Bear, which Putz interpreted as a threat.
Putz said he believed he and the majority of the council were intent on “quietly” working toward the betterment and maintenance of the city, its infrastructure, services and assets, through the application of governance, which he said amounted to oversight. “I am not here to manage, which is different from governance,” Putz asserted. “I am not here to organize a union. I am not here to enact my personal agenda. I am not here to inflate my importance. I am not here to refer to my office or hire an assistant. I am not here to feed my ego. I am not here to demonstrate how great I think I am or to punish others who might disagree. I’m not here to seek revenge. I’m not here to dismantle the very organization that I was elected to support. And I am not here to make a mess for other people to clean up.” Putz implied that Lee had engaged in all of the behaviors that he said he had himself avoided.
Putz recounted comportment on Lee’s part he and others observed, and which he said was “visible and documented in public meetings, in emails, in newsletters and videos. Despite our best efforts to conduct city business in a constructive and efficient way, we have been subject to this behavior.”
Putz complained of Lee’s “bullying,” saying “We’ve been subject to intimidation tactics, threats, belittling others, tearing people down instead of building them up, cross examining city staff, setting them up for ‘gotchas,’ threatening citizens’ initiatives. If you don’t do what he says, if you don’t eliminate vacation rentals, if you don’t double the transitory occupancy tax, if you don’t dissolve the Department of Water and Power, there’s going to be a citizens’ initiative. We’ve witnessed him attacking private citizens who disagree, and then like a good bully, playing the victim when you’re caught.”
Putz then referenced what he characterized as Lee’s “grandstanding. We’ve seen shameless self-promotion, self-aggrandizing like playing Santa Claus, excessive time-consuming comments that run out the clock and keep others from participating, using up all the oxygen in the room and using the public forum, public resources to promote campaign events that are disguised as city activities.”
Putz then broke into seeming praise of Lee’s panoply of skills as a politician, charging him with “dishonesty. We’ve seen skillful blatant misrepresentation, outright lies, transferring his own behavior onto others, gaslighting. I’ve lost count of the comments I’ve gotten from citizens who are incensed by his hypocrisy. We’ve seen him create communications and events designed to mimic city communication and events. We’ve heard him say he has the best attendance at Department of Water and Power [board meetings], when in reality it was the worst. We’ve seen him say that we gave a secret city manager bonus when it was done publicly and appropriately.”
Continuing, Putz said, “We’ve witnessed a lack of self-control, the constant need to respond to criticisms, having the last word, saying he will be brief and then taking five minutes. We’ve seen interruptions. We’ve seen outbursts. And we’ve seen unsettling, threatening public tantrums.”
Putz accused Lee of “exploitation. We’ve seen him seek to gain leverage, push up to and past the line, disregard norms and civility. We’ve seen him rely on us to be polite and civil and then using it against us. We’ve seen him make others look bad so he can look good. We’ve witnessed him harvesting emails of local agencies and sending political newsletters. We’ve seen him co-opt people, using their names and participation unbeknownst to them to imply support. We’ve seen him exploit people’s pain. We’ve seen him send graphic images that are designed to shock and inflame, and we’ve seen him sow division and create an us-versus-them environment. We’ve seen his savior complex. He’s the expert. He knows better. He constantly challenges and disagrees with our professional civil servants, people who have been successfully doing their jobs for decades. He knows the law better than the city attorney. He knows policies and procedures better than the city clerk. He knows accounting practices better than our finance director. He knows how to run the city better than the city manager. He’s the only one fighting corruption and waste. He suggests he’s like Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ. He’s the only one who can save us.”
Putz said, “I don’t think any well-run organization tolerates the kind of behavior I’ve described.” In summary, and acknowledging he was being “crass” in doing so, Putz said that Lee was “a dick.”
Councilwoman Melnick said of Lee, “I’ve dealt with difficult people in my career. I’ve negotiated giant deals. I’ve dealt with challenging people on the other side. I will say, never personally or professionally have I dealt with somebody like him. The innuendo, inferences and attacks if we don’t vote the way he wants us to vote that we are somehow anti the community or in the pocket of businesses is offensive and hurtful.”
Councilwoman Mote, who was voted into office in November 2020 at the same time as Lee, said Lee had only made eye contact with her twice in all the time they have been seated across from each other at the city’s U-shaped council dais, and one of those was to stare her down.
The perspective on Lee external from City Hall is less clear cut. In the Big Bear Community, the assessment of Lee is mixed. Beyond Big Bear, little attention has been paid to him.
Some city residents likewise have a low estimation of Lee. At the November 11, 2021 council meeting, Alaine Uthus presented a public records request for text messages sent and received by Lee during the October 18, 2021 City Council meeting. She implied that either Lee’s use of his cell phone during the meeting or the city’s unwillingness to disclose what those cell phone texts consisted of was a violation of the Brown Act.
At the February 25 meeting, City of Big Bear Lake Department of Water General Manager Reginald “Reggie” Lamson addressed the city council, disputing that Lee’s assertion that Lamson was one of the highest paid water department managers in the state. “I am not one of the highest paid bureaucrats in California or San Bernardino County, and the DWP is not one of the smallest water departments,” Lamson said.
There are, nonetheless, constituents of all five of the Big Bear Lake council members who consider Lee to be a more conscientious and faithful councilor than his four colleagues combined, and that it is not Lee who is poorly cast in the role of councilman but that the others are shirking their duty.
While Councilman Putz maintains, and there is strong indication that Herrick, Mote and Melnick agree, that Lee is petty and thin-skinned, there is evidence to suggest that his council colleagues have been equally intolerant of criticism that he has leveled at them.
A major issue that has roiled the community during Lee’s tenure on the city council was the controversy over the ability of national or regional commercial outlets to sustain themselves in the City of Big Bear Lake and the surrounding community. The City of Big Bear Lake had a population of 5,231 as of the 2020 Census. The nearby unincorporated community on the east side of Big Bear Lake, with the confusing name of Big Bear City, in 2020 had a population of 13,463. This puts roughly 18,694 people within the greater Big Bear trade area. Big Bear City has what is called the Community Market, which sells groceries. Big Bear Lake has within its confines a Stater Bros. market, a Vons market and the smaller Triangle Market, which sells groceries. After Big Bear’s only major department store, Kmart, closed in early 2021, Tectonics Design Group/Main & Main Capital Group LLC approached the city with a proposal to bring a Grocery Outlet, which sells groceries at prices generally below those of Vons and Stater Bros., to Big Bear at 42175 Big Bear Boulevard in Big Bear Lake, a site not too distant from the Stater Bros. and Vons. Some hailed the competition and choice the Grocery Outlet represented as good for the city and its residents. A number of residents, however, opposed the Grocery Outlet on multiple grounds, including that an oversaturation of grocery stores in a community with as limited of a population as Big Bear might render each them unviable and result in all of them closing; that the city should instead prioritize finding a commercial entity selling taxable items as opposed to untaxed food to enhance the city’s revenue stream; and that the site for the Grocery Outlet was unsafe from a traffic access standpoint. City officials ignored a resident petition asking that the Grocery Outlet not be approved. On April 21, 2021, the Big Bear Lake Planning Commission gave approval of the proposed Grocery Outlet. On July 19, 2021, the council, which was only at four-fifths strength at that point due to the resignation of then-mayor David Caretto, deadlocked 2-to-2 with Lee and Mote in opposition on a motion to deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission decision. The council returned to the matter on August 2, at which point Melnick had been appointed to replace Caretto. The council voted 3-to-2, with Lee and Mote dissenting, to deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission decision. Those opposed to the project on September 9, 2021 filed a lawsuit challenging the Grocery Outlet’s approval. In late November, Tectonics Design Group/Main & Main Capital Group settled the lawsuit, in so doing agreeing to withdraw the application for the project and forego its development. The city council on December 6, during a closed session, approved the same settlement agreement, and rescinded the project approval.
Lee was active in opposing the Grocery Outlet project and he supported the group that filed suit against the city over its approval. This has been represented by city officials as an indication that Lee is not a team player. Others see it differently, and maintain that Lee was simply willing to stand up for city residents in their dispute with the city. They see Lee as principled and courageous, someone who is unwilling to go along with the majority controlling local government simply because it is the majority. Moreover, they say, Lee was right and three of his council colleagues – Herrick, Putz and Melnick – were wrong on the Grocery Outlet issue.
The real truth is, some Big Bear residents say, Lee is willing to confront the corporate interests that have other members of the city council in their back pocket.
Lee has consistently questioned city staff about items contained or not contained in staff reports relating to items presented to the city council for approval. On occasion, he has put city staff members through their paces and belabored issues when he did not receive what he considered to be adequate responses. The other members of the council have been far more deferential to, and far less questioning of, city staff. They consider Lee’s displays of curiosity with regard to what they consider to be routine items to be poor form, meanspirited and an indication that Lee has not prepared himself for meetings by not satisfying himself with regard to the issues he focuses on prior to the meetings and outside of a public forum where he imposes upon and sometimes embarrasses city staff.
Some residents of Big Bear Lake, however, consider Lee’s trait in this regard to be an admirable display of his willingness to engage in the due diligence, scrutiny and oversight that are part of an elected officials’ duty. They maintain that this is not a reflection upon Lee, but rather an illustration of the indolence of the other members of the council who are far too accommodating of city employees.
On Monday, March 7, the Big Bear City Council is set to vote on a resolution of censure against Lee which delineates complaints by Big Bear Lake citizens, city employees and his council colleagues that hold Lee “has demonstrated a pattern of disregard for the rules and policies that apply to and govern council members and city business” and in so doing he “has caused a hostile environment among council members and staff at City Hall to the detriment of the city. Council Member Alan Lee has demonstrated open hostility, yelling, bullying, disrespect, and confrontational behavior in and following council meetings that has resulted in disrupting the peace and deliberative function of the council, has disrupted the conduct of city staff by causing extraordinary and often unnecessary extra work assignments to accommodate his asserted but unsupported needs, has delayed and unnecessarily extended city council meetings by repetitive statements and referring to matters which could instead easily have been addressed to or with city staff in advance of council meetings, and has made unsupported or deceptive personal attacks on and misrepresentations about the mayor, fellow council members, and the city manager in communications at council meetings.”
In addition, the resolution of reprimand states, “Council Member Alan Lee has excessively and impermissibly directed the city manager and city staff to initiate projects and reports, significant in scope and nature, and to gather information without approval of the city council, including requests for information unrelated to the business at-hand. His requests have had a significant impact on the workload of the city manager and city staff, at significant cost to the city.”
The resolution further relates that “Council Member Alan Lee has inappropriately blocked and deleted features on his social media platforms and posted commentary in a manner that may cause harm to the city’s interests and expose the city to legal liability. Council Member Alan Lee has failed to reasonably use his city email account for his city-related business, resulting in a significant inability for city staff to access all his city-related emails for purposes of responding to Public Records Act requests. Council Member Alan Lee’s newsletters have incorrectly or misleadingly labeled themselves as reports from City Hall, using stock photography of City Hall with the city’s seal or logo.”
The resolution understates that “the city council does not condone this type of behavior.”
Despite all of the indications, including public statements made by the city council members at the February 25 meeting and elsewhere within the resolution, that Lee is a strong-willed and noxious personality who is heavy-handed and intemperate in his comportment and reaction to criticism, the resolution expresses the rather wishful hope that Lee will make a comprehensive examination of the rebuke he is being given by his colleagues, peer deep into his own soul, make an assessment of his shortcomings, come to terms with them and bear what is being heaped upon him with equanimity without responding in kind and reform his comportment to become a better councilman and more perfect human being, such that no further corrective action need be taken.
“[T]he City Council desires to use this reprimand as a means to avoid future consideration of censure of Council Member Alan Lee,” the resolution states.
Mark Gutglueck

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