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SH City Council decides not to reorganize after public comment and deliberation over mayor’s alleged misconduct

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Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
Mayor Edward Wilson and Vice Mayor Tina Hansen listen to public comments at the Dec. 12 Signal Hill City Council meeting primarily advocating against council reorganization.

In a packed council chamber at its Dec. 12 meeting, the Signal Hill City Council heard many members of the public voice their opinions regarding Mayor Edward Wilson’s recent alleged misconduct that had prompted the council to consider reorganizing. After thoughtful deliberation, however, that motion was withdrawn.

But the council, along with the City Council as Successor Agency, did unanimously approve adopting a conduct manual that includes directives for official behavior and censure guidelines.

In other business, the council approved: new municipal retirement account service providers, extending a crossing-guard services contract and reimbursing the City of Long Beach more for the stormwater-capture project at Long Beach Airport. It also adopted a new fire code and learned about the City’s new website design.

Council reorganization
At the city council’s previous meeting on Nov. 28, Councilmember Larry Forester had requested reorganization be added to the Dec. 12 meeting agenda after Wilson’s recent alleged public misconduct.

“Our mayor should never have been in that situation,” Forester said during the Dec. 12 meeting. “I do not respect our mayor, and that’s why I brought [reorganization] up.”

As reported in the Press-Telegram and Signal Tribune newspapers, on Nov. 17, Wilson and his partner, Deborah Betance, were arrested on domestic-violence charges at the Hotel Maya in Long Beach and released on bail the same day.

Forester had also written a letter, published in the Signal Tribune newspaper on Dec. 8, describing the mayor’s behavior as “abhorrent” and “egregious” and inviting residents to attend the Dec. 12 meeting to express their opinions.

It was standing-room-only Tuesday night as many members of the public spoke in support of Wilson’s character and the necessity of due process while others expressed concern over the embarrassment caused to the city by his behavior.

The public held the day at the council meeting, with most of the comments and shared letters advocating due process and not reorganizing.

Wilson read aloud four email messages that he and City Manager Charlie Honeycutt had received from people who could not attend, three of which argued that the arrests were a private matter and that due process should be allowed before the council takes any action.

One letter from a Signal Hill resident, however, argued that Wilson be removed as mayor, stating, “His recent behavior is unacceptable and embarrassing to our city.”

A similarly larger proportion of the attending public expressed support for due process before action is taken, with a minority opinion that Wilson should be removed as mayor.

One speaker, Mercy Chung, in supporting Wilson, called Forester’s stance in his published letter ironic considering his own questionable public behavior in 2014, when he made an offensive statement to a local businesswoman while discussing her opposition to a project he supported.

“Now, really, you’ve never heard of such ‘egregious’ behavior?” Chung asked Forester. “Wasn’t it you that verbally accosted an African-American female in a local restaurant, going up to her table, using your title as vice mayor and making racially inappropriate statements and then trying to negatively affect her employment. Remember that?”

Chung further described Forester’s call to reorganize as “petty vindictiveness.” Her statement, like the other 10 arguing against reorganization, was followed by ardent audience applause.

Carmen Brooks, a Signal Hill planning commissioner, also advocated for due process to allow the facts of Wilson’s arrest to be established before any council action.

She further called the council’s attention to the significance of the attending crowd.

“When things are going fine, we don’t have an audience like this,” Brooks said. “But when things are not going right, [!] we certainly come out, and I suggest that you listen to the will of the people.”

One resident pointed out that there were only three-and-a-half months left in Wilson’s mayoral term.

“I think it would look bad on the city of Signal Hill if we were to pull the mayor at this point,” she said.

Some members of the public alluded to race in their comments, one noting that Wilson is the first and only African-American councilmember and Gregory Sanders, a local pastor, discussed the influence of “bias-based conversations and observations.”

“Believe it or not, there are people who get accused of doing things that they did not do,” said Robin Perry, a local attorney. “And for certain people, certain demographics, it happens more than you might think.”

Ludlow Creary, Wilson’s attorney, came forward as well, questioning the reliability of the “facts” being discussed.

“At this point, the facts as to what happened, the events that led to that arrest, have not been determined,” Creary said. “Some apparent hearsay statement from some unnamed hotel worker— those aren’t facts [!] upon which to base a proceeding to reorganize the council. [!] Without the facts that establish probable cause, no charges can be filed.”

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
A capacity crowd attends the Dec. 12 Signal Hill City Council meeting, anticipating a potential council reorganization.

Nevertheless, Tom Benson, a former Signal Hill commissioner, and Gary Dudley, a current commissioner, argued that the council should reorganize to ensure its operating efficiency and mitigate embarrassment caused by Wilson’s arrest.

“I like Mayor Wilson, but I don’t believe he should be mayor because he is a distraction at this time,” Benson said. “And until it’s resolved, he should step aside, be a councilmember, and the City should move on with its organization and stop these disruptions.”

Following public comment, Wilson returned discussion of reorganization back to the council, asserting that the incident won’t interfere with his ability to be mayor.

“I am embarrassed. [!] Who would want to be arrested?” he said. “I don’t believe that it is in the best interest of the city to have a reorganization of council. [!] I don’t believe my actions will negatively affect the city.”

Councilmember Lori Woods responded that, as an elected official, she feels a responsibility to the residents and business owners of Signal Hill, as well as over 100 municipal employees, to support council reorganization.

“You can imagine my disappointment that, following his arrest, [!] Mayor Wilson did not voluntarily step down,” she said.

She recalled that she and Wilson were the only council members to have objected to Forester’s appointment as mayor in 2015 after his own questionable actions months previously.

“I do not plan to add insult to injury by standing by as Signal Hill opens the newspapers again this week to realize that this elected official [referring to herself] could have done something to mitigate the embarrassment and respond appropriately but was too hesitant or intimidated to act,” she said.

Vice Mayor Tina Hansen agreed that Wilson’s arrest cast a negative light on the city, and she expressed hope that Wilson would step down if charges are filed. However, she stated she would not push for him to do so at present, even though she had expressed support for the motion at the previous meeting.

“Based on what I know, I do not today support reorganization,” she said.

Hansen also affirmed the importance of incidents such as Wilson’s arrest coming to light.

“When you sit up here in public office, you are scrutinized at a higher standard than other people,” she said. “So when something happens that embarrasses the City, it should not come as a surprise that it’s brought up— whether it’s by another council member, whether it’s by a newspaper, whether it’s by a resident— it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It shouldn’t be considered a personal attack. It is part of the check and balance of our democracy that people have a right to bring it up and then let the democracy speak.”

Acknowledging Hansen’s position, Forester pulled his motion to reorganize, but only pending further charges filed against Wilson.

“Once the case is settled, I want that motion back,” he said.

Most of the attending audience applauded Forester’s withdrawal of the motion.

Wilson reiterated the regret he had expressed at the council’s previous meeting.

“I apologize for any embarrassment or hardship this has caused,” he said. “I take full responsibility. We will move forward. This is a great city, and I love this city.”

Conduct manual
Though the council did not pursue reorganization, it did, along with the City Council as Successor Agency, agree to adopt a governance document called Manual of Procedural Guidelines for the Conduct of City Council and Constituent Body/Commission Meetings.

The council had been considering such a manual periodically since 2014 but never adopted it. At the Nov. 28 meeting, Hansen had asked that it be revisited in the wake of Wilson’s arrest.

The approved manual mostly covers official positions, procedures and meeting decorum, but it also includes the section “Codes of Civility— Article II,” which directs legislative officials, such as council members, to act with integrity.

Some of this article’s specific “Rules of Civility” for legislative officials include:

• Behaving with courtesy and respect toward everyone with whom they interact.
• Exhibiting integrity and trustworthiness.
• Acting as if they were on official duty regardless of where they are or what they are doing.
• Avoiding personalizing issues by engaging in name-calling or personal invective, speaking in a derogatory or belittling manner towards those with whom one disagrees, whether they be colleagues or members of the public.

Dave Aleshire, the city attorney, explained that violation would result in censure by the legislative body.

In response to a question by Hansen about whether an independent investigation could be authorized in such cases, Aleshire stated that while it is not codified in the manual, that doesn’t preclude its possibility. But he didn’t advise including such a stipulation, based on his experience.

“You guys handled this [reorganization decision] tonight with significant grace,” he said. “I am somewhat reluctant to invite that [investigation] process by identifying it specifically in the document. [!] If we automatically went to, ‘Okay, are we now doing an investigation or not doing an investigation?’ it’s a real problem.”

Aleshire further addressed council member concerns that the codes of conduct in the manual seemed to limit public behavior at meetings, which had been an objection when the manual was considered previously.

“It’s not controlling the public; it’s controlling the council from getting too aggressive with the public,” he explained. “You have to take a lot of criticism from the public. As long as the meeting can go on, you have to take it. If the public action is stopping the meeting from going on, then the presiding officer can take action.”

Retirement accounts
The council approved transitioning the City’s current 457(b) and 401(a) retirement accounts from ICMA-RC to Voya for recordkeeping and to SFG Retirement Plan Consulting for investment advising and co-fiduciary services, as of April 1, 2018.

Mark Schuster of SFG explained that, based on unbiased analysis, every fund in the new plans would offer lower fees and higher returns to City employees.

Crossing guards
The council approved extending a contract with All City Management Services for crossing guard services for two years, at an annual cost of $90,859, including a 75-cent-per-hour rate increase, paid for by the police department.

Police Chief Christopher Nunley explained that the crossing guards serve at five school intersections: three around Signal Hill Elementary, one at Alvarado Elementary and one at Nelson Academy.

Several council members expressed concern to Nunley about open gates at Signal Elementary causing safety issues, and that either they should be closed or another crossing guard should be placed there.

“It’s going to be our recommendation to the school that the gate should probably be closed,” Nunley stated.

Stormwater capture
The council approved amending the memorandum of understanding with the City of Long Beach regarding the joint Los Cerritos Channel Sub-Basin 4 Stormwater Capture Facility Project at Long Beach Airport.

The amendment increases reimbursement to the City of Long Beach from $50,000 to $350,000 to cover administrative costs connected with FAA regulations.

However, Kelli Tunnicliff, public works director, stated that this has no fiscal impact to the City since the whole $11 million project is covered by CalTrans.

She said that construction should be completed by February 2018.

Fire code
Per procedure, the council conducted a public hearing and second reading before adopting a new fire code.

The approved ordinance repeals the 2013 fire code and replaces it with the 2017 County of Los Angeles Fire Code, adopting by reference the 2016 California Fire Code and portions of the 2015 International Fire Code.

Website design
Hannah Shin-Heydorn, deputy city manager, presented on the City’s new website design by government website consultants CivicPlus, to be implemented by June 21, 2018.

The new design will incorporate features that newer institutional and municipal websites employ, such as more white space, clean calendars, dynamic interaction opportunities, engaging pictures and social-media links.

Shin-Heydorn explained that the color palette used would be “fresh, engaging and clean,” like the City itself.

The next Signal Hill City Council meeting will take place Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 7pm in the council chamber at 2175 Cherry Ave. (There is no meeting scheduled Dec. 26.)

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SH City Council decides not to reorganize after public comment and deliberation over mayor’s alleged misconduct