POMONA — A 4-month-old, 48-word memo has become the catalyst--some might say the excuse--for the city's latest political free-for-all.
Councilwoman Nell Soto said she found the memo, dated April 20, in her mailbox in August. Signed by a former employee in the city's redevelopment department and addressed to Ray Bragg, redevelopment supervisor, it says in part, "Per your request, I have confirmed that Councilman Tomas Ursua graduated from the UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning in 1985 with a Master's degree."
Soto first raised the issue at the end of the Aug. 21 council meeting. That week, Interim City Administrator Tom Fee and Deputy City Atty. Bill Curley verified that the employee wrote the memo. But they refused to say whether Bragg or Deputy City Administrator Sanford Sorensen were involved, or whether the employee actually called UCLA to confirm Ursua's credentials.
Soto said she was outraged. City officials, she believed, were conducting background checks on one of her council allies. Was this part of a conspiracy to undermine the credibility of the new majority? If so, were others running checks on herself, and Councilman C. L (Clay) Bryant, the third member of the majority?
Mayor Donna Smith said, "It's kind of strange that the memo would just pop up now if it was in fact written on the 20th of April."
Others suggested that it may have been planted in an effort to implicate Bragg and Sorensen, who oversees redevelopment projects and who, according to the memo, doubted Ursua's academic credentials.
The former employee, Angela Moreno, has refused to comment.
Bragg and Sorensen say they never asked for a check on Ursua, who says he doesn't have a master's and never claimed to. The councilman attended the UCLA graduate school but did not receive a degree.
Whatever the truth is, a cloud of controversy surrounding the memo has created a climate of fear and suspicion in City Hall, aggravating an already tense atmosphere with allegations and denials.
Ursua, Bryant and Soto said the memo is proof that people in City Hall are scheming to unseat them. Two months after Ursua was elected, the newly formed council majority moved swiftly in May to fire former City Administrator A. J. Wilson and eliminate three top-level administrative positions, including Sorensen's.
Those actions incensed Smith and Councilman Mark A. T. Nymeyer, and sparked the formation of a citizens group to protest Wilson's ouster. Now some of the same people are seeking to recall Bryant, accusing him of wielding too much power on the council and of ruthlessly attacking anyone who questions his authority.
Ursua said the group has adopted a siege mentality, adding: "They're checking me out, trying to find some kind of a weak link.
"This is not an isolated incident," he said. "I take it in the political context. There's a new majority, and people will figure out whatever they can to throw a block in the way of the majority. What would have happened if they found out I didn't attend school? The next thing would have been to expose me and intimidate me."
Members of the Bryant recall group deny suggesting any background checks on Ursua. However, they have been collecting notebooks full of information about Bryant and have called various institutions nationwide to verify Bryant's academic and professional credentials, said Melody Peterson, who co-chairs the committee.
"We're not doing this with anyone except Clay," Peterson said. "That would be a waste of our time. (Ursua) is not the object of our recall, nor is Nell Soto, nor is Mark Nymeyer."
Smith downplayed this latest brouhaha. Even if a department head had requested that Ursua's records be checked, "according to that memo, there was no personal investigation into Mr. Ursua's life," she said. "It's just something he feels personally uncomfortable with."
Bryant, however, said the memo uncovered a "hate process that will only get worse. I just hope that kind of garbage is stopped."
Meanwhile, Bryant has his own collection of documents that he said were found in an elevator two weeks ago by a city employee. They were in an envelope marked with his name, he said, and include a letter stamped confidential with the logo of the state Department of Justice, Investigation and Enforcement Branch.
The letter, dated Aug. 6, 1989, says Bryant has been charged by the state attorney general's office with seven violations of the Elections Code, including falsifying information on candidate statements and intimidating voters. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has determined that the letter is fraudulent, said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Lara.
Bryant maintains that the recall group circulated the letters to build up false support for their efforts, whereas recall committee members say they have nothing to do with the documents.