City Manager Todd W. Argow implemented unusual, and potentially unethical, procedures that may have favored incumbents during the recent City Council election, said Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller.
In a Feb. 2 memo, Argow instructed all department heads to "remember that our loyalties lie with the existing" City Council members and ordered them to inform him when council candidates requested information or documents on city policies and projects.
If the incumbents benefited from Argow's efforts, the results of the election did not seem to reflect it--two of the three on the ballot were defeated.
Still, Argow's order potentially muddied what should be an atmosphere of neutrality at City Hall during an election, Miller said.
"It does raise the specter of impropriety to the extent that it implies that the city employees should be other than neutral," Miller said. "In the election business, the appearance (of impropriety) is very important in undermining the integrity of the process to the public. I'm not aware of anything criminal, but it does raise one's eyebrows."
Argow said he regrets using the word loyalties, but he defended his memo as a reminder to his staff to continue serving the council with gusto despite the additional pressures of an election.
City Clerk Nina Banuelos said Argow bypassed standard procedure by instructing his staff to handle information requests that are usually funneled through her office.
Banuelos asserted that another of Argow's policies may have given incumbents an unfair advantage. In a second document, an internal weekly update to select city officials and council members, it is clear that Argow ordered city staffers to inform council incumbents when their opponents requested information and the nature of that information.
"As promised, we are keeping you informed of requests for information which staff receives from council candidates," states the Feb. 17 newsletter.
Argow said he allowed department heads to expedite information requests to cut down on bureaucracy during the election. Providing summaries of the requests to the City Council was a way to keep the council "informed, to let them know what the public interest is and what the staff workload is . . . and where the demands are coming from."
The city clerk, as the city's election official, should be involved with any election-related matters, Banuelos said, adding that her office is the official clearinghouse for document requests. Providing incumbents with summaries of information requested by opponents gives them ammunition that challengers do not have, she said.
Incumbents Johnny Ramirez and Larry Leonard lost their seats to Bill Martinez and Henry Gonzalez. Mary Ann Buckles was reelected to her second term.
Gonzalez, who said he had difficulty obtaining city documents during the election, said he believes Argow's policy was improper and gave incumbents an unfair advantage.