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Whistle blower inspires stricter council rules in Montebello

In the wake of investigations into use of funds, new standards may govern official letters and public comments at meetings.

October 11, 2011|By Jessica Garrison and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Some Montebello officials have expressed outrage that Councilwoman Christina Cortez used city letterhead to ask the Los Angeles County district attorney and the state controller to investigate the city.
Some Montebello officials have expressed outrage that Councilwoman Christina… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Dismayed by one City Council member's repeated whistle-blowing about the embattled city, Montebello City Council members are slated Wednesday to discuss rules on how council members communicate and use city letterhead.

The move comes after some city officials expressed outrage that Councilwoman Christina Cortez used city letterhead to ask the Los Angeles County district attorney and the state controller to investigate the city.

One rule would call for council members to provide for the printed agenda "a brief general description" of what they plan to discuss during public comments, "expressed in complete sentences." The council is also slated to discuss rules on "who serves as spokesperson for the city" and the use of city letterhead. Current policy calls for managers to review such correspondence.

Some open-government advocates expressed alarm at some of the proposals, saying they appear to be an attempt to prevent elected officials from speaking out about the city's problems.

Bob Stern, the head of the Center for Governmental Studies, said it was "really troubling" to require that council members provide a preview of what they say during a public meeting.

Cortez, who has been alleging possible corruption since taking office after a recall election in February 2010, said she thought it was intended to silence her.

"I have the right to say what I think. That's why we are elected," she said.

Montebello, a town of about 65,000 in eastern Los Angeles County, has been mired in crisis for months. The city is seeking an outside loan to avoid temporarily running out of cash later this year.

The FBI is investigating misused housing money. And state Controller John Chiang released an audit last month that found that officials had misused more than $31 million, including instances when officials spent funds meant to improve blighted neighborhoods on dinners in Las Vegas and other "frivolous" items.

Councilman Bill Molinari, who has frequently wrangled with Cortez, said the controller would not have investigated if Cortez had not inappropriately written letters on city stationery that contained what he called totally false accusations.

(A spokesman for Chiang said the audit was launched because of concerns that the financial reports were false.)

Cortez has corresponded with Chiang and wrote to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, asking him to investigate. That letter, written last spring after officials discovered two city bank accounts they had lost track of, opened: "I am writing because of the illegal activity that I am witnessing as a Council Member in the City of Montebello." She sent copies of the letter to the Los Angeles Times and other media but not to her council colleagues.

Interim City Administrator Larry Kosmont said it was not his intention to silence Cortez or other council members but rather to seek clarity on how council members speak for the city.

He said other government agencies have expressed confusion on that point, including officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development who, he said, were unsure how to react when Cortez went to their offices seeking information about a housing deal in the city. (Cortez said she went to HUD officials after she failed to get information from staffers in her own city.)

"I just want clarification," Kosmont said. "It's not only confusing to us, it's confusing to others who deal with us. I don't think it's good government."

Legal experts said the city is probably on solid ground in restricting council members' use of official city letterhead.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said cities are allowed to ensure that individual council members do not give the impression they are speaking for the city as a whole.

But he added: "I do worry that in this context, they are trying to censor or shut down the dissident member."

Many legal experts found it more troubling that the council may be seeking to require officials to present in writing what they plan to talk about during their oral communications.

The City Council agenda item says that is necessary because California's open meeting law requires officials to preview what they are going to say.

Molinari said it is "simply … the public's right to know what's going to be on the agenda."

"Ms. Cortez keeps talking about transparency and clarity," he said. "Well, why do you want to conceal what you are talking about until you get to the meeting?"

But government experts said that although the city must list on its agenda anything council members plan to vote on or discuss as a group, say, in closed session, there is no such rule for individual council members to provide a preview of comments or questions.

"There's no sense that the body has the right to impose a submit-it-in-writing condition on the right to speak. It's just not there," said Terry Francke, general counsel for CalAware, an open government watchdog group.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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