For nearly an hour, the Lassen County Board of Supervisors discussed comments made by Lassen County Planning Commissioner Carol Clark at two recent board meetings, their aftermath and how to respond to them.
The conversation, including a comment by Clark herself, touched other vital and important topics such as the Brown Act (California’s Open Meeting law), the freedom of speech guaranteed in the Constitution, what is “sufficient cause” for removal of a county appointee and what is the ultimate appropriateness of a county-appointed official making negative comments regarding a county created indemnification ordinance presented by the Lassen County Building Department.
In the end, the supervisors took no action against Clark and directed staff to revise the county code section regarding the planning commission. While the commissioners are appointed by their district supervisor and the board traditionally approves those appointments, that board approval practice is not included in the county code. The consensus of the board was it should be. There also was some confusion as to whom the commissioner reports — the supervisor who made the appointment or the board. The consensus was the commissioner reports to the board, not the supervisor who made the appointment.
Here’s the Lassen County Code, section 2.20.010, approved in 1978, “The commission created in Section 2.20.010 shall be known as the ‘Lassen County Planning Commission.’ It shall consist of five members, who shall be appointed in the manner set forth in this section. One member is to be appointed by each member of the board of supervisors from electors of his or her supervisorial district. Each such member shall serve for a term of four years, unless sooner removed or the prior expiration of such term as provided in this section. Any member may be removed for sufficient cause, as determined by a four-fifths affirmative vote of the board of supervisors, and the term of each member of the planning commission shall in any event expire on March 31 next following the election or appointment of the member of the board of supervisors of the supervisorial district in which such member of the planning commission resides.”
Regarding the removal of a commissioner included in the Lassen County Code, District 4 Supervisor Aaron Albaugh said the current 4/5 vote required for removal is a tall hurdle to clear. He suggested, and the other supervisors agreed, that if the appointing supervisor asks for the removal, it should be by a 3/5 vote. If another supervisor asks for the removal, it should be by a 4/5 vote.
County Administrative Officer Richard Egan said county staff would revise the county code according to that direction and bring it back to the board for adoption.
The supervisors had different ideas on Clark’s comments at two previous board meetings and how to respond to them — some appreciated and respected her comments while others did not.
District 1 Supervisor Chris Gallagher, who asked that the item be placed on the agenda, spoke up first. Gallagher said he asked that the item be put on the agenda because, according to the Brown Act, the only way the board could discuss it is in open session.
“We’ve had a couple of circumstances recently where a planning commissioner has come before us and talked about items that were outside of really what I thought was the purview of that planning commissioner in that meeting, making statements that were pretty much boldly false,” Gallagher said. “To me, being a prior supervisor of people, it felt to me to be insubordinate.”
He said he felt Clark’s comments were “embarrassing to the county.” He said someone in that situation should go to the supervisor who made the appointment and get the correct information and “understand it (the indemnification ordinance) before coming to the board with an opinion. I also would rather have that person resign as opposed to be voted out … The only way for us to talk about these things is have it on the agenda in a board meeting. So, I wanted to bring it here and ask others for their opinion and just go from there.”
District 5 Supervisor Jason Ingram said, “I couldn’t agree with Chris more. I think it’s an embarrassment to the county when somebody attacks the very department of which she serves and an embarrassment to the supervisor who appointed her … I think there are several reasons why this should move forward. I think it’s not only an embarrassment to the county, but frankly a liability. It’s one thing to speak during public comment as a civilian, but it’s another thing to speak as an appointed politician, if you will, for the county … I’m trying to picture my planning commissioner going against the planning department without talking to me first, (or) talking to the planning department in private so we can get past whatever criticisms we have in private and not speak about it in public.”
Ingram said criticism should be offered in private, and praise should be offered in public, “and I think everybody can learn something from that.”
District 4 Supervisor Aaron Albaugh recounted an incident from his time on the planning commission when the board of supervisors rejected a planning commission decision and that “really kind of pissed me off. So, I stood right there (at the podium) and gave the supervisors what for … That podium is for the general public and they can stand up there as a private citizen — just like us. If there’s something on the agenda, I can recuse myself from the vote and stand over there and address the board … That’s their right as a citizen, and we cannot take that away from them.”
Gallagher said he understood what Albaugh was talking about. “That’s a passion. You spent a lot of time working on those items, and it turned out differently than you expected, and I understand that passion. But when it’s something as blatantly wrong or blatantly misstated, I guess, that’s different. I understand the passion. People can have passion about a lot of things, but when you’re in that position, and you’ve learned all that you’ve learned about the planning commission, you understand the process. And there’s a lot of things to go through that process. But to circumvent that process and bring up things that are blatantly wrong, is not what you were talking about. You were talking about your passion. What I’m discussing has nothing to do with passion, it has nothing to do with one side or the other, it’s just blatantly wrong information that in my opinion is insubordinate.”
District 3 Supervisor Tom Neely said, “I just don’t think we should be going down this road, either. There are a lot of times you guys don’t agree with me, but we’ve got to be able to respect what people say. Even if it’s negative, I can personally still gain knowledge out of negative comments … I don’t take it personally because I believe everybody in this room is here for the betterment of Lassen County.”
He also said if someone has an issue with another supervisor’s appointee, they should address the issue with that supervisor “and work out that problem — not to bring it here before us.”
Clark addressed the supervisors, and said according to the Brown Act, a legislative body “may not prohibit public criticism of its policies, procedures, programs or services, and I am still one of the public. By the way, I have made no false statements, no misstatements. I’m extraordinarily careful about what I say, and I’ll give you any of my transcripts if you wish to look at them and we can talk. Insubordinate to who? Nobody has instructed me not to talk, not to do this, not to do that, and I find it extraordinary Mr. Ingram that you think the planning department or county officials can tell you, this is what we put a lot of work into and this is how it should go and then you don’t do it. I can’t believe you even said that. You’ve probably heard the preamble to the Brown Act many times. It says that commissions and boards exist to aid the people’s business. They serve the people. The people retain control over the legislative body that the people created. I love that, but nobody feels that. I have a growing list of people who would never come here to speak. They’re afraid of you. They see you as the ones who have the power to make their lives hell. I did not give up my right as a citizen to speak for that $50 a month stipend that planning commissioners get. I serve on the planning commission for the people of Lassen County, people who just want to live and work and survive and be treated fairly.”
Chair Gary Bridges made some comments.
“First off, this issue did not even go before the planning commission, so that’s pretty important,” Bridges said. “Second, when Carol Clark came in here, she made the statement she was speaking as a citizen, not as a person on the planning commission, and I kind of have to agree with that — why would a person give up their right to speak for $50 a month? I appreciate what she’s done on the planning commission. I think she’s the only person who’s never missed a meeting. I guarantee you she reads her material better than any person on that commission.”
Then Bridges asked questions about the Brown Act regarding what are called serial meetings — where a quorum of elected officials discuss business in a series of one-on-one conversations.
“I’m pretty upset about it because it was mentioned,” Bridges said. “Mr. Ingram, you’ve been following me around, giving me a bad time about my commissioner. You even stopped me one day down there when LaMalfa was in town, and I said I can’t talk to you about it in violation of the Brown Act. Finally, I had to shut my pickup door to get away from you. I don’t think that was right.”
“It’s awfully bold of you to assume what I wanted to talk to you about,'” Ingram said about Bridges allegation.
“You already told me that I was up for election and I needed to remove my appointee on the planning commission,” Bridges said. “Those were your words.”
“It’s your election coming up not mine,” Ingram said.
“I’m glad you’re worried about it for me,” Bridges said.
Bridges asked the other board members if they had discussed this issue with Ingram. Albaugh said no, Gallagher said yes, and Neely said in a casual conversation in which they discussed other issues.
“The Brown Act is a very serious issue,” Bridges said, “and if we’re going to talk about things that are right and wrong, that’s something that should be brought forward … Talking about criticism, that’s something we hear every time we come into this board room. It’s people’s right to deliver criticism if they’re unhappy.”