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Civil Grand Jury finds Hughson City Council members in violation of Brown Act

POSTED December 22, 2009 7:58 p.m.
Three Hughson City Council members received not so glad tidings on Tuesday when the Civil Grand Jury handed down a recommendation that they be removed from office.
“The Civil Grand Jury finds that the preponderance of evidence shows that Councilmen A, B, and C promoted their own agenda against the best interests of the citizens of Hughson,” according to the Civil Grand Jury Case No. 010-04.
The three council members are not named in the grand jury recommendation and referred to as Councilman A, B, and C but descriptions of each council member make their identities obvious. Thom Crowder is described as Councilman A, being appointed in January to fill the vacant position by the mayor and owning an ambulance service. Doug Humphreys, who is a former director of the Hughson Fire Protection District, is described as Councilman B. Ben Manley, who was elected in November 2008 and is a former member of the Hughson Planning Commission, is described as Councilman C.  
According to the grand jury report, public documents such as e-mails, newspaper articles, and minutes of the public Hughson City Council meetings, along with the recorded conversation between Crowder and Humphreys at the Jan. 12 meeting were explored. The grand jury also interviewed city staff, the mayor and the city council members during their investigation between August and November.
They concluded that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley were in violation of the Brown Act, Fair Political Practices and Regulations and the Hughson Municipal Code.
“I know the Brown Act inside and out,” Crowder said. “I wouldn’t do anything to violate that. This is absurd and untrue. I don’t agree with the Civil Grand Jury nor will I change the way I do business.”
At the Nov. 9 Hughson City Council meeting, members of the community expressed their belief that the councilmembers were violating the Brown Act.
“I believe the three councilmembers -- Ben Manley, Doug Humphreys, and Thom Crowder -- discussed this special meeting previously behind closed doors to put Whiteside on the council,” said Candice Steelman at the Nov. 9 meeting. “That is a violation of the Brown Act.”   
Although the grand jury found the three councilmembers in the wrong, they did not find any actions of the city staff to be “willful misconduct.”
The grand jury stated in their report that the Brown Act was violated through numerous e-mails exchanged between the three council members, the city manager, the mayor and the city attorney.
The Brown Act was passed by the California State Legislature in 1953 to guarantee the public the right to participate in and attend meetings held by local legislative bodies.
Evidence of this violation was found in one of the e-mails sent from Manley to all city council members on Nov. 16 expressing his opinion on making plans for hiring a new city manager and sharing a complaint about the mayor.
The FPPC concerns conflicts of interest for public officials. “A Public official has a conflict of interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect on one or more of his/her economic interests, . . .” as stated in Civil Grand Jury Case No. 010-04 report.
A violation of the FPPC was found through an e-mail from Crowder to a competing ambulance company on Oct. 6 requesting a position with them because of “my years of experience in Stanislaus County . . . the Board of Supervisors will be looking for options, put to them the EMSC, and I have tremendous influence with the Board of Supervisors, and could lend my name as an employee of your company,” stated in the Civil Grand Jury Case No. 010-04 report.
The Hughson Municipal Code violations were found through the recording of Crowder and Humphreys at the Jan. 12 meeting. The code that was violated was Title 2, Administration and Personnel, Section 2.08.140, which states that it is the duty of the city manager to investigate matters involving city administration.
The recording at the Jan. 12 meeting has Crowder and Humphreys expressing their criticism of the city clerk and city engineer along with referring to Manley as he has already discussed plans for the city.
“I respectfully disagree with the Civil Grand Jury,” Crowder said. “That is an opinion, they can’t prove it. They have no facts. It is only an assumption.”
The Civil Grand Jury recommends Crowder, Manley and Humphreys to step down from their position on the Hughson City Council, be removed by the Attorney General of the State of California or hold a recall election by the citizens of Hughson.
Humphreys and Manley could not be reached for comment by press time.
To contact Maegan Martens, e-mail mmartens@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.

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