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Closed session confidentiality questioned

POSTED June 27, 2009 3:48 p.m.
As the clock struck 10:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, the Turlock City Council still had one item left on their agenda, a seemingly innocuous discussion on the confidentiality of matters discussed in closed session meetings.
“I believe that we’ve had a very clear violation of the (Elected Officials) Code of Conduct,” said Vice Mayor Ted Howze. “… If the violation has taken place that we believe has, it very clearly rises to the level of criminal conduct.”
While the council did not formally address the supposed transgression, Journal sources have suggested the violation stems from the recent council closed session decision to hire new City Manager Roy Wasden. Information about Wasden’s hiring was widely rumored before the council formally announced the decision.
“I don’t think we have any reason to continue or to begin a new witch hunt,” Mayor John Lazar said. “We have too many important issues to deal with and, frankly, I believe we’re better served by focusing our attention on policy matters.”
According to Lazar, he repeatedly questioned the unnamed councilmember suspected of leaking closed session information, and that councilmember denied any wrongdoing.
“I took it upon myself to try to find if there was any substance to the allegations,” said Lazar. “I did not find any.”
Lazar went on to say that debate over the supposed leak was just, “another issue to put a wedge between council members,” and that a formal investigation would open further questions into past breaches of closed session meetings.
The Elected Officials Code of Conduct provides that the mayor should initiate any formal actions, should he or she determine an alleged breach of conduct warrants sanctions. In the event that a supposed violation is not expressly observed by the mayor or councilmember — such as in the current situation — the Code of Conduct calls for the mayor to ask the city manager and/or city attorney to investigate the allegation and report findings back to the mayor.
“The proper prescribed mechanism is to turn that investigation over to the city manager and/or city attorney,” Howze said. “All I would ask is that we do what the mechanism that is prescribed says we do.”
“… If you’re okay with doing the wrong thing, overlooking something you know clearly happened that wasn’t right, then that’s fine,” Howze said to Lazar. “We’ll put it behind us. I won’t say another word about it and we’ll move on.”
City Attorney Phaedra Norton intervened in the discussion, stating that a decision on whether or not to proceed with an investigation was not the item before the council. In keeping with Brown Act requirements, she advised the council to discontinue speaking about an investigation, and to schedule a future agenda item related to the proposed inquiry.
“I’m good with letting everyone sleep on it,” Howze said. “It’s been a long night.”
At Howze’s request, City Manager Roy Wasden, who will take office June 16, will poll the council next week to see if there is a consensus to bring the matter up again.
“I think it would behoove us all to meet with Mr. Wasden and review (Council Code of Conduct),” Councilwoman Mary Jackson said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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