Bills Atwater $100K in first two months
Tipped off by a call from the US Press Freedom Center (USPFC) – a national organization established to defend freedom of the press and transparency and accountability by all levels of government – an investigation by Dixon’s Independent Voice (IV) has learned Dixon City Attorney Doug White is engaging in tactics similar to those he has used in Dixon to undermine and evade scrutiny.
Peter Sterne of the USPFC told the IV White had announced he now had authority to hire an investigator and bring charges against members of Atwater’s City Council, other officials, and city staff for “leaking” information from closed sessions. Sterne had learned of White’s efforts to remove new Dixon councilman Devon Minnema through an investigation and a referral for a Quo Warranto action to the California Attorney General – was firmly rejected by the AG.
Both the Atwater Times and the Merced Sun-Star confirmed Sterne’s information – and uncovered more issues with White’s actions in Atwater correlating to those in Dixon.
Those issues include high – and questionable – legal billings; taking control over responses to Public Records Act inquiries – ignoring, refusing, delaying or resisting; successfully promoting rules restricting councilmembers; seeking to neuter the City Clerk and Treasurer by changing those position to be appointed instead of elected, trying to intimidate reporters and public officials alike; billing for writing proposed ordinances similar to those he wrote for other cities; and orchestrating the removal of a popular police chief – having the chief turn over his gun and badge without notice.
Atwater has a population over 29,000 as of 2016. It is nearly bankrupt and under scrutiny by the State Auditor, who is concerned about the $2.3 million general fund deficit and other issues. White appeared at a mandatory hearing on May 16 before the Joint legislative audit committee. The state officials want to put the city in the High Risk Local Government Audit Program. White asked for and received a 90-day extension to try and show a reversal in the city’s financial trend.
White was hired as permanent City Attorney on May 14 of this year, without the normal process to allow municipal law firms to compete for the position. The split Council voted down – by a 3 to 2 vote – requests by Mayor Jim Price and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Vineyard to seek competing attorney proposals. (White had met with the three other councilmembers in October 2017 in Sacramento – unbeknownst to Price and Vineyard.)
At that same May 14 meeting– following a lengthy closed session – White announced he had been given – by a 4-0-1 vote of the council, with the mayor abstaining – authority to investigate and hire, with the assistance of the city manager, an investigator into closed session leaks. … (including) the authority to direct the investigator . . . and … to hand over information related to perceived leaks to the grand jury, to the district attorney, and to the California Attorney General and the ability to announce publicly those members of the city council who voluntarily comply with an investigation as well as those who decide to involuntarily, who decide not to participate.”
That issue was not on the agenda for the closed session – which is required by the California Open Meetings Act (The Brown Act). Every subject discussed in closed session must be properly identified on such agenda, and the public must be given the opportunity to speak.
Atwater Mayor Jim Price, responding to the new policy, stated, “I have strong feelings about giving unrestricted authority to conduct unnecessary investigations when this city is in financial difficulties and damage hasn’t been shown.”
During the first two months as interim City Attorney, White billed Atwater over $100,000 – an amount which astonished councilmembers and Atwater’s finance director. The Atwater Times filed a Public Records Act request for documents showing payment by the city to either Vida Thomas or Stoel Rives, which is the attorney firm associated with Churchwell White being used to investigate a list of minutia-level items compiled against Police Chief Sam Joseph for the purpose of terminating him. According to the Times, the only response to date was that such documents exist – but none have been provided.
Interviewed by with the Atwater Times, Lakhwinder Deol, Atwater’s Finance Director/Deputy City Manager said, “Of course. It is really high. We do have a lot going on right now with the investigations and all this.” White’s bills for just February 27 to March 31 – 19 business days – was $96,000, an average of $4,053 per business day according to the Times.
The IV has previously revealed White’s bills to Dixon were nearly $1 million for the last fiscal year.
Deol said, “I have to amend our budget, so I am taking the amendment to next City Council meeting. It has to come from the General Fund, which has a deficit of $2.3 million. It’s hurtful. We were already struggling in the General Fund so this will take away all the surplus, whatever we had in the beginning of the year. We had about $145,000 and that was hard to get. That’s going to be pretty much gone.”
She added, “I didn’t know anything like this was going to happen when we did our last year’s budget. All this happened since January to March. We were not anticipating these major changes or major expenses and that is why they were not included in the budget.”
In another similarity with Dixon, White authored a “Handbook” for council member conduct, which restricts those members ability to place items on the agenda or seek information directly from city employees.
White has a habit of suggesting new ordinances in various cities based on ordinances he previously wrote for another. In Dixon, he proposed a “city camping” ordinance based on one he wrote for Sonora. It was not requested by any Dixon councilmember – and was unanimously rejected by the Dixon council – but the city was billed for the time White’s firm spent on the matter.
In Atwater, White charged for a marijuana ordinances – at a cost of nearly $10,000 – largely based on those written for Dixon. The Atwater one was a re-do of the ordinance done by the former city attorney.
The investigation of White’s activities continues by the IV, the Atwater Times, the Merced Sun-Star, the USPFC and others. Further reports are coming.