No one wanted to point a finger publicly and accuse Banning City Councilman Don Peterson as being the focus of its latest investigation released in June.

Not the city manager, not a single present or former council member.

Among the findings outlined in its report, the grand jury vaguely claimed that a council member in question circumvented the authority of the city manager and directly dealt with department heads or employees; “created a destructive culture within city government” that led several employees to resign from city employment “in response to improper, unprofessional and inappropriate contact and actions by this council member”; the council member in question directed an interim police chief on day-to-day functions in the Police Department, resulting in the chief’s adoption of those actions as his own; and that the negative culture of bullying led by the council member led to low employee retention, and litigation costing the city at least $2 million.

Councilman Dave Happe asked City Attorney Kevin Ennis during a special council meeting Aug. 7 that was held to address the investigation, “The grand jury did not name anyone in particular. Who are we talking about?”

“I think this is a determination the council needs to make,” Ennis replied, and explained that it was common for grand juries to not specify people targeted in their investigations.

Happe pointed out that Peterson had already confessed to the newspaper that it was about him.

Peterson and his friends seemed to know that the investigation was about him, and came out in force to defend him.

Among them were current and past city planning commissioners Inge Schuler and David Ellis.

There were former council members Jerry Westholder and Ed Miller, aligned with Peterson.

There were activists from community groups, like Dorothy Familetti MacLean from Pass Area Supporting Soldiers, and Ellen Carr of Tender Loving Critters animal rescue.

They offered fulcrums of supportive actions Peterson is credited for having initiated over the years, such as saving the city funds by providing spending options, or challenging contracts that he disagreed with.

Peterson, his supporters claim, is diligent, and is knowledgeable about the city agenda at every meeting.

Carr wanted to know “where the hoopla” and “all the outraged citizens” when the first three grand jury investigations hit the city regarding handshake deals, redevelopment funds and the use of city staff to benefit a private enterprise.

“He’s ruffled the feathers of some, so ‘Off with his head,’” Carr said. “It’s a personal attack. For years Don has done an excellent job. He does his homework. He comes prepared with his research and facts. Don has become a thorn in the side for some people. When he sees something wrong, he does something about it. Sadly, he’s ruffled the feathers of the status quo … certain people aren’t thinking about what’s best for Banning — they just want the thorn in their side removed.”

Businessman Rick Pippenger praised all the council for the hard work that they do, and emphasized, “No one works as hard as Don Peterson.”

Westholder likened the council meeting to “nothing more than a kangaroo court,” and also lamented that no action was taken by the city after the release of the last three grand jury investigations in 2010 regarding redevelopment funds received by the Cultural Alliance, 2016 involving the Banning Chamber of Commerce, 2018 after employees of Diamond Hills approached a council member for assistance.

Council member Happe agreed that Peterson is thorough in his research.

So did Mayor Welch, though Welch noted, “Don Peterson uses his talent not to make this city better, but he uses them against individuals and does not share any of it with other council members to look for support. Usually a staff member is a target in public with no attempt to work through the system to achieve results,” and accused him of circumventing the city manager and challenging the city manager’s authority to manage staff.

“When it comes right down to it. Based on the findings of the grand jury report, Don should be censured for his actions,” Welch said.

Happe pointed out Peterson’s acknowledgement that Peterson contributes to web sites that relies on anonymous postings to attack people of influence in Banning, contributing to a toxic environment.

Peterson’s contributions to such sites “is very disturbing” by “abusing the First Amendment,” Happe said.

Similar behavior got a councilman who had been corresponding with Peterson in Bainbridge Island, Wash., censured by his colleagues earlier this summer.

Council member Colleen Wallace expressed her disappointment in having witnessed Peterson bully others.

“He is very unprofessional, and I feel he should be censured and taken off the Business and Finance Committee,” and described Peterson as someone who tries to “make himself look good and us look bad.”

She attempted to make a motion to censure him; Peterson made a substitute motion to delay hers until the council had a chance to hear him out.

Happe seconded Peterson’s substitute motion.

Peterson took the opportunity to explain that he read letters from former police chiefs and referenced statements from former city employees who came up to the lectern to support Peterson.

Peterson reminded the council of a grand jury report from a year earlier that he had motioned to censure Welch, and was eligible to make another attempt to apply censure on the same topic had to wait a year.

Peterson expressed his interest in renewing a set of charges against Welch as a counter to the council’s desire to censure him on the latest grand jury’s investigation.

A previous attempt to censure Art Welch by Peterson failed in 2018 after Peterson’s motion died for a lack of a second.

While the motion will have to be redone at the Sept. 10 council meeting (and the council's determinations and response to the grand jury is due by the Sept. 24 council meeting), it was a symbolic gesture that shows that Banning council members believe Peterson has misused his power as a councilman, and allegedly has bullied or intimidated others around him to create a toxic environment among the city's leadership.

The person bringing notice of censure, and the person receiving it, cannot vote on the action.

Only the three other voting members can.

Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x114.

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