BY TREVOR CADDEL
A recent report from a Riverside County Civil Grand Jury investigation finds that one Banning City Council member has frequently circumvented the authority of the city manager and dealt directly with department heads and city employees creating a hostile work environment that has cost the city of Banning nearly $2 million in litigation settlements.
The report was issued on Wednesday, June 18 and embargoed until Friday, June 21 when it was released to the public.
The grand jury recommended that this “bullying behavior” by one particular city council member be addressed by the city council by implementation of “specific policies and procedures for disciplinary actions against any city council member or department head who violates city procedures or ordinances.
“The City Council should publically censure any of it members who violate standards of civil and ethical conduct, including violations of laws and municipal codes. They must govern themselves in a professional manner.”
The goals, as outlined by the report, aim to increase the accountability of the City Council and raise the standards in which the city government operates by increasing the involvement of the citizens of Banning.
It encourages voters to elect representatives that inspire confidence and perform their duties according to the laws and policies that are in place.
The report does not identify any member of city council by name; however, incidents cited in the report involved past actions related to Don Peterson.
When asked for comment, Peterson said in an e-mail to the Record Gazette that, “since this story involves me, I see you’re chomping at the bit to get the story going. I am out of state and will not be back until July 1, and I will not be at (last Tuesday’s) meeting. Furthermore, this report is not on the agenda, and it will not be addressed at the next meeting. The city has 90 days to respond, and I will give my response at that time. It will be a moment that you will not want to miss.”
According to the Banning Municipal Code: 2.08.110: “The city council and its members shall deal with the administrative services of the city only through the City Manager, except for the purpose of inquiry; and neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager.”
As outlined by the report under the “Council Member’s Independent Actions” portion of the investigation, “one councilmember’s actions created a destructive culture within the city government. Interviews of Banning employees revealed that several city employees resigned from city employment in response to improper, unprofessional and inappropriate contact and actions by this councilmember.
“Another such action was directing an Interim Police Chief on the day-to-day functions in the police department. The Interim Police Chief regularly adopted these directions as his own and appeared to not make independent decisions.”
According to the summary of the report issued by the county of Riverside, “The Banning Municipal Code and Ordinances are clear on how the City Council and City Manager are expected to interact. The people of Banning deserve and expect proper function and operation of their city government. The City Council and City Manager must aspire and strive towards collaboration and professionalism in order to govern effectively. The dynamics of solid government demand cooperation, civility and trust.”
Under the “Low Employee Retention” portion of the report, the grand jury addressed what it sees as “inappropriate actions” that “have contributed to low employee retention and difficulty in filling open positions with qualified personnel.”
These findings reveal that many city officials including an acting city manager, a department head and multiple city employees left city employment as a direct result of continued harassment.
When asked for comment on the findings of the grand jury, Mayor Art Welch declined to make a statement on the grounds that the council as a whole has not had an opportunity to address the issue.
Welch has been a target in the past of a grand jury investigation into his having directed an inquiry regarding a local business be redirected to the city manager’s office.
Councilmember Dave Happe also declined to comment on the issue, but was able to confirm that the findings were unrelated to his position on council due to the fact he had not yet began serving his term during the time that the investigation was launched.
Similarly, Councilwoman Colleen Wallace had yet to begin her term on the city council prior to the start of the investigation, and said she had not yet had the time to address the issues with council and said she was unable to comment on the grand jury’s findings.
Councilwoman Daniela Andrade could not be reached for comment.
Former councilwoman Debbie Franklin acknowledged being interviewed by the grand jury.
She told the Record Gazette, “The grand jury report, like any other report, should be taken seriously, and efforts should be made to comply on an ongoing basis. Every councilmember should hold themselves to a higher standard and be aware that someone is watching all the time.”
The Record Gazette was unable to confirm with the county as to whom had initiated the grand jury investigation.
The Riverside County Civil Grand Jury’s report appears in its entirety on the following page.