Disgruntled with dialogue exchanged between residents of Sun Lakes Country Club in Banning last February during which City Manager Doug Schulze participated in a meet and greet event, Banning council member Don Peterson demanded that the city provide documentation for assertions he believed were attributed to him at the program.
Though Peterson is not mentioned by name, Schulze is reported at the time to have explained that “one council member” has forced the city to pay out over a million dollars to former employees for wrongful termination and retaliation.
“I am demanding to see ALL supporting documents and records that justify Doug’s comments, public speech and Power Point presentation,” according to the public records request.
Peterson claims that Schulze, in a video recording from the event, was “spewing lies,” and declared Schulze’s presentation as “defamatory.”
At his request, the city provided the documents publicly, and shed light on the activities Peterson has engaged in, along with other former city officials including former planning commissioner David Ellis and former police chief Alex Diaz.
Together, their actions have cost the city more than $2 million in payouts, as pointed out in the latest grand jury report issued last June.
A grand jury delivered findings of an investigation to the city June 18, which was released to the public June 21.
The report states that a council member directed an interim police chief on day-to-day functions in the Police Department.
A council member, based on “inappropriate actions” has “contributed to low employee retention” and was “frequently” referred to as a “bully” by former and current employees, resulting in a hostile work environment that has cost the city nearly $2 million in settlements.
At a special city council meeting on Aug. 7, Peterson shrugged off perceptions that he bullies people, claiming that bullying is behavior only exhibited by children, and suggested that people misinterpreted his self-described brash style of engagement when talking to people.
In July 2014 the city responded to a harassment and defamation complaint received by the state’s Department of Fair Employment & Housing on behalf of former administrators Duane Burk, the Public Works director; City Manager Andy Takata and Police Chief Leonard Purvis for alleged whistle blower retaliation, intentional interference with contractual relations, defamation and harassment, among other claims.
Public Works Director Duane Burk: $430,838
Burk had been a whistle blower reporting that Councilman Peterson had a conflict of interest with the FPPC (the Fair Political Practices Commission) when Peterson wanted to vote on a development project within 500 feet of his property (which is illegal).
According to that claim, “Burk Insured councilman Peterson paid the proper amounts to the city for city work on his sewer line. Peterson wanted to have a freebie which would constitute an illegal gift of government funds” as of March 2014.
The claim by whistleblowers states that the city at the time was in violation of Prop. 218, since its Banning Utility Authority was benefiting from profits through water and wastewater funds, which were diverted to help pay for a new police station, a community pool and air conditioning upgrades at city hall.
Former Police Chief Leonard Purvis and Takata were listed as whistleblowers, and they along with Burk were retaliated against; all three were subjected to defamatory statements by Peterson and former Planning Commissioner David Ellis in a website that Peterson and Ellis control.
The claim went on to declare that the defendants would have known that, “by publicizing false and defamatory comments about Purvis and Takata knew or should have known that the comments would impact the future employment opportunities” for them; further, the claim states the “defamation was made with malice.”
Additional claims were added to the government claim naming “Peterson and City Planning Commissioner David Ellis were also responsible for defamation against City Public Works Director Duane Burk,” having contributed publication of “false and defamatory statements against Burk which are defamatory per se and have no truth to them.”
The claim states, “Much like Peterson’s retaliation against Purvis when he would not do Peterson a ‘favor’ that was illegal, Burk would not engage in illegal acts at Peterson’s request. (Takata also would not listen to Peterson’s request to engage in illegal activities.) Each of the plaintiffs thus is a whistleblower and was directly retaliated against by Peterson.”
Settlement for that case included: $167,024.83 to Burk; $109,814.01 in leave and benefits owed to Burk, who would resign as a result of the settlement.
Additionally, the city had to pay the Employment Risk Management Authority, which is a statewide joint powers authority designed to provide broad coverage for loss prevention and liability exposure to public entities, $154,000.
Police Chief Leonard Purvis: $599,242
In March 2014 a separate claim against the city on behalf of former city manager Takata and former police chief Purvis was retaliated against by Peterson after the councilman “in his capacity as Banning City Councilman, attempted to cause Claimant to violate the California Penal Code; when Claimant refused, Peterson attempted and continues to attempt to wrongfully terminate Claimant from his employment with the City of Banning as Chief of Police.”
The letter received by the city clerk’s office stated that, in a voice mail message to Purvis, Peterson requested: “Leonard, I need a favor … I need a 28 run on one of my personal plates … I’m not sure if I filed a non-op on it or not … hoping you could run a 28 on it … it’ll save me from sitting on my butt for two hours in DMV.”
At the Aug. 7 special council meeting, Peterson claims that all of his requests to Purvis were all sent through the city manager.
The court claim states, “Since Peterson touts his alleged prior law enforcement experience on the city’s website, he is well aware that asking a ‘favor’ of the Chief of Police in running his personal vehicle is a violation of the California Penal Code, CLETS (California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System) policies and policies of the Banning Police Department, but attempted to induce Claimant Purvis to indeed violate the law in doing so. Purvis refused. After Purvis communicated his refusal to Peterson, Peterson indicated that ‘I had my buddy run the plate.’ Since that time Peterson has launched a vendetta against Purvis, attempting to have him terminated from his employment by the City and personally contacting officers to encourage a ‘no-confidence’ vote against” him “in a clear-cut act of retaliation.”
“This is an ongoing pattern of inappropriate and illegal behavior from Councilman Peterson. In December 2012, Peterson attempted to insinuate himself into a confidential investigation into former mayor Don Robinson. Peterson personally requested information from Chief Purvis regarding the investigation, which Purvis refused …”
The claim stated that a report was made by Purvis to the district attorney “regarding Peterson’s attempt to commit a violation of (the penal code), unauthorized computer access and fraud. Claimant also caused an audit of the CLETS system; since he was concerned that Peterson had accessed the system through a Banning Police Officer.”
According to the claim, an audit confirmed that Peterson did have a CLETS violation occur on his behalf, though the plate was run by someone at the Whittier Police Department.
The city would end up settling with Purvis for a total of $599,242.
City Manager Andy Takata: $578,951
In March 2014 a claim against the city shows that then-city manager Andy Takata participated in a settlement conference involving claims of then-police chief Purvis. As part of the agreement between the city and Purvis, according to the claim, Takata wrote a letter of recommendation for Purvis.
“Councilman Peterson criticized and tried to prevent City Manager Takata from fulfilling his responsibilities pursuant to the settlement agreement, contract,” and engaged in making “a number of false statements to the press after the Purvis settlement,” according to the claim.
The claim also alleged that “defendants” including Peterson defamed Purvis and Takata “with malice.”
“Defendants tried to force Mr. Takata to leave with a severance package. He did not accept their offer,” according to the claim, which went on to report, “The defendants then set a hearing providing Mr. Takata notice on Friday, March 21, 2014 at 6:49 p.m. of a City Council meeting for Tuesday, March 25, 2014 with several accusations against Mr. Takata going back to 2011 that are apparently to be used as a means of wrongfully terminating Mr. Takata in breach of his contract.”
The claim points out that this action violates the Brown Act, which ensures public access to government meetings in California.
Takata would settle for $275,951, plus an additional $159,000 to the Employment Risk Management Authority, and $144,000 in attorneys’ fees to Woodland Hills-based Goldberg & Gage.
Sgt. Steve Hobb: $365,000
In another instance where Peterson imposed his influence involved former Police Chief and Interim City Manager Alex Diaz and Planning Commissioner David Ellis.
On Sept. 11, 2013 fire trucks parked along the San Gorgonio Avenue 1-10 freeway bridge were flying flags to honor fallen fire fighters who had perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
According to a lawsuit filed against the city, Commissioner Ellis “demanded that the fire trucks … be cited as Don Peterson had considered them to be in violation of California Vehicle Section 400, which they were not. Hobb refused to violate the law by issuing fraudulent traffic citations at the insistence of a council member.
In May of 2014, Hobb was demoted in retaliation, according to court documents. “Peterson and HR Personnel (director) Rita Chaparrosa wanted Hobb to be terminated as a result of Hobb following the orders of Chief Purvis and writing a police report regarding the incident on Sept. 11, 2013.”
“As a result of this action, Peterson began his unrelenting campaign of retaliation and harassment against Hobb.” the suit claims.
The suit continues: “In May 2014, Hobb was demoted from sergeant to corporeal [sic] in retaliation. Peterson and (deputy human resources director) HR Personnel Rita Chaparrosa wanted Hobb to be terminated as a result of Hobb following the orders of Chief Purvis and writing a police report regarding the incident.”
Hobb had been president of the Banning Police Officers Association, which had not endorsed Diaz to become the next chief.
The suit states that Diaz “threatened Hobb and another officer” should “do whatever it took to protect themselves and their family.”
Diaz admitted to Hobb that the officer had been passed over for the promotion due to politically motivated pressure placed on Diaz by the city council.
“Following a series of continued harassment, retaliation and attempted intimidation by Peterson, Hobb filed a complaint” with the city in November 2014, according to the suit.
According to court documents, “Hobb blew the whistle on a quid pro quo deal between Diaz, City Council, and Interim City Manager James Smith. Diaz admitted to Hobb that he promoted an unqualified officer, to the position of sergeant as a result of an arrangement with Smith. Smith promised Diaz that if the officer was promoted, then The Department would receive new cars, personnel and money for the new radio system. In eachange for (Robert) Fischer’s promotion, Smith was told that he would procure the full time City Manager position.”
Smith was released from the city with a few months from when he was hired.
According to the suit, “Hobb had blown the whistle on Diaz and his threats and illegal activities” and “… discovered that Diaz did not open an internal affairs investigation, but was cover the incident up” and learned that Rita Chapparosa informed him that contrary to required policy, she made the decision that the city would not open an investigation into Peterson.”
The suit claims, “Further, Hobb was impeded by the Banning Police Department and the City of Banning from exposing the unjustified promotions within the department. The Department promoted an officer to the position after the officer failed to qualify to take the Chief’s Oral Exam. Diaz informed Hobb that the reason for the promotion was politically motivated due to pressure.”
The suit explains that Diaz admitted to Hobb that was put on administrative leave the day before he had scheduled meeting with the Banning Police Officers Association in which Hobb intended to expose Diaz’s actions, and Hobb was not allowed to attend the meeting.
The suit claims that the action was “a blatant attempt by Diaz to cover-up his corruption.”
Peterson read a glowing letter of support from Diaz at the special council meeting Aug. 7.
The city would ultimately settle with Hobb: $124,600 directly to Hobb, and $140,000 to Adams & Ferrone & Ferrone APC, the Westlake Village law firm that represented him. An additional $100,000 was paid to Los Angeles-based Gordon Edelstein law firm as compensation proceeds.
Peterson an expensive liability to Banning
Peterson has boasted about how much he researches city council meeting agendas and thoroughly scrutinizes details of city business, and how his involvement has saved the city money when it comes to making decisions.
Yet, he has initiated grand jury investigations that have resulted in the city and its partners in human resource losses from individuals who feel they were retaliated against or bullied by him while they worked for the city.
Based on these known cases, the figures add up to more than $1.9 million.
The court documents referenced in this story were only made available because Peterson himself “demanded” the city to produce them, and are posted on the city’s website.
There are incalculable interruptions to human resources each time a grand jury does an investigation, when understaffed city employees have to drop what they are doing to come up with the documentation that such an investigation requires, and the scores of past employees who have left under duress, and the costs to the organizations that partner to make Banning a better place, whether it has been his attacks on the Cultural Alliance or the Banning Chamber of Commerce.
According to the city, Peterson regularly bypasses communication with the city manager and instead communicates to City Manager Doug Schulze through the city attorney.
According to the city, billing for city attorney’s fees for communications between the five council members in the first quarter of 2019 has been highest with Peterson: $1,491.79, as opposed to the second-highest fees accrued by councilmember David Happe who racked up $430.34 between January and March.
Peterson told constituents at the Aug. 7 special council meeting that his name was later dropped from the suits.
His name was not, however, removed from the court documents that were generated from his actions, resulting in the city being liable for his activities.
Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x114.