LOCAL SPIN: Conciliation Needed
The U.S. Department of Justice looks at Salinas council.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Carol Russo isn’t allowed to talk about what she’s doing in Salinas. The work she does as a senior conciliation specialist – her actual title – for the U.S. Department of Justice is meant to be confidential. But there was a scrupulously clean dark blue car with the federal government plates parked outside Salinas City Hall on March 19, the night of the last council meeting. That, combined with whispers that the DOJ held a nearly six-hour meeting with embattled City Councilman Jose Castañeda and a few dozen of his supporters over the weekend, and it just wasn’t hard to pick out the fed in the room.
After she hands me her card and kindly explains she’s not allowed to talk to me, I do a little Google stalking. She works for a division of the DOJ that was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she helps resolve community racial conflict through non-coercive, third-party conciliation.
In short, she goes into communities that are in serious need of help and listens. She listens to community groups struggling with officer-involved shootings, as she did in Vallejo in January. She monitors court cases involving minority victims, as she did in Fresno when she followed the case of Patty Dawson, a Native American nurse who was assaulted in a road-rage attack. Russo did the same in Berkeley in 2002, when Berkeley High was going through its semi-annual round of student-on-student racial violence.
And I’m not sure there was a place in more desperate need of conciliation on Tuesday night than the Salinas City Council.
Start with the fact that Jose Ibarra, one of Castañeda’s supporters, told the council and the assembled crowd of his intent to launch a recall campaign against Mayor Joe Gunter. By Gunter’s refusal to appoint Castañeda to any boards or commissions he is disenfranchising the voters who put Castañeda in office, Ibarra says. He’s gathered enough signatures to file a petition with the Registrar of Voters, then begin gathering the thousands of signatures it will take to put the recall on an upcoming ballot.
Add to that Councilwoman Jyl Lutes’ incandescent rage that one speaker accused her of knowingly violating the Brown Act – a statement Lutes says bordered on slander – by holding private meetings to discuss city business without giving proper notice those meetings were taking place.
And then move on to the reason so much friction was there in the first place: Since taking office as the city’s District 1 councilman, Castañeda has refused to resign from his Alisal Union School District board seat, a move the city contends violates the state’s so-called “incompatible offices” rule. Castañeda, they say, is knowingly breaking the law by holding both seats, and since the Alisal board won’t do anything about it, someone else has to.
So the council voted last night to hire a law firm and seek the Attorney General’s blessing on a civil suit to force Castañeda to step down from the school board.
The exact amount of money that will take is to be determined. Some say tens of thousands, but I predict it will reach six figures before they’re through. Tom Willis, an attorney for the firm Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, presented to the council and claimed while it’s clear Castañeda is violating the incompatible offices law, the Attorney General won’t fund these suits on its own and someone else needs to pay for it.
So as the city prepares to furlough employees, as it faces a looming budget shortfall that could result in layoffs, as it has so few police on the streets that drug dealers are operating openly throughout Oldtown – and don’t even get me started on the prostitution ring delivering teenage flesh to clients a few blocks from my house – they’ve decided there is enough money to do this.
The vote was split: Lutes, Gunter, Gloria de la Rosa and Kimbley Craig voted for it; Castañeda abstained; and Steve McShane and Tony Barrera voted against.
Lutes says since the Alisal board won’t do what’s right, if the city walked away from the issue it would be ignoring the fact that Castañeda is breaking the law. Craig contends Castañeda has forced the city into spending the money through his refusal to step down from the school board. McShane says the conflict between the offices is clear, but it’s not the city’s purview to pay for the suit.
And Castañeda says if certain councilmembers are so interested in suing for his ouster, they should reach into their own pockets and fund it themselves.
So we’re left with a DOJ investigation, a recall attempt against a mayor who doesn’t deserve it, an increasingly large crevasse growing between the Alisal and the rest of the city, and a lawsuit the city can’t afford but is going to pay for anyway.
I could use a little bit of conciliation myself.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.