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  • The Stockton Record

    Grand jury: 209 Times 'affected every level' of Stockton government with continued harassment

    By Hannah Workman, The Stockton Record,

    2024-06-11
    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4MgIO1_0tnzvNIC00

    Employees at Stockton City Hall say they have been harassed and threatened by associates of 209 Times — a social media page and self-proclaimed news source — and some city council members have enabled the alleged bad behavior, a civil grand jury report found.

    Those were two of the multiple findings the San Joaquin County Grand Jury published on Monday revealing potential Brown Act violations, ongoing bullying and intimidation from individuals connected to 209 Times, and a lack of public access to Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) filings.

    The grand jury is comprised of 19 citizens who are impaneled annually for a one-year term. It is the grand jury's duty to address citizens’ concerns regarding the operation of local government entities.

    The grand jury said it began an investigation of potential Brown Act violations by members of the Stockton City Council in 2022-2023 and continued that investigation in 2023-2024. They also received and investigated complaints regarding a "threatening and ineffective work environment" in Stockton's city government. Those complaints were largely associated with 209 Times, according to the report.

    "Witnesses reported receiving constant emails, letters, phone calls, and comments made in public demanding actions from associates of this (social media platform)," the report said. "When those associates are not satisfied, the result is insulting and misleading reports posted on social media."

    In the grand jury's report, 209 Times is referred to as "social media platform (SMP)."

    During its investigation, the grand jury conducted interviews with citizens, current and former council members, city employees, consultants, and FPPC attorneys.

    Jurors also examined the city charter, the city's code of conduct, city council meeting minutes, court case records, policies and procedures of neighboring city governments, and media reports.

    Their conclusion?

    "The efficient and ethical governing of the city of Stockton is under attack by both external and internal forces. This must be stopped," the report states. "Externally, individuals utilizing a (social media platform) have consistently attempted to undermine the local democratic process by misleading the Stockton electorate and attempting to affect election results through unethical influence."

    "Internally, members of the Stockton City Council, who support the efforts of that (social media platform), are complicit in the deterioration of comradery, trust, respect, and ethical governing in Stockton," the report states. "The continued violations of the tenets of the Brown Act by council members undermine the provision of good government to the citizens of Stockton."

    In California, governing bodies must respond to grand jury findings within 90 days.

    "The city has received the civil grand jury report and is reviewing and evaluating it for appropriate action and response," Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln said in a statement on Tuesday.

    209 Times did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

    Brown Act violations, threats, and political favors at city hall

    The 16-page grand jury report begins with a recount of a spring 2023 court battle between District 5 Councilman Brando Villapudua and Motecuzoma Sanchez — the founder of 209 Times and a political consultant who has worked with numerous elected officials in Stockton and San Joaquin County government.

    In March 2023, Villapudua was granted a temporary restraining order against Sanchez after the councilman accused the 209 Times founder of harassing and threatening him. Court documents filed by Villapudua stated that Sanchez harassed and threatened the councilman into supporting the removal of City Manager Harry Black “and others.”

    In court filings, Villapudua alleged Sanchez tried to influence his decision on Black’s performance review, sending texts before and during the March 1, 2023 city council meeting to Villapudua.

    After the meeting, Villapudua said he went to Valley Brew on the Miracle Mile. Villapudua alleged that Sanchez rushed in behind him and confronted him about closed session items.

    In his plea for protection, Villapudua stated that Sanchez knew confidential information about a closed session item, leading him to believe that someone on the city council had violated the Brown Act to leak the information to Sanchez.

    The presiding judge ruled that a permanent restraining order would be inappropriate as it would prevent a citizen from contacting their elected representatives. However, the grand jury said the filing of the restraining order brought to light that there had been a violation of the Brown Act by someone in attendance at a closed session of the Stockton City Council.

    "The city attorney hired an outside firm to conduct an investigation to determine whether a Brown Act violation had occurred and to identify the source," the report states. "The grand jury has been informed that the investigation resulted in findings that a Brown Act violation had occurred. However, neither the investigative report nor its findings were released to the public."

    Although council members have received Brown Act training, the grand jury said leaders continue to show a disregard for the law, which prohibits the release of confidential information from discussions that occurred during closed session meetings.

    In another incident, the grand jury said a member of the Stockton City Council appeared to have violated the Brown Act when they disclosed the findings of the firm's investigation to the public on official city letterhead.

    On March 4, District 1 Councilwoman Michele Padilla distributed a press release on official city letterhead, stating that she was "forced to blow the whistle on a cover up in city hall" regarding the March 2023 Brown Act violation.

    Padilla has used city letterhead to make public statements on at least two other occasions since October 2023, The Record found.

    However, city letterhead should only be used when a council member is representing the city and the city's official position, according to principles outlined by the League of California Cities.

    "The use of official city stationery by an individual council member misleads the public to believe the content reflects an official city position," the report states.

    The grand jury also noted that after being elected, a council member tried to appoint the political consultant to several city committees and commissions.

    Campaign finance documents show Padilla owed $1,000 to Tecuani, LLC, Sanchez’s political consulting firm, for services during her 2022 campaign. During her first year in office, Padilla nominated Sanchez to the Charter Review Advisory Commission. She also sought to nominate him to the Planning Commission this spring, but her motion was not seconded by a council member and the motion died.

    Some city council members have allowed 'campaign of harassment'

    In regards to claims of a threatening work environment at city hall, the grand jury report found:

    • "City government is hampered by a threatening work environment created by the continued harassment and bullying by this (social media platform). Their actions have affected every level of city government."
    • "Members of the Stockton City Council have enabled this (social media platform) to continue a campaign of harassment through their continued association with and appointment of their associates to city boards and commissions."
    • "City employees have lost confidence in the city council’s ability to ensure a non-toxic and non-threatening working environment."
    • "The practice of agendizing the performance review of chartered officers at every closed session council meeting creates a perception of unstable government in the eyes of city employees and the public."
    • "The city does not provide citizens electronic access to all Form 700 filings."
    • "There are employees of the mayor’s office that are not bound by the same employment standards as city staff."

    Grand jury says city council should 'stop enabling' 209 Times

    In regards to claims of a threatening work environment at city hall, the grand jury said it is recommending:

    • "The city council should stop enabling the (social media platform) from interfering with effective city government through their continued association and/or support of individuals associated with the (social media platform).
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city council should adopt rules for handling unlawful threatening communications received by city officials and employees. Unlawful threats, not covered under the First Amendment, should be referred to the district attorney’s office."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should adopt an ordinance similar to the City of San Franciso Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code Section 1500 et seq., to strengthen election transparency. That ordinance requires political consultants and candidates to file reports directly to the city in all municipal elections listing business relationships, financial investments, and who they pay for political help or receive in-kind support from, as well as indicating who they support in elections."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should not agendize chartered officers' performance reviews on an ongoing basis, but set them annually or for specific situations which require notice by law."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should amend its policies and procedures to make all Form 700 filings available to the public online."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city shall enact a policy that all employees of the mayor’s office are under the same mandated employment rules and laws as the rest of the city staff."

    Report found multiple Brown Act violations by city council members

    In regards to Brown Act violations, the grand jury said it found:

    • "There have been multiple and continued Brown Act violations regarding the release of confidential discussions that occurred during council closed sessions."
    • "Violation of closed session confidentiality leaves the council unable to carry out their responsibilities in the best interests of the public because they are not able to have free and open discussions due to the atmosphere of distrust."
    • "The city council lacks rules preventing the use of any electronic communication devices during closed sessions."
    • "There is a lack of transparency concerning Brown Act violation investigation findings that have been funded by citizen tax dollars."
    • "The use of official city stationery by an individual council member misleads the public to believe the content reflects an official city position."
    • "The council has received training regarding the Brown Act, but some members have demonstrated open disregard for that training."
    • "The Brown Act includes provisions to assess penalties for violations by the city council. The public has received no information that any penalties have been assessed."

    New city ordinances, council policies recommended

    In regards to Brown Act violations, the grand jury said it is recommending:

    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should amend its closed session policies and procedures to minimize the risk of revealing confidential information. There should be a requirement that no phone, electronic communication or recording devices be allowed in the room when it is a closed session. Additionally, each attendee should sign a pledge of secrecy on entering each meeting as an immediate and continual reminder that the rules of the Brown Act apply."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should develop a city ordinance regarding Brown Act violators that includes an impartial process for determining whether the Brown Act confidentiality requirement related to closed session has been violated and appropriate sanctions for the violator, including but not limited to, mandatory public censure and removal from committees and commissions."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should enact a policy that all findings of Brown Act violations investigations must be released to the civil grand jury within seven days of receipt by the council."
    • "By March 31, 2025, the city should amend their policies and procedures regarding the use of city stationary."

    Additionally, the grand jury found that the confidentiality of a hotline city employees use to report instances of fraud, waste, and abuse has been "compromised." It is recommending that by March 31, 2025, the city hire an independent third party to investigate the reporting process "to regain employee and public trust in the system."

    Record reporter Hannah Workman covers news in Stockton and San Joaquin County. She can be reached at hworkman@recordnet.com or on Twitter @byhannahworkman. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.

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