CALIFORNIA CITY — Just over a month into its new cycle, California City city council began to show some friction, as Councilmember Kelly Kulikoff requested that Mayor Jeanie O'Laughlin be censured.
Kulikoff made the request at the end of the Jan. 12 meeting after alleging O'Laughlin attempted to violate California's Ralph M. Brown Act and the city's municipal code prohibiting council members from taking an active management role in city business.
"A member of the city council cannot act unilaterally. We are bound by the law that states we must act as a body and cannot micromanage employees," Kulikoff said. "This type of environment creates a poison for which there is no easy cure."
Kulikoff said that he believed O'Laughlin "may have the best interest of California City in her heart" but was constantly overstepping and overreaching her role as an elected official.
He cited an example at the Jan. 7 special meeting, where the council discussed framework for future ad hoc meetings related to the city's "Vision 360" document.
"The mayor referred to a member of the public that asked to help on the ad hoc committee as a 'one trick pony' and attempted to discourage their value as a member of the ad hoc committee," Kulikoff said. "This bias stems from a lack of public sentiment and disregard of government policy."
Kulikoff also alleged O'Laughlin was "mayor with many hidden agendas and biases that are in direct violation" of her office. He added that O'Laughlin "has attempted at least once most recently to engage in a discussion with her related to city business in which she had told me another councilmember was in agreement."
The allegation would violate the Brown Act's definition of a "serial meeting," where a member of a legislative body conducts a series of individual members. Kulikoff said the topic was not brought up in a public meeting and "is unfair to every member of our community to be disenfranchised from lack of transparency."
Other allegations included disclosing closed session items to members of the community, based on what he heard through private conversations with community members.
He acknowledged his statements would likely color his politics on the council going forward but stressed his ethics prevented him from "hiding behind closed doors." He stressed the mayor's alleged unilateral actions could open California City up to increased liability.
When Kulikoff requested discussion to censure O'Laughlin and develop future framework for similar violations, O'Laughlin immediately requested that City Attorney Baron Bettenhausen meet with Kulikoff.
"These are outrageous [allegations]," O'Laughlin said. "I don't even know where some of these are coming from, but I would appreciate you meeting with him to find out what is going on."
O'Laughlin added that a lot of Kulikoff's statement made no sense to her.
"I've been very careful not to contact employees at all," O'Laughlin said. "I have not micromanaged anything."
Bettenhausen said he would meet with Kulikoff, but stressed existing city policy required requested items be added to the agenda unless a council majority directed otherwise.
Councilmember Karen Macedonio recommended "doing the least invasive thing first" by having Kulikoff speak with Bettenhausen before bringing it to a closed session matter and if necessary for public discussion.
"It's clear we have an issue that needs to be resolved for our council to be a team going forward," Macedonio said. "But I recommend the least invasive thing that starts is the conversation between our city attorney and Councilmember Kulikoff."
Mayor Pro Tem Nick Lessenevitch agreed with Macedonio's stance.
"It's a little premature," he said, adding the council is "a little too young in this process."
Kulikoff said he had tried speaking with the city attorney to avoid bringing the topic to council. A second discussion he said would have no new information.
Bettenhausen confirmed the conversation, and had advised Kulikoff to address the matter in closed session first.
"I do believe the potential liability issues raised by what was said justifies closed session conversation first," Bettenhausen said, "and then based on that, Councilmember Kulikoff could decide how [he wants] to move forward. He later added the concern was for employees and cautioned against naming specific ones during public session.
Lessenevitch agreed any such discussion should be done in closed session, citing potential legal action.
"No matter what we do, we heighten the potential for increased litigation by the very topic we are examining," Lessenevitch said.
Kulikoff said a closed session discussion would be appropriate before bringing it to the public if it was the city attorney's recommendation. However, he reiterated his desire for transparency and said he would avoid naming specific employees per city policy.
"I believe in transparency to the point where something like this doesn't look like it needs to be in closed session," Kulikoff said. "It's just like hiding stuff under the rug at this point."
Macedonio called for a vote to have Kulikoff speak first with the city attorney before deciding if it warranted a closed session discussion at the next council meeting. The vote passed with a 4-1 vote, with only Councilmember Jim Creighton voting no.
Bettenhausen said he would forward a recommendation following his conversation with Kulikoff.