Turlock City Attorney Phaedra Norton has been missing from City Council meetings for about two months and not much has been said about it other than Mayor Gary Soiseth revealing that the employee in the position was out on leave and coming back, along with speculation that Norton was Mayor Soiseth’s choice as the top candidate to replace former Turlock City Manager Gary Hampton before a new hiring process by Soiseth failed to hire any candidate.
At the Sept. 26 City Council meeting, Councilwoman Bublak asked if it could be agendized to discuss several City management level positions, including the position of City Attorney, as she was concerned about possibly leaving the City government vulnerable.
Councilwoman Amy Bublak showed concern for not seeing the City Manager hiring process on the City Council Meeting agenda where she stated that her and at least one other Council Member were expecting to address the hiring process.
Mayor Soiseth argued that it was not allowed to discuss the positions at that time. Councilwoman Bublak requested advice from the legal counsel, who was sitting in for City Attorney Phaedra Norton who had not been at the Council Meetings for unspecified leave, if the request to agendize a discussion was allowed. However, Mayor Soiseth didn’t let the legal counsel answer and shut down the request that he was arguing against.
At the Sept. 26, 2017, City Council meeting, former Turlock Mayor Brad Bates spoke during the public comment section of the agenda and asked where Council was in the process of selecting a city manager.
Nobody answered at first. After an awkward silence, Turlock Mayor Soiseth responded with, “The process is confidential but I appreciate your question.”
“Ok, could you possibly schedule it as an agenda item as an update,” asked Bates.
“Again, the process is confidential but we’ll agendize it when we have something to report,” stated Mayor Soiseth.
Bates then said, “Could I ask what the status is of the city attorney?”
Despite already commenting with some explanation or an excuse, Mayor Soiseth responded with, “Mr. Bates you know we can’t comment on your questions from public participation.”
Bates brought up that the City of Turlock had someone else sitting in as legal counsel other than City Attorney Norton.
“I see we have representation. Are we paying for two city attorneys?”
No answers were given, not even an explanation or introduction for who the legal counsel sitting in for the City Attorney was.
The prior speaker, Frank Johnson, was addressing the City Council stating that there was bullying of employees, Brown Act violations, and unilateral decisions being made in the leadership under Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth.
However, Mayor Soiseth did comment back to Johnson saying, “Thanks so much. As stated, I’m happy to meet with you anytime to hear some of these issues that you’ve brought up. And hopefully we meet soon.”
On Oct. 10, 2017, former Turlock Mayor Brad Bates again spoke during public participation stating that he had asked questions regarding the hiring process for a new city manager, what is the employment status of the city attorney who has been absent, and is the City paying for two city attorneys as an outside legal counsel was once again sitting in for City Attorney Phaedra Norton.
At the previous Council meeting on Sept. 26, Mayor Soiseth stated that they couldn’t comment. However, someone’s public comment issues may be requested to be agendized.
Noting that, Bates said that he did request the positions of City Manager and City Attorney be put on the agenda to discuss, and that it was not, while no updates to the public had been given either.
Continuing the contradictions, the outside legal counsel did discuss some aspects of Bates’ concerns even though it was during public participation that Mayor Soiseth said that they can’t comment.
“There is more going on here than meets the eye,” stated Bates.
“I hoped, or expected, that at least one of the Council Members would also be interested in these updates.”
“We’re just questioning where are you in the process,” said Bates.
“And I’m confused, because the City went to great lengths to promote citizen participation – you convened two citizens committees, you wanted input on the process of selecting a city manager, now all of a sudden, the process is confidential and the only information and discussion is taking place in closed session.”
Bates continued to explain the importance or at least getting some public update.
“I do wish that the press would take more interest in this because these are big decisions for the city’s future and the public cannot be expected to care about things they don’t know anything about.”
Also at both City Council meetings, City Attorney Phaedra Norton’s potential malfeasance, negligence, or political issues came up surrounding the Turlock Chamber of Commerce conducting political action in a City owned building, the audit for unallowable funds after a City contract for marketing and tourism services was terminated and led to the Chamber needing to payback the City approximately $200,000, and a $90,000 loan that the Chamber deposited in one of their bank accounts but have not paid back as of the time of the meetings.
The City Manager hiring process ended after an Oct. 10 City Council closed session meeting with the reportable action stated publicly at about 11 p.m. that the current City Manager recruitment would end and that Council would start over.
While City Attorney Phaedra Norton’s name has been noted on the City Council meeting public notice agendas, she has not been present but rather an outside legal counsel. This led to the questions from former Turlock Mayor Brad Bates and confusion within the community.
TurlockCityNews.com questioned the City of Turlock in email and received some clarity by the attorney filling in for Norton, Sky Woodruff, of Meyers Nave.
“The City Attorney is currently out on leave and my law (Meyers Nave) will be covering the Council meetings until the City Attorney returns,” stated Woodruff. “The City of Turlock contracts with Meyers Nave for assistance with legal matters.”
“My name was not reflected on the agenda since I’m only covering while the City Attorney is out and the City used their template form.”
Councilman Gil Esquer also responded to the email inquiry sent to the Interim City Manager Robert Talloni and all City Council Members.
“The attorney sitting in the meeting in one of the contracted attorneys we have on retainer.
You are correct, Sky should have been introduced.”
TurlockCityNews.com recently asked on Nov. 6, is the City Attorney still on leave, does the City of Turlock still have a City Attorney or are the hired outside counsel still filling in, and how long is this to be expected?
The City of Turlock has not responded at the time of this report.