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Split vote on firing attorneys nothing new for Lodi City Council

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Posted: Friday, January 16, 2004 10:00 pm

It was the most important City Council vote in recent months, and when it was taken, it was split.

Mayor Larry Hansen, Vice Mayor John Beckman and Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock voted to dismiss City Attorney Randy Hays and special pollution counsel Michael Donovan.

They were opposed by Councilman Keith Land and Councilwoman Emily Howard.

In the past six months, in fact, council members have consistently been split on a series of big decisions.

Is such disagreement healthy, or does the City Council need unity? The question seems increasingly relevant in light of a failed censure attempt last year and an apparently deepening division on how to deal with a high-stakes pollution lawsuit.

Former mayor Randy Snider said split votes alone don't make or break a City Council.

Randy Snider

"When people tell me there are 3-2 votes, it doesn't bother me. I would be suspicious if every vote that took place was 5-0," he said, adding that perpetual unity looks like council members have made their decisions before ever discussing them.

He served on the City Council for three terms.

"The critical thing is you need to move on. You did your best, you fought your battle. You don't sit around and pout about it or complain about it. And you can't let your ego get in the way," Snider said.

Land said it makes it very difficult when he knows whatever the majority vote of the council will be, there won't be unity.

Hansen, however, referred to it as the Democratic process.

"Will (a split vote) happen every time? No. Can it happen most of the time? I believe so," he said.

"You don't always want a 5-0 vote because it shows we haven't debated the issues. I think it's healthy."

Land said to see where the City Council goes one must look at the contamination litigation.

"I can only ask that the three individuals who reset this course let us know what their plan is to clean up the groundwater."

(The City Council approved signing a contract Friday with a Sacramento-based law firm to help chart the legal course. Land was unable to attend, because of a prior commitment.)

In 2000, the city sued more than a dozen businesses, including the News-Sentinel, in an attempt to force their insurance companies to pay to clean up polluted groundwater throughout central Lodi.

Since then, there have been numerous countersuits from the businesses who believe the city should also be held responsible for maintaining the sewer systems that carried the contaminants.

On Monday, two days before the city was set to go to trial, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. blasted the city's attorneys and its legal strategy.

On Wednesday, the city went back to Sacramento, where Damrell agreed to postpone the trial for 30 days since its attorneys had been fired.

Beckman feels there has been a lack of council unity mainly on legal issues.

"On most city issues we are united," he said.

Snider, who is confident the current council members will overcome its internal issues, dealt with upheaval during years on the City Council with Ray Davenport, a controversial councilman who survived a 1993 recall attempt. His opponents accused him of monopolizing City Council meetings and disrupting city government.

"As a general rule, we were all friends," said Snider, who also served with former councilman Jim Pinkerton, an outspoken voice on the City Council during the 1990s.

"I could get into a heated debate during the meeting with him … and then go down to the local watering hole (after the meetings)," Snider said.

"There are so many issues right now that this council is being bombarded with. There are budget issues, this litigation.

"It's like a marriage. You've got to recognize that everyone's looking at that same goal and just plow through it … and you've got to love each other."

Focus on the future

Land said he will continue to work with council members - especially to find a solution to satisfy the state and federal governments to clean up the contamination without going to the rate payers - but noted it may be hard with such different schools of thought.

"Being a council member, you need to be able to compromise and meet your goals as an elected official, and come out united."

Further, Land said, the "style of leadership on the council" has made it hard on city staff to do their work. He declined to pinpoint one council member and said he includes himself, but said the style is filled with "one confrontation after another."

Meanwhile, Beckman said it is important council members focus on finding a new city attorney.

Hansen agreed, feeling that a decision on Hays has been made and the City Council should move on.

"I will do everything I can to keep the council informed," he said.

With an election this year, could the council become more harmonious?

Lodi attorney Ann Cerney, who spoke at the Aug. 6 meeting held to censure Hitchcock, said that might be the best thing to do.

"Not one member of the council serves at the pleasure of any other council member," Cerney said.

"Thank goodness the mayor was able to say what she had to say (at the censure meeting). It got all this out in the open."

(In August, Land wanted to censure Hitchcock and remove her as mayor for public comments she reportedly made that could affect the city's contamination litigation. But Land decided against making a motion to move forward with the action after hearing more than four hours of public testimony.)

Cerney feels residents have realized there are problems and that Hansen has two council members standing beside him to help solve them.

"Aren't we having an election in 2004? That may be where all these issues lie. Maybe not," she said.

Both Land and Howard's seats expire in November, but neither has publicly announced whether they will seek re-election.

"That's one way to build unity," Beckman said of electing new council members.

Coming together

Galt Mayor Darryl Clare was elected as the City Council was overcoming a similar internal political storm after it censured one of its members.

Since then, the council makeup has changed a bit. In 2002, two new council members were elected.

"In Lodi, you have two very different issues. One is how does a City Council in its tough times stay cohesive, and the other is the issues," Clare said.

"They've been through some more-than-unusual issues lately."

He noted that in Lodi, recent motions have been approved with consistent 3-2 votes.

"They now have to somehow come back together in a non-council meeting session to rebuild without a hot issue in front of them."

The Galt City Council is currently holding team-building workshops, Clare said.

"They're good to work together and develop long-term goals," he said, "And say to one another when they disagree, 'There may be things I don't agree with you on, but I will understand and respect that it is your point of view.'"

Last month, the Lodi City Council did unanimously approve using Century Assembly Senior Pastor Dale Edwards who offered to hold similar workshops for free. The recommendation actually came from City Manager Dixon Flynn after the censure attempt last summer.

It's a process Hansen looks forward to.

But Land doubts Edwards, who could not be reached for comment Friday, will be able to help council members doctor its wounds.

"I feel part of team building is give and take," he said.

"The only way the team is going to be successful is taking the expertise from each person and working together," Land said.

"With this current council, I see that as very difficult."

Contact reporter Jennifer Pearson Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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