South Tahoe city council votes to censure councilwoman JoAnn Conner
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — South Lake Tahoe City Council members voted Monday, Oct. 19, to censure one of their own following a marathon meeting in a packed city council chambers at Lake Tahoe Airport. This was a special meeting called specifically to deal with the issue.
Councilwoman JoAnn Conner was censured over her alleged bullying behavior against city staff and partner agencies. Additionally, the city council reaffirmed a decision by city manager Nancy Kerry directing staff not to interact with Conner individually.
Both votes were 4-1, with Conner voting no on each items.
Conner spoke only through her lawyer, former city attorney Jacqueline Mittelstadt, regarding allegations against her.
Mittelstadt initially requested that agenda items be tabled so that all involved parties could discuss the matter privately to find a satisfactory conclusion.
She added that Conner did not receive enough advanced notice to properly defend herself at Monday’s meeting. Despite multiple public records requests, Mittelstadt also said she was not provided specific information regarding allegations against Conner.
In response, city attorney Tom Watson said it wasn’t city policy to provide that type of information, especially as it related to personnel.
“Evidence is not necessary because a censure is an opinion,” Watson stated. “This is not a court proceeding, and it is not appropriate to confront accusers.”
By moving forward with a censure, Mittelstadt said the city could find itself open to a lawsuit from Conner.
“This entire matter is a violation of [city] protocol, and Ms. Conner has the right do due process,” she said.
According Watson, a censure won’t affect Conner’s role as a council member. It only serves as a formal admonishment of her behavior.
CITY STAFF, COUNCIL CONCERNS
At Monday’s meeting, council members and Kerry alleged Conner is known for volatile behavior.
According to Kerry, she attempted to shield staff from Conner by befriending the councilwoman. Kerry also said she spent time explaining details and going over policy with Conner.
Kerry said examples of “threatening behavior” surfaced during her time working with Conner; an example was when Conner allegedly threatened to have code enforcement officers unfunded.
“Every employee that has come to me about this has had their job interfered with when dealing with Ms. Conner,” Kerry said.
When complaints grew in number, Kerry said she informed both Mayor Hal Cole and Wendy David, the mayor pro tem, about her decision to prevent staff from interacting with Conner.
Council members also weighed in on Conner’s behavior at Monday’s special meeting. All four council members — Austin Sass, Tom Davis, David and Cole — noted Conner placed the city in a precarious position because she left it open to litigation.
After a city council retreat in February where Conner’s behavior was addressed, Cole said he noticed a return of bad habits a few months later. While Conner has strong convictions, Cole added, they are rudely communicated.
“It’s not the message; it’s the messenger,” Cole said.
Davis, however, said he doesn’t have an issue with how Conner interacts with the public.
“If she wants to tell them to go to hell, she can, and the public will respond in the next election,” he said.
Davis drew the line with abusive behavior toward staff.
Seven letters were submitted for the public record Monday, with one supporting Conner. Five supported Conner’s censure, including written statements from Kindred Murillo, president of Lake Tahoe Community College; El Dorado County District 5 supervisor Sue Novasel and former councilwoman Brooke Laine.
Those letters outlined an alleged pattern of behavior that included profanity, harassment of staff and obstructing city council business.
Murillo noted in her letter that, while she supported many of Conner’s causes, her attitude was unprofessional.
“We elect people to represent us, not denigrate us,” Murillo wrote.
Novasel noted in her letter that veteran county staffer Judi McCallum was subject to rude emails from Conner, something she couldn’t condone.
“Like our community, I accept that she is afforded her opinion, but not her bad behavior or her misuse of information,” Novasel wrote.
Laine wrote about her experience with Conner for the two years she sat on the council with her. Those included being referred to with profanity and not being invited to participate in a community parade as an elected official.
More than 10 residents spoke out at the meeting in support of Conner, however. Several citizens felt that Conner’s right to free speech was being violated.
Planning commissioner Judy Brown said censuring Conner “sets a dangerous precedent.”
“To ban this person from speaking ignores all First Amendment rights and keeps them from doing their duty,” Brown said.
Former councilman John Cefalu said the censure process doesn’t belong in the public arena.
“Any city council member who has disagreements is susceptible to the same treatment,” Cefalu explained. “You can expect a fractured council.”
South Lake Tahoe attorney and former council member Bruce Grego said voters should decide Conner’s fate, not the city council.
“JoAnn’s authority does not come from you four [council members], but from the voters …,” Grego said. “Be heroes for our community and let this go.”
Business owner Mick Clarke noted Conner has been easily accessible, especially when there were concerns over increased city fees.
“Either you are representing the community or not responding,” Clarke said. “She is doing her job.”
According to Cole, Conner voted on May 5, along with other council members, to approve a new master fee schedule.
Most comments of support drew applause from the audience.
‘IT IS NOT AGAINST THE LAW TO BE A JERK OR A BULLY’
Grounds for Conner’s Monday censure included allegations of harassment against city staff.
Mittelstadt argued that harassment doesn’t apply as a reason for an official censure by city council. She added that by legal definition of harassment applies to very specific reasons, such as sex, creed, race, national origin and marital status.
“It is not against the law to be a jerk or a bully, and it’s not grounds for censure,” she said.
Watson disagreed, noting the city could still be open to lawsuits from employees due to Conner’s alleged behavior.
Mittelstadt also said that censure robbed Conner of her free-speech rights. Plus, Conner should not be punished for behavior outside of the city council context.
Cole disagreed, however, that censure limited Conner’s ability to represent the community.
Despite public support of Conner, the council voted to censure her at the end of a three-and-a-half hour meeting.
“This is a very somber moment for our community and city,” Cole said of the proceedings.
Conner, in a written statement following the meeting, said she was disappointed with the outcome.
“The American system of justice provides for the accused to be able to face the accusers and view the evidence. That did not happen,” she said. “These four council members and the city manager and city attorney took away the voice of the people, an elected council member, in spite of the objections of approximately 40 citizens who stressed that I work for the people, not the council and city manager.”
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