During a special meeting of the South Lake Tahoe City Council on Monday, October 19, JoAnn Conner was publicly censured, a first of its kind for the City. An overflowing crowd spent over three hours in Council Chambers as comments were made both supporting Conner, and against what they said was “abusive, bullying and intolerant behavior.”
The meeting wasn’t a court proceeding, but at times it may have seemed like one. Conner never spoke during the afternoon, and had her legal representative, former City Attorney Jacqueline Mittelstadt, speak for her. Mittelstadt wanted to postpone the meeting, asking that all parties involved have time to meet and try and work out their differences prior to a public setting.
“We should all get along, but will we? No,” said Mittelstadt. “We may not like what she says, or how she says it, but it isn’t a basis for censure.”
Several issues were brought up, including Conner’s alleged use of inappropriate language when talking about Brooke Laine and others she didn’t agree with, perceived belittlement of people speaking to the Council during meetings and threatening to take away funding from programs that would lead to job loss in the City. Other issues with Conner circled around her dealings with City staff.
Mittelstadt asked for exact dates and people’s names in these instances, but they weren’t given to her.
“It’s not against the law to be a jerk or a bully,” said Mittelstadt. “Bad behavior is not illegal and is not the basis of censure.”
There were two items on the agenda. Besides censure, the Council voted 4-1 to ratify the actions of City Manager Nancy Kerry to make all communication between Conner and City staff to go through her. The approved resolutions don’t take away any of Conner’s rights, just impacts the way she can handle herself with employees. It prevents Conner from talking directly to City staff, and that all communication she wants with them must go through Kerry.
Cole said City employees were being subject to a hostile work environment because of the way Conner speaks with them, an accusation she has denied. He, along with other councilmembers, said they didn’t want the City to be in a position of being sued due to Conner’s behavior towards staff.
Mayor Hal Cole said he couldn’t sit by and let employees of the City be treated poorly by Conner.
City Council members cannot give directives towards staff, otherwise they’d be pulled in five different directions besides what their supervisors tells them, said Cole. Part of Kerry’s job is to be the middle person, and listen to complaints from Council, and then address it with staff.
“I didn’t want to get to this point today,” said Mayor Cole. “I have witnessed you conduct yourself in public for many years,” he said to Conner. “After our first formal discussion in February at the retreat you promised to change, and you seemed sincere. We have witnessed a return of that behavior.”
He was referring to a workshop the council had on February 21, 2015. During that retreat relationships between City and staff were discussed. Cole said that during that workshop Conner agreed to no longer behave abusively towards partner agencies, City staff, and other Councilmembers.
The censure resolution says Conner: has been disrespectful and discourteous; has detracted from the orderly, efficient and fair conduct of the City’s business; has been abusive to employees, Councilmembers and the public given the standing as an elected public official; has not served to increase the public confidence in the City government; and has not been in keeping with the heightened norms and standards of conduct required of Councilmembers.
During the meeting, letters were read from former City Councilmembers Brooke Laine and Angela Swanson, both of whom said they were the recipients of Conner’s hostility towards them, name calling and disrespect.
“You have brought this upon yourself,” Laine said to Conner in her letter. “I wish today could have been avoided.”
Cole described two instances where Conner didn’t treat Laine with the respect due a co-Councilmember. Right after Laine became Mayor Pro-Tem, he said Conner switched the nameplates of the elected officials up on the dais so she wouldn’t have to sit next to Laine. He also said she didn’t invited Laine to participate in her parade, though all others were invited.
While the letters received by the City Clerk were in favor of the censure, the majority of the attendees at the meeting were there in support of Conner or against the fact that the City Council was discussing censuring one of their own. Several clapped when supporters of Conner were finished at the speaker’s podium.
Seen often as a proponent for the “little guy and small business owner,” many of them joined in support of Conner.
“This matter doesn’t belong in the public arena,” said former Councilmember John Cefalu. “Can now expect a fractured City Council.” Cefalu said the voters voted Conner in, so leave it up to the voters to judge her.
What was called a public flogging by one, Kenny Curtzwiler added we “shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public.”
“We shouldn’t embarrass our City this way,” added Curtzwiler. “JoAnn has always looked out for this community.”
“I think think this meeting shouldn’t be taking place,” said Mick Clarke. “It’s disgraceful.”
Former City Councilman Bruce Grego also spoke. “When you’re in the minority, you have to speak up and fight more against the majority,” he said. “This is a dangerous precedent. Be heroes for the community and let this go.”
“It isn’t the messenger, it’s the message,” said Cole. That was echoed by the other Councilmembers as well. Tom Davis, Wendy David and Austin Sass also spoke to Conner during the proceedings.
Each Councilmember spoke before the vote, which ended up 4-1 in favor of the Resolution of Censure.
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” said Davis. “We need to cooperate and work together. I’m sick and tired of this issue and its taken too much time.” He asked Conner to step up and admit error so they could all move on.
“People appreciate what you’ve done and that you reach out to them,” said Mayor Pro-Tem David. “I am very sad, and very angry that we have to be here. I wish we could have addressed this behind closed doors.”
“If your voice is not heard because people don’t want to work with you,” said Sass. “Then the citizens lose.”
There were publicly read letters from LTCC President Dr. Kindred Murillo and El Dorado County Supervisor Sue Novasel, both of whom said it was very hard to work with Conner. While Murillo said she’d experienced a “dressing down” by Conner and about how important it is to speak to people in a respectful manner, Novasel said her staff shouldn’t be subjected to the treatment they’ve received from Conner.
In a written response to what happened to today, Conner sent the following to South Tahoe Now: “Today was a sad day for South Lake Tahoe. Whether you like my style or not, I was elected by nearly 2,400 voters. The City Council stated they had ‘six’ complaints from employees, the City Manager stated she had ‘more’ and ‘more’ and ‘more’…but absolutely no concrete evidence was ever provided before the hearing, nor during the hearing. The conduct that was alluded to, or the few examples complained of amounted to lawful expressions of my opinions. The City Manager and the Council have decided they have the right to take away the power of the people’s vote. Approximately forty citizens were present, and a number objected, but they were scolded by Hal Cole and then ignored by the rest of Council two of whom read pre-prepared speeches into the record.”
Not knowing what to expect during the meeting Monday, law enforcement was at the meeting. Two deputies from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office were in the Council Chambers, along with one South Lake Tahoe Police Sergeant who was in filling in for Chief Brian Uhler. The deputies were there since Uhler and other police officers were escorting the remains of Mark Hounsell, the officer who died along with his wife and a friend in a vehicle accident on Saturday.