City Attorney Review Raises Questions About Council Conflicts
Update at 5:30 p.m.: Story now includes a statement from Tom Fuhrman in the ninth paragraph saying h...
The Menifee City Council will meet in closed session prior to its regular meeting of Sept. 3 to continue discussion regarding the city attorney position.
Julie Biggs (left) of the law firm Aleshire & Wynder has served as interim city attorney since Dec. 11, 2012, when she was hired by a newly configured city council following city elections the month before. With new Mayor Scott Mann recusing himself from the process and council member John Denver abstaining, Biggs was approved by a 3-0 vote of council members Wallace Edgerton, Tom Fuhrman and Greg August.
Biggs replaced Joseph Fletcher, who resigned after the newly constituted council was seated, as did City Manager Bill Rawlings. The positions of city attorney and city manager are the only ones the city council can fire -- and such changes are common after a change in the makeup of a city council.
An Aug. 23 closed session of the city council addressed an agenda item described as "pursuant to public employment - city attorney." The meeting was called to order at 8:45 a.m. but was not declared adjourned until after 4 p.m., with no reported action taken.
The length of that meeting and the fact the item is being addressed again in closed session this Wednesday indicates that the decision process regarding the future of Biggs and any potential successor has become a complex one. Because results of the closed session were not made public, it is not known whether a vote was taken regarding a permanent city attorney.
One issue concerns the council members who would be voting and whether any would recuse themselves from the process.
Mann recused himself in the 2012 vote to approve Biggs, saying at the time he "didn't want to have any perception of bias or conflict of interest" because of a prior working relationship with Biggs. Both Mann and Biggs were state delegates to the Republican party that year. According to the government code, Mann would not be required to recuse himself in this matter because more than 12 months have passed, however.
There is no evidence of a conflict involving Denver, who abstained from voting in the selection process for Biggs in 2012.
Fuhrman was previously involved in a dispute with the city regarding code enforcement actions concerning his Wooden Nickel Ranch. Fuhrman said Tuesday "there is no litigation" involving himself and the City of Menifee and that "the only area where there is an issue of compliance is some illegal structures on my property, and that should be taken care of soon."
Asked about a potential conflict of interest in any vote taken Wednesday, Fuhrman said this week he would not recuse himself and would vote on the matter.
"All the action taken against me was by special counsel, not the city attorney," Fuhrman said. "She (Biggs) is the one who felt it would be a conflict if she did anything in this case, so she insisted they have an independent attorney handle it. There is no conflict of interest in me voting on this, as far as I'm concerned."
However, there does appear to be evidence of a conflict of interest concerning Fuhrman and Biggs. According to a report out of closed session in the minutes of a Sept. 18, 2013 special meeting, city council members voted 4-0 to direct the city attorney "to file a formal complaint with the District Attorney and the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding apparent violations of the conflict of interest laws by council member Fuhrman related to his economic interests." Fuhrman was listed as "absent due to conflict."
Also in the minutes regarding that Sept. 18, 2013 closed session, Biggs reported that Edgerton made a motion -- passed unanimously -- that "all code enforcement actions relating to the Wooden Nickel Ranch proceed expeditiously to obtain full compliance and that civil litigation is authorized if necessary."
A complaint was filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission and the case is still under investigation, said Jay Wierenga, communications director for the FPPC. The Riverside County District Attorney's office did not respond to an inquiry regarding a possible investigation of Fuhrman by that office.
During the Dec. 11, 2012 council meeting in which Biggs was approved as interm city attorney, Edgerton expressed his support of her hiring.
"We know her work, her background, and she's very well qualified," Edgerton said at the time. "The will of this council is that we appoint her firm on an interim basis. At some point, we will recruit for a permanent city attorney."
That, apparently, is the process that is now taking place. Some have questioned the timing of the review process of the city attorney position, considering it is taking place co close to the November election for three city council seats, including mayor. If a newly configured city council decided in November or December to replace a city attorney hired this month, taxpayers would foot the bill for city staff time regarding two city attorney changes within three months.
According to one source, the city has spent more than $106,000 in attorney's fees regarding the Wooden Nickel Ranch case.
Following Wednesday's closed session, the regular city council meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 29714 Haun Road in Menifee.