The Parks & Rec Manipulation of Public Comments

Readers of this blog know good and well the many failures of the Pine Forest Stairs at Hillcrest Park, not to mention the $724,000 bridge to nowhere that will soon become reality.

What you probably don’t know about are the shenanigans used by City Hall to influence the City Council vote.

Funding for the bridge, fountain, and “Great Lawn” improvements was approved on a 3-2 vote (Whitaker and Sebourn: No) at the May 16 City Council meeting.  A couple weeks earlier, I made a records request for documentation on Hillcrest Park.

Jennifer Fitzgerald’s appointee to the Parks and Recreation Commission, Gretchen Cox, made public comments in support of the project.  Having skimmed through the e-mails provided by City Hall the day before, I thought to myself, wait a minute, portions of her comments sounded awfully familiar.

As it turns out, my suspicions were correct.  A week prior, Parks & Recreation Director Hugo Curiel had one of his employees, Doug Pickard, e-mail Gretchen Cox a list of “talking points” to assist her in making attacks on Councilmembers Sebourn and Silva:

Portions of the e-mail were in fact used by Gretchen Cox during public comments.  Let’s go back and compare the e-mail to what she actually said.  This ought to be fun!

Gretchen Cox says 2:15-2:36 in the video clip:

“The only no vote, so far, in all of this time, has been Councilmember Sebourn’s concern when he said he wanted to see proof that the engineering plans were actually possible to accomplish.  That was in February.  In March, those construction documents were presented, and you all voted unanimously to approve them.

Gretchen Cox says 2:55-3:02

“…Mr. Silva was on Park and Rec for four years, and never voiced opposition to any parts of the plan.

How embarrassing — all of that maroon-colored text came straight from the e-mail they sent her.

This raises a number of ethics and legal questions.  Why didn’t Hugo Curiel/Doug Pickard have the e-mail sent to the entire Parks & Recreation Commission?  Why is Gretchen Cox doing favors for City staff, instead of remaining impartial as a Parks Commissioner and member of the public?

Lastly, did Parks & Rec staff violate state law by engaging in “political activity”?  This wasn’t the usual sales pitch by City staff.  They explicitly urged Gretchen to make a plea for a yes vote by writing, “I urge a strong vote of confidence with the approval of tonight’s item.”

Govt. Code §3206.  No officer or employee of a local agency shall participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.

Most have interpreted this to apply primarily to elections and candidates for office. Attorney Jeffrey C. Freedman of the law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore appears to have a broader view of “political activity” as he wrote on the firm’s blog (emphasis added is mine):

Nonetheless, the Government Code does allow local agencies to adopt rules and regulations that prohibit or otherwise restrict employees from engaging in political activities during working hours and/or on the agency’s premises.  (Gov. Code sec 3207.)  However, in order to avoid applying this provision too broadly, the definitions of “politics” and “activity” need to be examined.  California’s statutes provide no guidance in this regard.  The California courts have had only a few opportunities to define “politics,” and have adopted a very broad definition in those situations where they needed to do so.  Politics is not limited to supporting or opposing a candidate; it includes advocating or opposing a position or policy on any issue of public concern, such as civil rights, employment discrimination, war, foreign affairs, you name it!  The dictionary definition of “activity” is even more broad: “behavior or actions of a particular kind” or “the quality or state of being active” with “active” defined as “characterized by action rather than by contemplation or speculation.”

Draw your own conclusions from that.  Did Parks & Rec staff break the law?  I don’t know.  Even if they did not, at the very least the conduct by Parks & Rec staff was both tacky and inappropriate.

They corrupted the process by using Gretchen to say things they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to say.  Public Comments should truly be Public Comments–not Staff Comments voiced by a member of the public, and that’s exactly what happened here.

The City is within its rights to forbid staff from engaging in this type of behavior.  Will they do anything about it?

45 Replies to “The Parks & Rec Manipulation of Public Comments”

  1. The city manager and the city council have a duty to put a stop to this immediately. The Parks and Rec director has abandoned his responsibilities as a professional. He should be fired.

    Thank god for the public records act.

  2. How embarrassing for Ms. Cox. to be outed as a desperate city stooge. How much did Fitzgerald get in campaign donations for this shitty bridge and stairs?

  3. No violation of law. Don’t see the problem. I’d rather permit it but allow public review of such communication as happened here in response to a records request.

    The one point made about no politicking only applies to elections. Even the quote given here of a contrary position indicates that a city could create rules and regulations to prevent advocacy, but there isn’t any.

    1. I thought Hogerhuis was a computer programmer by trade. Do tell us where your expert opinion of the law comes from. LOL

    2. John Hogerhuis–
      Nope you are wrong. Section 3206 reaches farther than elections. I watched this play out at a different city before I was hired by Fullerton. Somebody was doing labor union advocacy on the clock. Tried to say it wasn’t “election season” therefore no violation of 3206 applied. Define election season. That defense didn’t work and she was fired.
      Dont forget Silva and Sebourn are up for re election next year. City staff writing hit pieces during the work day could be construed as influencing the 2018 election.
      How their lackeys use attack pieces doesn’t factor. Intent does. Obvious from that message is intent to put Silva and Sebourn on the defensive, to embarrass them.
      I must say the stupidity of P&R staff continues to astound me

      1. Agreed.

        “Election season” is a misnomer.

        There is no excuse for this conduct by a city employee spending even a minute of the publics dime/time campaigning for elected officials while they’re working.

        Anything less is a fraud.

  4. David Curlee thanks to this sites good buddy, Bruce Whitaker there is now nobody on the Parks and Recreation Committee to object to the corruption going on in the P and R Department, since Whitaker without any warning, without ever stating he was anything but totally happy with my service and finally without any explanation for his action, removed me from the Parks and Recreation Committee. That act was not the act of a council member who was looking to reform city government, quite the contrary!

    1. So tell us, Joe, how would you being on the P&R commission have stopped Hugo from sending that email to Cox? And just to Cox? What does this have to do with you?

    2. Barry, it’s time to be a grown up, realize that you fucked up and move on with your life.

      1. I’m curious as to how you believe that Barry Levinson “fucked up” when it was Bruce Whiraker that personally appointed his friend Barry to the Parks and Rec commission, then sacked him in a very public and humiliating way for reporting malfeasance, and then offered no explanation or apology?

        That’s definitely a head scratcher when you blame Barry for doing what Bruce asked him to do.

        Tells me that Bruce’s sense of loyalty to his friends is easily Trumped by his politics.

        1. Barry was let go from P and R due to him repeatedly harrassimg an employee who was just this side of suing him and the city for not protecting her from Barry. But Barry lies and says he has no clue why.

          1. I’ve seen Barry repeatedly harassed and publicly humiliated by Fullerton city employees at city council meetings for years and have never heard the City Attorney utter a croak in Barry’s defense?

            I think you are naive to believe that these allegations weren’t Trumped up against Barry in order to further political agendas of developing Fullerton at all costs and silence the opposition.

            I actually was there the night that they accused Barry of assaulting an AT&T employee, and can tell you that it was a complete fabrication designed to humiliate the man for speaking truth to the powers that be by trying to save children at Richman Park from having a cell phone tower installed next to their playground.

            1. It is time for someone to finally and truly expose Tony for what he is and what he has done to Fullerton.

              1. Because Barry is not someone who can be kept in Tony’s box and on Tony’s leash. He states the facts and calls out Tony’s phonies.

                1. I am curious why comments would be censored on this site? I thought Travis was a libertarian?

          2. Travis and or Tony, you do moderate and delete comments, and we have proof of that. Therefore because you engage in moderating certain visitors based on their IP addresses and censoring the comments based on content makes you and or the owners liable for defamation by the posters here. I am passing this information on to Mr. Levinson.

  5. What are the city’s rules for project advocacy by staff? Is it in some sort of policy? Hugo should know better than this, and he probably does, but he doesn’t care.

  6. for nearly a hundred years, Hillcrest Park was a fun, pleasant place to spend a day. The WPA steps and stairs built in the 1930’s stands out in its use of stone and its design. I enjoyed running upmthose stairs when I was kid and enjoy walking up and down them now. My best memories of this park is simply hiking up and down its hilly terrain.
    Again, the myopic vision of Fullerton’s regime funded the life-threatening stairs evidenced by its crumbling posts. Using a term fashion designer term, these new stairs “fights” with the respected design of this park.
    Recently forced to resign as Fullerton’s city manager for driving drunk over front lawns in Fullerton, Joe Felz, came straight from Fullerton’s parks and recreation. With only a degree in sociology, not finance, economics, master in public administration, he ran the city of Fullerton into deep debt.
    Maybe the lasting legacy of parks and recs Joe Felz will be Fullerton parks and recreation will be nothing more than a bloated budget, packed with useless people with vague titles and vague job descriptions that attempt to duplicate existing services, and garnering Fullerton’s city council support for their funky, junky projects. Think the new stairs at Hillcrest Park.

  7. What’s more pathetic, hat Boss Hugo needs to gin up astroturf support for his idiotic projects or that Gretchen Cox is so stupid she needs to have talking points prepared for her?

  8. Thanks for pointing out that I do my due diligence and the needed research when I want to publicly speak about something. Since the history of the Hillcrest Park plan goes back years before I was a Park and Rec commissioner ( proudly appointed by Ms. Fitzgerald) and I definitely wanted to speak in favor of the project moving forward, it seemed a good idea to make sure I had my facts straight. Hence my request to P and R staff for a timeline. I understand that fact checking is a foreign concept to most of the chronic malcontents who write on this blog. Sorry there is not a cure for you.

    1. It appears that P&R staff gave you more “taking points” and less of a timeline.

      Translated: “Here’s the party line that you can push.”

    2. No cure needed for those that are here who seek justice?

      If you want to find a cure for someone, I’m pretty sure that there’s no cure for calculating and conniving so maybe you could cure yourself of these ills before judging others?

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