The Day The Council Voted to Cover Up The Truth From the Public


Some people, in defending the attack mailer launched against Sue Greenwald, have used the truth as a defense.  Frankly, I cannot condone the actions of the councilmember that night and I defend my reporting of that incident.

However, no matter how bad the individual conduct of an individual councilmember was that evening, it is not the worst thing I have seen from our city council.  That distinction falls on December 9, 2008 when the Davis City Council voted 3-2 to abdicate their duties to the citizens of Davis.

That was the night the council majority on the Davis City Council voted 3-2 not to read the full report that the city, the taxpayers of the City of Davis, had paid for from the independent investigation by the City’s Ombudsman Bob Aaronson.

The extent of this cover up became more clear on January 13, 2009 and it was only in the past week that a new council and new city manager have allowed the public to see some of what the council majority, Bill Emlen, Bobby Weist and Rose Conroy did not want you to see.

In fact, the council majority did not even want to be able to see it themselves so as, I suspect, to provide plausible deniability.

On the night of December 9, 2008, both councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek were adamant about seeing the full version.

“I’d like to get a council consensus that we have access to all the information. The way our form of government works is that we’re responsible when we’re elected,” Councilmember Greenwald said.  “Ultimately, the buck stops with us. We’re responsible through you, but we can’t evaluate how well you’re doing your job with personnel if we don’t have access to all the information.”

She added, “I just think we should as a matter of principle, as a matter of procedure. It’s a matter of accountability in government.”

Councilmember Heystek requested of City Attorney Harriet Steiner that she explain any legal grounds for withholding of information from the council in writing.

“I do agree with Councilmember Greenwald, it is important for us to see the work product of the Ombudsman, this is the first major test of our Ombudsman and we’ve paid over $35,000 I believe for this work product, and I believe I deserve to see as a councilmember the contents,” he said.

He added, “But if there is some legal grounds by which we cannot view this information or not be privy to the report that was prepared at our behest, I would like to see a justification of that in writing. I really believe that as a councilmember I need to know why it is that information is being withheld from me and in writing.”

However, both Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza disagreed.

Mayor Pro Tem Saylor said, “We actually employ those two [pointing at Harriet Steiner and Bill Emlen]. Those are the two we employ.”

“In terms of policy issues, in terms of behavioral issues that are addressed in a grand jury report, we should hear from the city manager and hear his report. How he has gathered information to arrive at the conclusions and findings that he is going to be presenting to us is his responsibility,” he continued.

He added, “Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them. I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”

The words spoken by Councilmember Stephen Souza stick with me today, for some reason, however.

He said, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”

“I don’t need to have the ‘he said, she said’ full story. I don’t. I am not in charge of personnel, except for as Councilman Saylor said, we are in charge of two personnel, that’s who we’re in charge of, we hire and fire them,” he added. “That is our main task from a personnel standpoint. When it comes to this matter, I want to know from our ombudsman, through our city manager, how he arrived at his conclusions, and give me the pertinent information so I can come to my conclusions about it.”

The decision made by the characteristic 3-2 vote eventually led to Bill Emlen writing a summary of the report that would be presented to the public.  The council would be allowed to read a redacted version of the report in the City Manager’s office.

Mr. Emlen acknowledged the complexity of dealing with personnel matters.  He told the council, “A lot of that has to with how we sort of sift through the personnel related areas versus the core issues that are related to the grand jury report.”

However, he reassured council that this had nothing to do with withholding a major personnel decision.

The problem is that Mr. Emlen did not just redact the report, he sanitized it.  He kept as much of the damning information about the fire chief and union president from the public and even the council.

And so when the city manager’s report finally came before council, it was clear that the city manager and the investigator had a strong difference in tone and substance of the findings.

Of course, it did not help that the matter was not heard until well after midnight on Wednesday, January 14.

As Mr. Aaronson put it at the onset: “Bill [Emlen] is sort of a glass half full sort of guy when it comes to city operations, it’s my impression, and I tend to a glass half empty sort of guy.”

It was City Attorney Harriet Steiner’s view that the city council was not entitled to see the full report as it was a personnel document. The city council’s job is to review the performance of the city manager and the city manager has the primary responsibility of hiring and firing personnel.

However, in this case, the city attorney was largely carrying the water of the city manager, who was under pressure from the firefighters unions, the fire chief and a council majority that the union had bought and paid for over the previous three elections to the tune of $32,000 in direct and indirect contributions.

Mr. Aaronson made it very clear in a very subtle way that they were withholding major information from themselves and the public.

Councilmember Stephen Souza asked Mr. Aaronson to characterize the differences in the “essence” of his report from the city manager’s summary.

Mr. Aaronson suggested three ways.  First that the act of condensing a lengthy report into a few pages will change its content. “When you take information out, it’s hard for there not to be a loss. So there are nuances, there are statements and contexts that to me were important, that were taken out for the sake of brevity.”

More importantly, he said, “From my perspective the components of my report that touch on personnel matters were essential. Some of them I think go directly to the heart of the more consequential issues. So to eliminate them by its nature changes what the report is.”

That should have been an alarm, but at one in the morning with a council more wanting to bury than expose the report, they did not take the hint.

Finally, he indicated, “Bill is sort of a glass half full sort of guy when it comes to city operations, it’s my impression, and I tend to a glass half empty sort of guy. Those are the ways that I try to articulate how I see there are some differences.”

In other words, he was trying to say that City Manager Emlen was attempting to spin this in a positive light.  We can see that as the report we received the next month left unredacted the most positive statements about the chief and the fire operations, while redacting most of the unfavorable statements.

Bill Emlen and Bob Aaronson, upon a question from Don Saylor, described very different “most consequential” issues identified in this report. Mr. Emlen said he was very concerned about the public perception of the sleeping at the first station issue, off duty activities and promotional process issues.

However, now that we can read much of the report itself, the issue of sleeping in the fire station while drunk can be seen as more of a nuisance than a huge problem.

The bigger problems were problems with off-duty firefighters drinking down town and the perception “amongst Davis police officers that drunken off-duty firefighters were a small, but visible presence downtown some evenings. On occasion, they presented enforcement issues to the officers.”

Among the more serious was one that “may have encompassed a felony assault committed by an off-duty intoxicated firefighter at the end of a barroom disturbance. The matter was not forwarded to the district attorney for criminal prosecution due to the lack of cooperation by the victim.”

Mr. Aaronson noted, “The matter should have been followed up more vigorously by the police department and the report should have been forwarded to the Fire Chief for an internal personnel investigation.”

Importantly for our purposes, until this latest redaction, the word “felony” was redacted despite the fact that there is no legal basis for such an omission.

As we reported last week, the most serious cover ups involved the fire chief’s favoritism in promoting Bobby Weist over objectively far more qualified applicants, the fact that the former chief acted on her prejudices in rewarding those she favored – those loyal to her – and punishing or at least overlooking those she deprecated.

On January 14, Don Saylor read from page four of Mr. Emlen’s report stating, “There’s no proof or incidence of retaliation or a hostile work environment.”

At the time Mr. Aaronson responded, “What my report states is that other than the promotional process which I investigated, and members of the department felt there was favoritism reflected in that, other than that, I did not go and investigate the incidents that were presented to me by employees claiming that it was retaliation or favoritism.”

In fact, what we know now is that, “The discontented employees who voluntarily interviewed with me all expressed fears of retaliation from the Chief and union loyalists if the substance of their interviews were divulged…”  He added that these employees “all professed to fear of retaliation for speaking out about organizational issues, particularly the role that favoritism seemed to play in punishing.”

Unfortunately, money was a factor in Mr. Aaronson’s investigation, and due to the amount of time it would take to follow up on specific incidents, Mr. Aaronson wrote, “I have refrained from formally investigating other alleged instances of favoritism because of the additional time that it would require.”

That fact enables Mr. Emlen to misleadingly tell the council that there was no proof or incidence of relations or a hostile work environment, when the truth is that they did not know and Mr. Emlen quite frankly did not want to know.

This is just one example of how far the council majority was willing to go in abdicating their responsibilities, not just to the public but to the 30 or 40% that Mr. Aaronson reasonably could say were discontented employees who feared retaliation and noted favoritism.

As Rich Rifkin wrote last week on the Vanguard, “This, to my mind, was the lowest point of the City Council in the last 10 years. It demonstrated to me that Saylor, Souza and Asmundson, who were all backed by the firefighters and who were close with our inept fire chief, would take the side of the firefighters over the interests of the public even when the grand jury and the ombudsman had found that there were serious problems with the management of that department and that the firefighters were misbehaving.”

He added, “In 2008, I was told by a high-level staffer at the time that Weist and Conroy were pressuring Emlen and the Council majority to quash the report.”

And that is exactly what happened.  It will be up to public at this point to decide whether the cover up in this case is worse than the crime.  There would appear to be very serious concerns about the fitness of the fire chief and the conduct of the union president that were covered up.

On the other hand, the cover up itself, the actions of the city manager with the willing help from Stephen Souza, Don Saylor and Ruth Asmundson, has to be equally appalling in an open society.

Today we honor the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in the service of this great country.  Part of what we strive for in this country is democracy which requires open government and transparency.  Those principles were undermined and eroded by three people that the public entrusted to act on their behalf.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. hpierce

    As far as I can tell, two of those who voted in the majority to ‘bury’ the complete, unredacted report are no longer on the CC. Is Rifkin’s “high-level staffer” still on staff? Seems that the staffer should come forward if what they said is true of their personal knowledge, and/or the current CC (or in a couple of months, the new Council) can direct the current CM to release the 100% unredacted report to at least the CC, if not the public at large.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    Hpierce: I don’t know who has told Rifkin this. I do know it comports to what I know to be the case as well. Unfortunately, I think we know what we are going to know.

  3. Michael Harrington

    David, the lowest point of the CC ever was the 4-1 motion in September 6 to approve the water rate increases. The evidence was clear at that time the rates were bogus Whatever fraudulent events were going on with Fire Dept personnel produced costs to the taxpayers that were chump change compared to The extreme damage Wolks mition would have produced if the voters had to stopped the CC madness

  4. Mr.Toad

    David I thought you were dead! Your silence after your remarks about Steve Souza may me think something had happened to you. Maybe it had when you know who lost for City Council with the help of the firefighters. Its hard to tell if this is objective or score settling. Sorry for this interruption but how it feel to have someone suggest you are dead? I’ll be happy to apologize when you do.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “I agree with 91 Octane: lose the sentence. “

    I’ll write what I want thanks and I happen to believe people die for freedom, justice, open government, and transparency. If you disagree you can argue your case.

  6. hpierce

    For Octane & David… do either of you have a flag flying (at half-mast, until noon) if front of your residence today? Will either of you be at the Davis Cemetery @ 10 this morning, to honor those who served? Do either of you recall that Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, to honor the fallen ON BOTH SIDES of the “Civil” War, where brother literally fought brother, families were torn by allegiances to what they “knew” to be “right”?
    We all have a ‘right’ to our opinion, and expression of it. I respectfully ask you to ‘give it a rest’. Paix

  7. JustSaying

    “Councilmember Heystek requested of City Attorney Harriet Steiner that she explain any legal grounds for withholding of information from the council in writing…..eventually led to Bill Emlen writing a summary of the report that would be presented to the public.  The council would be allowed to read a redacted version of the report in the City Manager’s office.”

    Where are these two documents now? Please provide links. These papers appear to reflect an almost criminal assault on our munical government, a true conspiracy by these two malevolent “public servants.”

    Emlen and Steiner should have been fired the instant this cover-up became apparent, but no one apparently supervises those two scoundrels. Why our mayor could support continuation of Harriet’s contract since he’s known of her poor performance for a year is a mystery.

    That the rest of our current council was happy to see this secret remain hidden forever doesn’t speak well of any of them either. What have any of them had to say about not exposing this smelly history when they found out?

    Without David’s determined efforts, citizens never would have found out the extent of the abdication by our leaders. This is an important contribution to our community, one that never would have happened without the Vanguard.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    Just Saying:

    Here is a copy of Emlen’s report: here ([url][/url])

    I don’t recall a document from Steiner, I believe she gave an oral comment, I may have quoted her briefly but that video is long lost because the council still has not taken steps to retain its videos despite promising to do so three years ago.

  9. Mr.Toad

    “That’s a weird comment Mr. Toad. So you took my comment to mean literal death? Really. Come on now.”

    Its offensive and too low by even my low standards. Interestingly Kari Fry felt the same. If you had poll numbers and prefaced with political death it would be one thing. Instead its a baseless and vile statement and you should apologize. I’ve said a lot of things about Sue but I have tried to keep it to the issues about temperament and policy. I have never even said I didn’t like Sue.

    It was over the top and you should apologize to Steve.

  10. karifry

    Yes Mr. Toad! An appology would be appropriate.

    Civility in debate is required to be a legitimate forum for discussion. Win your debate on the merits of your arguments and your skill in delivering them. Do not sink to ugliness. The people, the good people of Davis deserve better. Do you not call yourself “the People’s Vanguard of Davis?” Well, as Davisite I implore you to elevate your dialogue. Stephen win or lose this election deserves better. Any elected public servant does, as does anyone brave enough to want to serve our community in elected office.

  11. E Roberts Musser

    It seems all the players here trusted/were relying on Bill Emlen to tell them “the truth”. That was their mistake, as we know now from the Vanguard’s reporting. Many knew Bill Emlen should not be trusted – long before the Vanguard was involved in this mess. I had my own terrible experiences with this man. IMO we are well rid of him…

  12. JustSaying

    I think you’re giving the council way too much credit in this episode, Elaine. I vaguely remember this. (I got tired of staying up past midnight to watch the council agonize over tiny stuff).

    It’s clear that three council members worked together with Emlen and Steiner to keep the ombudsman’s report hidden. (“We can’t handle the truth!”) Whether any or all of them conspired with the firefighters is the only open question.

    Are you suggesting that the council members at the time didn’t have any questions about how Emlen operated, that they were just innocent pawns in his hands?

    The fact that Ruth, Don and Stephen refused to accommodate their concerned colleagues, Sue and Lamar, suggests they were willingly complicate in this obvious effort to cover up the real problems at the firehouse. How much trouble would it have been for Stephen to agree to read 50 pages if it would have satisfied Sue’s and Lamar’s concerns?

    This gang of cover-up artists bent over and invited the city manager to feed them bologna (sorry about the mixed metaphor). Have you heard any of them explain why they agreed to, now that we’re all looking back at the still-redacted report and know that sleeping, drunk firefighters cannot be called the “most consequential” problem with any honesty.

    Sue looks absolutely prescient in this case. Stephen looks absolutely bought off. It would be nice to hear from both of them now. Do either of them have any regrets for not pursuing this at the time or in all these years that David was suing the city for the documents.

    P.S.–It’s fascinating that Harriet has no trail to follow here, as she would have if she’d provided the written opinion for which Lamar requested. You note that the city still has not found a way to document their own meetings on a long-term basis. This is a technical matter that Davis High School students could solve.

    I wonder if Harriet’s advice somehow is responsible for this continuing short-coming? Her reputation certainly has benefited from this inadequate accounting of her actions with the council.

  13. David Suder

    [quote]It seems all the players here trusted/were relying on Bill Emlen to tell them “the truth”. [/quote]Given what we’ve learned recently, it appears that some players were relying on Emlen to [i]suppress[/i] the truth.

  14. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Are you suggesting that the council members at the time didn’t have any questions about how Emlen operated, that they were just innocent pawns in his hands? [/quote]

    I would argue the Gang of Three knew they had the 3 votes necessary to do whatever they wanted, so didn’t have to do much introspection in regard to any decisions they made. There was an unholy alliance between the Gang of Three and Bill Emlen that worked well for both and that Bill Emlen cultivated, so all of them could conveniently cover over any unpleasantness that might surface. This was Bill Emlen’s trademark – to cover any ripples that might appear, whatever way was necessary. To what extent each member of the Gang of Three just went along to get along, I don’t know…

  15. Michael Harrington

    You all are talking about surpression of the truth years ago with the fire fighters … it is still an ongoing issue, as their contracts are coming up.

    However, remember that this CC has done nothing that we know of to determine who was responsible for the fraudulent rate increases on September 6, 2011. In the view of many of us who worked on the water referendum, the CC’s failure to investigate and hold anyone accountable makes it much worse than the FF coverup that David G talks about. Yes, the CC majority, Emlen, and Steiner covered up the dirt. We all knew it, but did not have the proof. Here, the rate hikes were clearly bogus, far more so than the Ombudsman report, yet the CC is ignoring why those rates were presented to the CC, and certified by the City Attorney, as lawful when they facially were not correct, and did not meet the 14% limitation that the Wolk motion itself specified.

    David G: I wish you would tackle the real story behind those rates, and why no one is being held accountable.

  16. 91 Octane

    I’ll write what I want thanks and I happen to believe people die for freedom, justice, open government, and transparency. If you disagree you can argue your case.

    you can write what you want. I’m going to write what I want, and what I want is to say our soldiers sacrifices shouldn’t be used as a political club to beat over the heads of political rivals.

  17. David Thompson

    I thank David for persevering with the FF issue and revealing that top City staff were engaged in a coverup of information that if revealed and known would have led to better and more sober decisions.

    We certainly appear to have had similar coverups in the water info. The efforts of Michael Harrington and others in getting enough signatures stopped the worst from happenning. With time, the WAC and other efforts, we will clearly have more effective and less costly options.

    As has been mentioned by Michael and a few others we do need an Audit Commission to be able to call on to look into these types of questionable practices at City Hall.

    Someone needs to get to the bottom of how much a year have we actually paid Steiner’s law firm for the various problems (FF, Water,DACHA,Cell Towers,Union negotiations,etc).

    I think the City staff find different pockets of money to pay Steiner’s firm with so that we never see how much her firm actually costs us.

    DACHA is now over #1 million in legal costs, almost all in public funds.

    The same cast of characters appear in almost all of these coverups,

    David Thompson, President, Twin Pines Cooperaive Foundation

  18. eagle eye

    Public records – it appears to be a violation of the PRA not to keep the video’s of CC meetings.

    Public service — Souza, Saylor, Ruth, and Frerichs aren’t in politics to serve citizens, they’re in politics to serve themselves and their friends.
    Look at their past actions, look at their core supporters.

    This is not the only time Steiner has illegally withheld public records, and somehow neither she nor city staff kept records of their other meeting at which it was decided to do the illegal withhold.

    The depth of corruption at city hall becomes astounding when we see Steiner still on contract with the city.
    Who’s really running the city?

  19. hpierce

    [quote]Public records – it appears to be a violation of the PRA not to keep the video’s of CC meetings.[/quote]The City has an obligation for maintain some records temporarily, some for a longer period of time, some indefinitely/forever. Streaming videos and video tapes have a relatively short retention period (by policy, which the CC can set). Minutes, Agendas somewhat longer. Ordinances/Resolutions fall into the last category. The PRA does not require the City to create records, nor to preserve them for 100+ years. It does require, that if the City possesses a record, at the time of request, the record be made available for inspection/copy.
    [quote]Who’s really running the city?[/quote]That would be the city Manager, under the direction of the City council.

  20. Mr.Toad

    Eagle Eye said “Public service — Souza, Saylor, Ruth, and Frerichs aren’t in politics to serve citizens, they’re in politics to serve themselves and their friends.
    Look at their past actions, look at their core supporters. “

    I think when all this went down Lucas was in college or a bag man at the Co-Op.

    Oh no Lucas a bag man! Yes and he would say “Do you need help out with those bags?”

  21. JustSaying

    It was my understanding, Mr.Toad, that Ruth still is a public servant, having been selected to represent Davis in our sister city program. If she still serves in this capacity, she receives substantial benefits while she is visiting other countries.

    Whether there is any any taxpayer support involved (travel expenses, insurance coverage, gifts, etc.) in her travels, I don’t know. Whether or not Ruth still serves as our representative, she needs to respond to questions about why she voted to keep the ombudsman’s report secret.

  22. Michael Harrington

    David T: an Audit Commission would be helpful.

    Sorry to say, but given one debacle after another by the current CC, I really dont have much hope of change. Not one CC member pulled that City Attorney contract for any sort of public discussion. No audits; a new offer to DACHA that is merely an insult, it is so low; no audit of why those 9/6/11 corrupt water rate increases were vetted by water consultants and staff, and the City Attorney; no accountability for major screw ups (ie, the employee labor relations board finding against the city last year); no accountability for rushing to issue bonds for the “Downtown Parking Lot to Nowhere”; the ZIP Car Contract fiasco; the failure to make any substantial progress on the $2.5 million “instruction” to staff in 2010 to find savings by last June (staff blew the CC off and basically ignored the instruction); the water rate fiasco; lately, the CC instruction to the WAC to rush to issue recommendations on the water project to the CC could have something to put on the November 2012 ballot (strictly for the current water project proponents’ political strategy, BTW, because there is no rush for a project).

    Where do we stop with this list?

    David G: you really need to get the public documents and interview staff to learn how those Sept 6 rates got through the City’s quality assurance system, and why the City Manager and CC have not disciplined anyone for it?

    The only reason those rates were not on the June 2012 CC election ballot is that the majority of Wolk, Sue and Steve were running for CC, and they did not want those rates on the same ballot.

  23. eagle eye

    Actually, Ruth is still involved in politics, she just isn’t on the CC.

    Lucas has been on commissions for a number of years, “helping out his friends”, according to his friends.

    Steiner has outlasted several city managers and a number of CC members.
    It is not unheard of that county supervisors, state legislators/analysts, congressional members, and other power players influence/coerce some CC members behind the scenes.

  24. DT Businessman

    Political Corruption def: “Political corruption is the use of power by government officials for illegitimate private gain.”

    Eagle Eye, how have city officials “gained privately” by employing Steiner? Please enlighten us?

    -Michael Bisch

  25. JustSaying

    [quote]“The second form of political corruption is one in which extracted resources (and public money) are used for power preservation and power extension purposes. This usually takes the form of favouritism and patronage politics. It includes a favouritist and politically motivated distribution of financial and material inducements, benefits, advantages, and spoils.”[/quote]When public officials maintain their position and their power by using our money to give firefighters pay and benefits beyond what’s appropriate in order to keep campaign assistance and cash donations flowing, By hiding this report, Harriet and her employers fit in this category.

    I wouldn’t argue with your definition, but a politician who does corrupt things (“lacking integrity”)–even without getting “private gain” beyond the second form noted above is engaged in “political corruption.”

    How would you classify the acts of the three councilors, the city manager and the city attorney with respect to the ombudsman’s report?

  26. eagle eye

    I wasn’t speaking of Davis in particular, but was wondering what exactly is going on in this city government?

    3 CC members’ refusal to read the ombudsman’s report, with Steiner’s okay, is very odd. And Steiner has done other odd and illegal things.

    Corruption doesn’t necessarily mean that an official himself directly and immediately gains. Pat Leary told me that historically Yolo County has operated as one big happy family, everyone helping each other out, thus, for example, billings aren’t scrutinized carefully for accuracy.

    DT will have a better idea than I do about what goes on in Davis.
    Why is the CC renewing her contract?

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