By Elijah McKee
February 17, 2022 — Sixty-two — that is the number of times Mayor Racquel Vasquez hit her gavel during Lemon Grove’s City Council meeting on February 15, 2022. In the end, the meeting was adjourned early and scheduled to resume two days later at 6 p.m.
These calls to order, as well as numerous recesses, were in response to Councilmember Liana LeBaron asking questions or making points of clarification about the task at hand. These tensions on the City Council have mounted for many months now; on Tuesday, the context was an initial one-year lease agreement with the Urban League of San Diego County.
However, the room was on edge from the start. After Councilmember LeBaron thanked a public commenter, Mayor Vasquez called her out for being out of order. Minutes later, the Mayor read from the Lemon Grove Municipal Code about how meetings should be orderly and stated that those who disrupt them are subject to criminal repercussions.
"There’s nothing criminal about thanking a member of the public,” attorney Cory Briggs advised ECM. For over 20 years, Briggs has specialized in government accountability and public interest litigation. Currently, he is representing San Diegans for Open Government in a lawsuit against the city of San Diego over failure to comply with public records requests.
Later in the contentious meeting, Councilmember LeBaron took issue with how the Mayor was speaking favorably about the City’s financial health, and jumped in to list a myriad of problems facing the City. She spoke without being recognized by the meeting’s chair, the Mayor, and refused repeated requests to stop. This prompted one of the many recesses called.
When the meeting resumed, City Attorney Kristen Steinke reminded the City Council that the Brown Act prohibits discussing things not on the agenda. However, Briggs said otherwise.
“The Brown Act prohibits council action on items not on the agenda. It doesn’t prohibit a councilmember from talking about something that is not on the agenda,” Briggs clarified.
Yet the finale to the meeting that brought down the curtain was a simple question dispute.
Councilmember LeBaron wanted to know through what process the Urban League’s proposed lease of the Recreation Center was allowed to be put on the agenda, and if that procedure would be the same for other organizations that may want to use the rec center.
As context, her question followed a string of emails in which LeBaron has sought to put reopening the rec center on the agenda at the request of residents, without success..
City Manager Lydia Romero explained that the Urban League presentation on proposed youth programs during the council meeting came out of her discussions with the organization and the approval of the Mayor.
When Councilmember LeBaron pressed for more information, the Mayor tried to move along to other Councilmembers’ questions. Councilmember LeBaron protested, inisiting that the city manager should answer her question.
On this point, Briggs explained, “The city manager is legally allowed to blow off any member of the city council. Unless a majority of the council tells the city manager to grow up and act professionally, the city manager need not answer anyone’s question.”
Not a single member came to LeBaron’s defense, however.
A recess was called, after which she again persisted on her question even after the Mayor called for a vote and the Urban League agenda item passed, with LeBaron opposed.
The mayor declared LeBaron "out of control and out of order." LeBaron countered by claiming the mayor was violating Lemon Grove’s policies and procedures.
Out came the gavel, and the meeting was abruptly adjourned after just one hour.
A full video recording of the meeting is available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eulJdDN2v8
Conducting the business of the City of Lemon Grove is scheduled to continue this evening. Will the frustration across the dais follow suit?