Council backs off censure of Councilmember LeBaron after her supporters weigh in and an attorney questions legality of proposed action
By Elijah McKee
March 10, 2022 (Lemon Grove) — “It’s a sad day in Lemon Grove. We’re better than this,” expressed Mayor Raquel Vasquez near the end of her remarks during Lemon Grove’s special City Council meeting on Tuesday night.
"This brings me no joy,” echoed Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza, though the two voted on opposite sides over whether to censure Councilmember Liana LeBaron.
The meeting was held for one reason only — to debate a resolution that would have formally condemned LeBaron’s behavior. The severity of the resolution was evident by its verbs, which included condemn, reject, admonish, refrain, cease and desist. (See ECM’s prior coverage of the proposed censure resolution.)
Many things happened over the course of the night. Over 120 people packed into the community center with signs reading “Liana LeBaron, Lemon Grove stands with you,” and “Taxpayers demand transparency,” among others. Thirty-three people contributed to a public comment session that lasted over one and a half hours. Three Sheriff’s Department officers escorted a total of seven attendees out of the building for speaking out of turn, at the order of Mayor Vasquez. And recent profane actions and words of multiple councilmembers were hashed out, including reports claiming that Councilmember Jerry Jones flipped the public off and Mayor Vasquez’s claim that Councilmember LeBaron used a racial slur against her.
Yet one thing did not happen: the formal condemnation of Councilmember LeBaron. In the end, a motion to table the resolution was passed by three votes to two. Mayor Vasquez and Mayor Pro Tem Jones voted no, while Councilmembers LeBaron, George Gastil and Jennifer Mendoza voted in favor of tabling the action.
The motion only narrowly carried after lengthy debate and an attempted substitute motion to approve the resolution made by Councilmember Jones, which only gained the support of Mayor Vasquez. The City Council may reconsider the resolution at any specified point going forward.
While they will take no action for now, the night was not without consequence. The public and all councilmembers each made their points clear, and a full room listened.
The resolution, prepared by City Attorney Kristen Steinke at the direction of City Manager Lydia Romero, sought to take an official city stance on the conduct of Councilmember LeBaron.
Available to read here, it calls out LeBaron for disrupting City Council meetings, overusing the City Hall conference room, and making claims of fraud against staffers without backing them up. It also reports that her hostilities towards city staff have allegedly been the cause of numerous complaints and vacant positions that have left the City legally vulnerable.
“WHEREAS, Councilmember LeBaron’s statements and baseless accusations have caused professional damage and a negative impact on staff morale,” reads the resolution. “Her pattern of harassing behavior and public shaming of current and former staff has had a detrimental impact on the City’s ability to attract and retain talented staff.”
As of now, the City of Lemon Grove has not responded to California Public Records Act requests to document these resignations and their reasons, nor have they provided written evidence of any staff complaints into the public record.
Two public records requests to see any concrete written evidence were left unfulfilled in advance of the special meeting. One was submitted by attorney Cory Briggs on behalf of the Project for Open Government, the other by this media outlet. Both Briggs and this report asked to inspect records at City Hall, but were denied access, with the city claiming it needed 10 days to comply.
Still, multiple councilmembers and the Mayor sought to validate the accusations.
After public comments, the Mayor sought to discredit Councilmember Liana LeBaron's depiction of herself as a victim of persecution. "It is actually this council and our staff who have been subjected to her outrageous and disruptive behavior," the Mayor said.
Hear audio of Mayor Vasquez laying out her complaints against LeBaron, including repeated adjournments resulting from her questions and talking when not recognized by the Mayor chairing the meetings. View video of a recent contentious meeting that ended in adjournment and read ECM's coverage.
“This resolution is not about precluding Councilmember LeBaron from expressing her opinions, asking questions, or suggesting new ideas,” said Councilmember Mendoza during her comments. “It’s about limiting the risk that she has exposed the city to with her behavior.”
“It has been repeatedly explained to LeBaron that we have a strong city manager form of government,” continued Mendoza. “This basically means that we set the budget, set policy and the only employees we directly oversee are the city manager and the city attorney.”
Councilmember LeBaron listened most of the night, but did offer a response to the resolution and her colleagues’ words.
“Make no mistake, they are trying to cancel the results of an election,” she read aloud from prepared comments. “Their goal is to leave the residents of Lemon Grove without a pro-transparency, anti-corruption advocate by silencing me.”
“Back in 1931 the Hispanic parents of this community stood up against dishonest and corrupt city officials,” she continued, “and I am here as the first elected Latina to our City Council to do the same, because the people of our city won’t be kept down for lack of a courageous advocate any longer.”
A consistently cited point during the discussions was the City’s potential liability due to LeBaron’s actions at city hall with staff. However, no evidence for such abuses were provided.
“That is not information for the public, they’re personnel records,” said City Clerk Audrey Malone to Mr. Briggs. She explained that the requests were received, but that the City Attorney still needed to redact them to make them public records, if they did indeed exist. She also said the documents, as of Monday, had not been provided to Councilmembers.
“This is the sort of thing that you’d expect them to have ready to go,” said Briggs after his attempt to inspect the records, as protected by the California Public Records Act. “It can’t be a surprise that somebody was going to ask to see the basis for all of the accusations in the resolution. Because they’re pretty serious.”
Briggs stressed the importance of backing up claims against the accused, especially when the individual happens to be critical of a government — otherwise, the City comes off as “stonewalling.”
Unless there is some smoking gun, like a clear rule, and then clear evidence of a rule being violated, courts aren’t sympathetic to this sort of thing,” he added, citing the judicial deference towards voters and the First Amendment rights of their representatives in situations like these.
Briggs said that it would be “unacceptable in a democracy” to silence a public official without evidence of actual rule violation(s). “If there is no substance to this, if they go forward, Project for Open Government will sue,” he announced. Briggs also raised concerns about the potential for anonymous accusations.
Durign Tuesday's meeting, for a moment, it seemed the resolution would face little trouble from the other four officials on the dais, as each councilmember acknowledged feeling the situation had reached a dire level.
“We tried to take steps incrementally,” said Councilmember Jones, “and we’re not putting restrictions just on Councilmember LeBaron,” he said, citing meeting regulations and adjusted communication flows that have impacted everyone but led to little change.
“I think it’s time for this Council to make a statement, and stand together,” he asserted.
Yet the tide began to turn when Councilmember Gastil implored each Councilmember to think about what they could do better to help resolve the matter, and proposed the idea of taking no action on the resolution to see if things improve.
“We all want a better city,” he reasoned. “I’m looking for an alternative to passing the censure, because I really do think we’ve all made our points and I really do think the real question in front of us is how can we do better as a city.” Hear audio of Councilmember Gastil's comments.
For many members of the public in attendance, the successful motion to table the resolution was still a win.
“Thank you Ms. LeBaron for getting into necessary trouble to do what is right by us,” said Penny Martinez. “You can try to silence her but you’ll never silence all of us.”
“It is just very disheartening,” remarked Tanya Harris on the resolution, a resident who has been in a legal battle with the City since the death of her son on San Miguel Avenue. “I know this woman to be standing with me."
Kathleen McClean told the Council, "Please support democracy tonight" and urged them not to pass the resolution. "I support integrity," she added. Hear McClean's public comments.
However, not all in attendance felt the same. Helen Ofield had urged passing the resolution, referring to LeBaron as an “appalling juvenile.”
“Recall her now,” she said. “Let us live to fight another day in Lemon Grove.” Hear audio of Ofield.
The vast majority of public commenters, though, voiced their support for LeBaron and requested the resolution be rejected altogether. LeBaron’s community involvement and attentiveness were often cited, and many defended her behaviors.
Clearly, the two sides are dug in deep. Is Councilmember LeBaron an appalling juvenile or is she getting into necessary advocacy trouble? Is she a disruptive racist opening the City up to liability, or is she the most dedicated public official currently elected in San Diego County?
Bringing the resolution to condemn her before the public exposed these fault lines more than ever before — perhaps it may also help close them.