Former City Attorney Leaves Torrance Trudging through Ethical Quagmire

In a stunning revelation made on the eve of his retirement former City Attorney John Fellows admitted that he had considered prosecuting Mayor Furey for criminal violations of municipal law due to campaign finance infractions that led to a $35,000 fine from the FPPC. Violations of the municipal law in question are misdemeanor offenses carrying penalties of up to $500 or 6 months in jail per violation.

Fellows had the power and duty to enforce the law. In fact, the City Charter states that the City Attorney is “required to prosecute on the behalf of the people all criminal cases for violations of this Charter, of City Ordinances or of misdemeanor offenses.”

Ultimately, however, Fellows decided against prosecution. He failed to do his job on behalf of the people. Fellows explained his decision by citing a conflict of interest stating that, “each of the prosecutors in our office have both personal and professional relationships with one of the suspects, Torrance Mayor Patrick J. Furey, which would preclude us from reviewing this case objectively and without bias.”

Paraphrasing Fellows resident Linda Gottshall-Sayed commented that:

“There was a law that was broken, and I didn’t prosecute … because I had a conflict of interest, but after the statute of limitations ran out I ran around to a bunch of agencies and tried to find another agency to prosecute. That’s just a lot of dressing on a turkey that never got washed.”

Mayor Furey had a different take. He deflected blame for the debacle by attributing fault to the FPPC. At the last council meeting he stated:

“The FPPC didn’t tell anybody. They didn’t tell me. They didn’t tell John [Fellows]. They didn’t tell the City. They waited until the bitter end before they said anything. Had they come up and said at the outset that they were investigating it would have made a big difference. I think they [the FPPC] fell down.”

The problem with Furey’s statement is that it is blatantly false. Fellow’s own report affirms that the FPPC sent a notification letter on September 18, 2014 that it was considering an investigation into the allegations. That letter was followed by another on October 15, 2014 wherein the FPPC confirmed that an investigation was underway. There was also a Daily Breeze article that reported on the investigation that was published November 23, 2014.

To say Fellows was not aware of the allegations against Furey is not credible, but in deference to the former City Attorney he most assuredly faced a quandary. The City Attorney can be fired with only four votes of the Council. If he prosecuted he would risk the wrath of the mayor. If he did nothing, he could have been accused of not doing his job by the other six councilmembers. Fellows commanded the highest salary in the City. His total compensation in 2016 was $385,168. He was paid to make tough decisions. In the end, he found a way to argue that his hands were tied.

The decision was a politically savvy move for Fellows. Furey was not prosecuted and Fellow’s decision did not appear to raise the ire of any of Furey’s colleagues on the Council. Fellows was not fired or even publicly reprimanded for not adhering to the requirements of his job description. He is now reportedly off to Las Vegas where he can enjoy his retirement and hefty pension. Torrance, however, is left with a troubling state of affairs that has the City trudging through an ethical quagmire.

Mayor Furey received immunity from prosecution. He is effectively above the law. The bigger dilemma is that it is now uncertain what laws can be enforced and against whom. The position taken by Fellows opens the door for a multitude of people to assert, based on precedence, that they are effectively above the law or immune from prosecution due to personal or professional relationships they have with the City Attorney or anyone in that office. How many people fit under that umbrella? What about City employees? What about neighbors and personal friends or acquaintances of people in the City Attorney’s office?

Creating this class of people that are above the law can’t be a satisfying result to the majority of law abiding Torrance residents. Even Fellows recognized it was a problem. In one of his last acts as City Attorney he called for a solution that would allow any resident to bring a “private right of action” to enforce the law. The Council deflected that solution, instead opting to explore whether they could contract with the LA County District Attorney’s office for prosecutorial services.

It is unclear if that will work out. How much will it cost and under what circumstances would the need for the their services arise? To complicate the picture, the LA County DA’s office already weighed in on the matter in a prior letter to Fellows. In that letter, the office stated, “Please understand that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office does not enforce the Torrance Municipal Code. As previously discussed, this is the province of the Torrance City Attorney. Accordingly, the decision whether or not to prosecute a potential violation is yours alone.”

In Torrance, those prosecutorial decisions currently reside with acting City Attorney Patrick Sullivan, who is also the likely frontrunner to assume Fellow’s role. In response to a query from Councilmember Herring at the last meeting, Sullivan signaled that he is inclined to side with Fellows on this issue. Of the circumstances he commented, “I actually agree with Mr. Fellows. I know it wasn’t a popular opinion that he gave … whether you want to say it’s an actual conflict or a perceived conflict it is there.”

Torrance “Disunified” School District: Intervention Program Raises Equity Concerns

Data obtained via a public records request shows a surprising imbalance with regard to the number of intervention teachers assigned to each elementary school site within the Torrance Unified School District.

The imbalance raises questions about equity as some schools were forced to raise funds to hire intervention staff, and part-time music and science teachers, while other similarly situated schools received the same benefit at District expense.

The disparities are apparent among the non-title I schools. Riviera, which is located in one of the wealthier areas of Torrance, raised the astonishing sum of $421,000 over the past three years in order to pay for its six intervention teachers while Hickory received 4 intervention teachers even though it has only raised $20,000 over the same time period.

Anza has a booster club dedicated solely to raising funds for intervention teachers. That organization, called the Anza Eagle Education Alliance, has raised $105,000 over the past three years. Utilizing those funds Anza was able to hire two intervention teachers the past school year. Towers elementary, on the other hand, did not raise any funds at all in the past three years towards personnel expenses and yet still had 3 intervention teachers assigned to the school.

This raises the possibility that the District is essentially redistributing the wealth by not providing intervention resources at schools with a proven track record of fundraising for those expenses. If that is the case it could irk parents at schools like Anza, Riviera, Seaside, and Victor who put in long hours fundraising through various means in order to pay for services that other similarly situated schools in the District are able to receive without commensurate fundraising efforts.

Disparities also exist within the Title I schools. Edison had five intervention teachers while other schools like Lincoln and Carr were only assigned one. Fern, Torrance, Wood, and Yukon were each assigned two intervention teachers despite substantially different enrollment figures. Most of the Title I schools did not raise any funds at all to pay for personnel.

As an added insult to the schools using hard earned fundraising dollars to pay for intervention services the District has informed school sites about a new directive this year that could dramatically increase the costs needed to hire qualified intervention teachers. In prior years, schools could hire part-time intervention teachers at a negotiated flat per hour rate.

This flexibility allowed schools to hire experienced educators, such as retirees, at much lower per hour pay rates than what their years of experience would typically dictate. The new rule requires that even part-time intervention teachers must be paid at a rate commensurate with their years of experience. The change could double the costs needed to hire experienced intervention teachers or force school sites to hire teachers with little or no experience.

School sites in Torrance are able to use locally raised funds to hire personnel due to a controversial decision by the School Board allowing the practice. That policy was first enacted in 2010. At the time, the District was weathering an economic storm that resulted in a sizable reduction in the District’s teaching staff. The issue has divided the School Board ever since as Board members Terry Ragins and Mark Steffens have been consistent critics of the policy.

Their concern is that the policy essentially allows some schools to buy a better education for their kids than other schools in the District could afford. The most recent extension of the policy came in June of this year. At that meeting, Ragins once again voiced opposition to the policy by stating, “We are a unified district and we are not providing a unified and consistent set of resources to all of our students in all of our schools by allowing this.”

It would appear that Ragins is correct. The District is not providing a consistent set of resources to all of the students in all of the schools. Ironically, however, the data shows that the schools sites that are raising the most money are those that may be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to intervention services.

Stop the Gas Station Project in Old Torrance – Guest Commentary from Citizens Group “I Love Old Torrance”

Tower Energy wants to build a huge Gas Station/Mini-Mart that sells Beer, Wine, Cigarettes, Fried Chicken (cooked on site), and, eventually, Hard Liquor.  Location is on Carson between Gramercy & Andreo, in the middle of original Torrance, across from Historic Downtown, NOT at a major intersection, near THS.  Proposed Hours: 365 days a year, 5:00am – 11:30pm.

Reasons to Protest:

Traffic Congestion:  If you travel on Carson, a project of this size will increase your commute time.  Carson is already a heavily congested street, especially during key times each day, and whenever there is a train.  This will make it worse for everyone that travels on Carson including nearby schools, churches, businesses, emergency services, and neighbors.

Increased Traffic on small residential side streets and alleys:  These narrow streets and alleys are NOT designed for heavy, speeding traffic.  This project will send much traffic into our neighborhoods.  We will lose much street parking, too.

Narrow Streets:  Our streets are old and narrow.  There is not room for gasoline tankers or delivery trucks.  There is not even room for 2 cars going in opposite directions to pass each other.  One car must pull to the side in order for the other to pass.  Only locals know that.  How often will there be two cars “stuck” until one of them backs up?

More cars moving at higher speeds on side streets and alleys will lead to property loss and potential loss of life: Our sidewalks are filled with children playing, dogs being walked, and people exercising.  Drivers speeding through our neighborhood will see our streets as thoroughfares. Most will NOT be mindful that this is a neighborhood.  Sooner or later a speeding car will collide with a child, a bicyclist, another car, etc.   This is a great liability for the City, too.

We already have plenty of established gas stations, liquor stores, and mini marts in the area, plus a large Ralphs nearby.

Irresponsible drivers, including those under the influence, will increase.

Gas Pumps, Underground Storage Tanks, Fumes, and Leaks are all hazards which exponentially increase the risk for explosions, fires, and many environmental & health issues.  We have multiple cancer survivors in the immediate vicinity.

This is a historic area with many unique 100 year old plus houses and businesses.  These are the foundation of Torrance’s unique history.  All nearby structures (old and new) will be put at risk if Tower’s project is approved.

Backwards “Progress”: Torrance has installed electric charging stations throughout the city.  Why go backwards and approve a new fossil fuel gas station?  A new gas station comes with many short term and long term risks, along with hazards that will be around long after the last fossil fuel car leaves the road.  Many countries and 8 states including CA have already banned the sales of fossil fuel vehicles.  Bans range from 2025 – 2050, depending on the Country/State.

Crime increases and Loitering increases at Gas Stations and places that sell alcohol “to go”.  Tower says they won’t let vagrants linger on their property, which will push them onto our properties.

The current site is peaceful, dark, and quiet at night.  Tower’s plan, with operating hours from 5am – 11:30pm, 365 days a year will bring significant noise and light pollution, as well as the smell of Fried Chicken every day!

Accidents will increase on both Carson and side streets, which will cause further congestion from emergency vehicles.

Issue will be discussed by the Planning Commission at its upcoming meeting on September 20, 2017 at 7 pm.

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