New Leaders Inherit Beleaguered City Departments in Need of Increased Transparency

Torrance Police Chief, Eve Irvine

Eve Irvine was sworn in last Tuesday as the first female police chief to lead the Torrance Police Department. In the same meeting, two key roles within the City Attorney’s office were filled. Tatia Strader was appointed as Assistant Attorney while Brandon Gonzaque received an appointment as Deputy City Attorney. The appointments followed the recent elevation of former Assistant Attorney Patrick Sullivan to the City Attorney post. These new leaders will take on the challenge of heading beleaguered City Departments beset by recent scandals.

The Police Department, in particular, has experienced a series of eye opening incidents. Signs of trouble began to show when it was discovered that former Chief Matsuda was suspended due to reports that he made hostile remarks about women, blacks, gays, and muslims. Oddly, news of that suspension did not initially come from City officials. It was the Daily Breeze that broke the story after being contacted via e-mail by persons that appeared to be officers within the department. Matsuda returned to his post after a personnel investigation, but the results of that investigation were never made public.

Shortly after Matsuda returned to work, the Daily Breeze printed another bombshell report. In that article, it was revealed that Lieutenant Hector Bermudez filed a lawsuit alleging that Matsuda obstructed an internal criminal investigation and retaliated against Bermudez. According to the lawsuit, Bermudez, as head of internal affairs, was leading an investigation into unlawful uses of police databases. The suit alleges that Bermudez discovered that a department employee was illegally utilizing a police database in furtherance of an off duty job providing security for the Los Angeles Lakers and other professional athletes.

Bermudez claimed that during the course of his investigation he was confronted by a former captain in the department who told him not to follow up on leads and interview potential witnesses. When Bermudez complained about the obstruction to his superior he received an unfavorable performance evaluation and was denied a possible promotion to Captain.

The outcome of that internal investigation initially led by Bermudez has yet to be made known to the public. A week after Bermudez filed his lawsuit former Chief Matsuda unexpectedly retired. City officials did not comment at the time on whether they played any role in Matsuda’s exit.

The Police Department has also been plagued by several lawsuits involving police shootings and other matters. One of the most recent was filed by the 14 year old son of San Diego woman who was killed after a short car chase.

The City Attorney’s office has also been embroiled in an number of controversial matters over the past few years. In one of his last acts, for example, former City Attorney John Fellows announced that anyone having a relationship with any of the attorney’s in his office was effectively immune from prosecution. The pronouncement stemmed from the failure of his office to prosecute Mayor Furey for criminal violations of the City’s campaign finance laws. Fellows retired from the City’s attorney’s office as the highest paid city employee in terms of Salary. His salary in 2016 was $290,318 with total compensation of $385,168.

The City’s self insurance fund, used to pay for outside legal services, has been depleted so much due to legal fees that it has required the Council to divert large sums from other sources to replenish the fund. The City, however, has provided scant information about how these outside firms are selected to represent the City and how much they are paid. The law firm of Rutan and Tucker, for example, has enjoyed a cozy relationship with the City for many years receiving untold millions in legal fees.

As one reference point, the City of Torrance paid Rutan and Tucker $410,000 to prohibit a 33 year old woman who suffered from cerebral palsy from obtaining a designated handicapped parking space in front of her home. The City eventually lost the case and the curb was painted blue. The embarrassing legal loss, however, appears to have had no impact on the City’s relationship with Rutan and Tucker as the firm has been hired to represent the City on several other cases since that time.

Interestingly, former City Attorney John Fellows was named a partner at Rutan and Tucker shortly before beginning his employment with the City.

Given the above, the City could improve transparency and communication with the public by implementing the following measures:

  • Solicit competitive bids for outside legal services and allow public and Council to comment in open session on the merits of each firm seeking to represent the City;
  • Disclose to the public how much each outside firm it utilizes is paid in legal fees on an annual basis;
  • Provide a listing on their website of all active lawsuits in which the City is a party and their current status;
  • Publish on their website publicly available court documents pertaining to active lawsuits;
  • Notify the public immediately of all legal settlements;
  • In high profile matters, such as police shootings, inform the public of what measures were taken and notify the public of the results of any internal or independent investigations.

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.

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