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Smoller Speaks Out

Release Grand Jury Transcripts on City Manager Salaries

Attributed to the Los Angeles Times

Credit-LA Times

More than year after a scathing Orange County Grand Jury report that found former Tustin City Councilman, Jerry Amante, had abused his authority,  Fred Smoller is speaking out and calling for the release of the Grand Jury Transcripts.

In a recent editorial on the Voice of OC Smoller, who headed the innovative Masters in Public Administration program at Brandman University, was targeted along with student researchers and Laguna Hills Mayor Barbara Kogerman when they researched and published a report on the ridiculous salaries being paid to city managers in Orange County.

When the Grand Jury report was originally published in July of 2012, Jerry Amante went on the offensive, claiming the jurists were misguided. “I don’t know how the grand jury got it wrong, but they’ve got it wrong”.

Smoller, who’s students were the focus of the attack by the good councilman, says otherwise:

Others — myself, the students, The Orange County Register’s editorial page and other prominent elected officials such as Supervisor Shawn Nelson and former Assemblyman Chris Norby, and a big chunk of the public — feel the grand jury got it right.

Unfortunately, grand jury testimony is almost always conducted under a cloak of secrecy. There is also the endemic issue of the lack of authority inherent in this arm of the courts (at least in the Real OC). Amante and his cohort, Laguna Hills Councilman Alan Songstad, simply had their resepctive city attorneys thumb their noses at the report. In Tustin’s case, they stated they had no authority to chastise a councilman for what amounted to a personal issue.

When the city decided to vote on the issue of what to do, we pointed out that Hizzoner was not only allowed to vote on his own punishment, he was the deciding vote. That, of course, happened with the city attorney’s blessing. David Kendig, the city attorney, even wrote the letter to the grand jury blowing them off with a lame 1st Amendment explanation. Smoller also points out this problem with the wolf choosing his own punishment for killing the sheep:

Mr. Amante cast the deciding vote on the motion which questioned his conduct, a clear conflict of interest. Both Songstad and Amante are attorneys.

While Smoller says that there are parts of the report that could have been done differently, he believes the entire episode has been warped through the efforts of many in an attempt to muddy the waters. In his editorial, he calls for a release of the grand jury transcripts. Smoller and others believe that, although grand jury testimony is normally secret, in this case, the public interest far outweighs the need for confidentiality:

The fact that this matter continues to be reported on says that questions remain unresolved. Releasing the transcripts will also allow for the assessment of the grand jury’s work, which has been harshly criticized by some members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

I hope Mr. Amante and Mr. Songstad and their former respective city councils and the others who criticize the report will join the effort to daylight the grand jury transcripts so we can find out the truth.

If the grand jury does sloppy work, we need to know it, and fixes need to be put in place…

Smoller also says the public deserves to know if the Orange County Grand Jury is really doing their job. Releasing the transcripts, he says, will vindicate those who served honorably on the jury and demonstrate the constraints they are under.

We agree. As frequent critics of the Orange County Grand Jury, opening transcripts that would back up their claim on this complex situation would go a long way toward restoring credibility to an institution that has been dismissed, more often than not, with a snicker and a wink. If the Grand Jury is doing the job we expect of them, then we the public should have confidence in them. Releasing the transcripts will go a long way toward restoring that confidence.

On the other hand, if Jerry is right and the jury “got it all wrong”, then he should have nothing to worry about. Right, Jer?

Amante & Songstad Still Remembered For Ethics Breach

Where-Are-They-Now with AmanteIn the category of “where are they and what are they doing now”, my friend Omar Masry from the hinterland of NoCal, sent me a link to an interesting LA Times article.

Awhile back, we wrote an article on an Orange County Grand Jury report titled, “The Use of Government Influence on Private Education Institution“.  The report alleged that then Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante and Laguna Niguel City Councilman Alan Songstad misused their positions as elected officials to unduly influence and discredit a report on city manager compensation authored by a couple of students at Brandman University.

When the report was issued, it was lauded by OC Supervisor, Shawn Nelson who honored the two authors, Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall, for their integrity and for bringing to light the incredibly high salary of high ranking government officials. The report became even more significant when the Bell scandal, outlining heavy corruption by that city’s highest ranking officials, became news.

Unfortunately, it also brought heavy fallout to Fred Smoller, the founder and head of the Public Administration Program at Brandman as well as the authors of the original report. According to the LA Times article, Smith and Voshall had to leave Orange County to find work. Smoller also wound up resigning from the program he founded:

Fred Smoller, who founded the master’s program in public administration at Brandman, accused college leaders of buckling to pressure from conservative local politicians and trampling academic freedom.

“The resignation was the only way I could draw attention to the backdoor politicking that threatened the independence and academic integrity of the MPA program,” Smoller said.

And, although Smoller remains at Chapman University (Chapman, Brandman, what’s the dif?) he has lost faith in the program he founded.

Cindy Smith summed it up when she said, “The Good Old Boys Club is alive and well.”

Jerry Amante should know. His efforts to establish a corrupt legacy of influence in the city of Tustin are well documented. Amante, for his part, claimed he and Songstad did not try to influence anyone. He claimed the grand jury report was inflated and incorrect.  There was  no influence put upon school officials. At one point, he slammed the grand jury saying that James Doti, Songstad and he were the only ones in the room (remember, the smartest guys in the room) and they were the only ones who knew what was said.

But that is not the indication from Songstad who, according to the report, said they did, in fact, discuss the issue with James Doti and made what the grand jury later construed as veiled threats to not hire any students from Brandman. Well, we know of at least two who have not been hired.

Fred Smoller, for his part, defended the students actions. He also refused to buckle under pressure to release their email addresses and phone numbers to Laguna Hills City Manager, Bruce Channing, then the highest paid (and apparently most angry) city manager in Orange County. Channing did get one thing: Smoller agreed the title page should not carry the institution’s brand and that was subsequently changed.

Remember the League of California Cities? They are one of the chief lobbying and quasi-governmental entities that really run the government. In essence, it’s a club for local politicians where the makers and shakers throughout the state decide in unison what’s best for us. Amante and Songstad, as members of the club, asked the League to respond to the report. Shortly after the League refused, Orange County broke away from the League and formed a separate good-old-boys club known as the Association of California Cities-Orange County. Yup, that’s right. When the conservatives couldn’t get their way, they stamped their feet and took their ball home, leaving Orange County with even less influence  in Sacramento than it had before.

We’d like to get Amante’s side of the story but, according to the Times story, he isn’t answering the phone these days. I doubt any of the other players are either.

Alas, we may never know whether lies or truth came out in the Grand Jury investigation. A lawyer hired by Fred Smoller was unsuccessful in getting the transcripts of grand jury session released to the public. The lawyer who headed the investgation for the grand jury stamped the report “particularly sensitive”.

Barbara Kogerman, the one who commissioned the report to begin with is now Mayor of Laguna Hills. During the investigation, she had been accused of making the report a campaign piece. Perhaps so. But, it was also a factual piece of information that should have been brought before the public long ago when the city manager’s office stopped being about public service and began being sold to the highest bidder.

So, where are they? According to the Times article, Cindy Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix, Voshall works for the United Nations and Smoller is at Chapman University hoping to start another public administration program. All of them have found a higher calling. Talk about a blessing in disguise.