City of Riverside Charter Change and the City Attorney’s Office

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

I have previously written about the City of Riverside City Attorney’s Office.  In today’s Press-Enterprise, there is an article about proposed Charter changes that would limit the office of the City Manager.   The article is written by Alicia Robinson and is titled Charter changes would set limits on City Manager.  I do not know where it was located in the physical newspaper.

The section regarding the City Attorney’s Office is very interesting:

The other change removes the city manager’s authority over employees of the . . . city attorney. . . .

City Attorney Greg Priamos, who proposed the change, would only speak generally about it and would not comment on whether it was a response to a specific incident.

The charter now lets the city manager approve or disapprove hiring decisions of the city clerk and attorney. Priamos said he doesn’t think that matches the intent of the charter to keep those three positions independent.

“Having the city manager having any influence whatsoever on the personnel decisions of the city attorney can … impair the city attorney’s ability to provide independent, unbiased legal advice and counsel to my client,” which is the city as represented by the council, Priamos said.

. . .

. . . Barbara Purvis, a retired assistant city attorney . . . said she is puzzled as to why a charter change is needed. But city documents suggest former City Manager Brad Hudson was likely the impetus for the proposal.

According to documents released in response to a California Public Records Act request, former Deputy City Attorney Rachele [sic] Sterling filed an internal complaint in February alleging Hudson accessed her city emails because of her political support of Councilman Paul Davis, and because he wanted to know what city employees had told her about “improper and unethical practices in the public works department.”

In March, Sterling wrote to the council detailing alleged improprieties in awarding contracts, saying employees were directed to steer work to Hudson’s friends. Hudson and the city have denied the allegations and a city-commissioned outside legal investigation found no wrongdoing. Sterling was fired in May.

The city has never explained why Hudson was looking at the emails of one of Priamos’ subordinates, and officials have not clarified whether that could be a violation of attorney-client privilege. When asked in August, Hudson refused to say why he was looking at Sterling’s emails, but in documents from the outside law firm’s investigation, Hudson said he had heard complaints that Sterling was interfering in public works matters.

The report noted that Hudson “functioned as a supervisor” over Sterling and thus had the power under city policy to review her emails. Priamos said attorney-client privilege prevents him from discussing the email incident.

Purvis said it would be “totally improper” for anyone outside the city attorney’s office to review its employee emails. She’d like an explanation of the proposed change, she said, because the charter shouldn’t be altered without a compelling reason.

As background, Raychele Sterling was my immediate predecessor at the City of San Bernardino.  She returned to the City of Riverside in 2001, opening up the position of Deputy City Attorney in San Bernardino.  She was always very helpful to me both in the brief hour or so we discussed the cases and matters I was inheriting from her in San Bernardino, or to point me in the right direction in the Riverside City Attorney’s Office, or if I had a public works question.  I last spoke to her last year, in person, at Riverside City Hall, before her firing.  I have not spoken to her since, and I have no inside knowledge of what happened in Riverside beyond what has been reported in the Press-Enterprise.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the charter committees proposals online, so I cannot explain the actual changes to the existing charter.  The committee will present its proposal to Council on January 24, 2012.

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