Laguna Niguel looks to investigate allegations against former mayor, review spending practices

LAGUNA NIGUEL Days after Jerry Slusiewicz resigned as mayor, city officials say they are moving forward with plans to hire outside investigators to examine the allegations leveled against the now-councilman.

The City Council is also gearing up for independent Pun Group auditors to present their review of the city’s purchase orders and contracts process at the Sept. 5 meeting.

Slusiewicz has said the Pun Group found the city had violated procedures by spending more than its contractual limit with West Coast Arborists. City officials acknowledged they broke the spending cap with nearly $410,000 in overpayments to the company for tree trimming services over two years.

Slusiewicz, who resigned at a special meeting on Monday, Aug. 14, has been accused of bullying city employees, demanding a discount on carpet because of his city position and threatening the director of a community theater to get his daughter a part in a play.

In addition, officials from a youth soccer club have accused Slusiewicz of making threats that the league wouldn’t get city field permits if it didn’t help his son move to another club.

City Attorney Terry Dixon said in an Aug. 14 memo that nine people have been identified who “allegedly received hostile, demeaning or inappropriate or unprofessional conduct from (Slusiewicz) in addition to several others who witnessed these actions.”

The city is looking at cost estimates for hiring an independent firm to do the investigation, Calina North, community engagement manager for the city, said on Wednesday, Aug. 16. The council voted July 24 to bring in an investigator. Further council approval will be required if legal costs exceed $25,000, North said. The investigation could take from four to six months, she said.

Slusiewicz has denied the theater claim, saying the carpet store altercation over a price change happened before he was a councilman. He has maintained the efforts to remove him were due to the council and staff wanting to protect former City Manager Rod Foster, whom he claims is responsible for the overpayments to West Coast Arborists.

He has also launched a site for “refuting the hearsay allegations” against him.

In a statement after he resigned, Slusiewicz alleged a “$25,000 secret investigation into my personal affairs was launched by the city manager and city attorney” on July 17 and that the “potentially criminal conduct” was ratified by the council.

City officials denied his claim.

“No investigation is being made into Jerry’s personal behaviors,” North said. “No crime has been committed by the city manager or city attorney.”

North confirmed the city hired an outside firm on July 17 to provide “general legal services,” which included “review of the city’s municipal code and resolution to review procedures related to succession.”

The firm and the city attorney later determined the city had the legal right to remove the mayor, according to a staff report.

The city has also responded to allegations from La Jolla attorney Russel Myrick of multiple Brown Act violations leading up to the July 24 special meeting in which the council voted 4-1 to hire outside legal counsel and investigators.

Myrick stated that all actions taken at that meeting should be null and void because of the violations.

“Accordingly, there must be a new vote if the city wishes to retain a law firm, conduct an investigation or proceed with amending the by-laws in the desired manner,” he wrote.

Myrick also alleged that a council meeting on Aug. 7 to discuss the findings of the investigation into Slusiewicz “was canceled and/or continued without public notice or input.”

He said it “suggests yet another decision was made behind closed doors and in violation of the Brown Act.”

Dixon said in a memo to the council Aug. 14 that Burke, Williams and Sorensen, who serve as the city’s special counsel, reviewed Myrick’s letter and said all actions at the July 24 meeting were in compliance with the Brown Act.

Dixon wrote that the City Council never voted to have the findings of the investigation on the mayor’s conduct be presented on Aug. 7 or at any other time.

On Sept. 5, the council will hear the report from auditors at the Pun Group on the city’s purchase order and contract process.

“The auditors did not report any illegal or malicious intent but rather suggested that purchasing could be improved,” a city news release said.

The council agreed Tuesday, Aug. 15 to postpone discussion of a possible expanded audit until its Sept. 19 meeting.

Slusiewicz had supported an expanded audit in the wake of West Coast Arborist overpayments, calling it a “win-win” to see if there are problems with any other contracts.

“What we should look at is the expansion of this audit to know exactly what happened and why it happened and that we have the appropriate safeguards in place,” he said. “My goal is to be the taxpayer watchdog.”

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