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Planning Group wrestles cease-and-desist, discord

 

Last updated 9/2/2021 at 2:35pm



Julie Reeder

Publisher

A special meeting of the Fallbrook Planning Group was called Aug. 25 to address a cease-and-desist letter sent by FCPG member Victoria Stover to Chair Eileen Delaney, dated Aug. 5, which accused Delaney of Brown Act violations and threats.

While the letter was primarily addressed to Delaney, the traditionally non-partisan and non-controversial group has in recent months experienced an unprecedented amount of bickering, slander and cyberbullying, member Stephanie Baxter said during the meeting.

Member Lee De Mao said he didn’t like “people who faithfully served the board for years being dragged through the mud when they want nothing more than to serve the community.”

For the special meeting, County Counsel Randall Sjoblom was on hand to give input to the group as to proper procedure and possible responses to the letter. He said in 15 years, it was only the second cease-and-desist letter he had seen.

During public comment, Robyn Dahlson spoke about how she was concerned about transparency of the FCPG and requested a formal investigation.

Jessica Myers addressed Sjoblom directly and said she thought they were toying with the group by giving opposing instructions and causing divisiveness. She suggested an email be sent to the entire group after each County Council instruction.

A recent example of the bickering was apparently related to a vote at a previous meeting when Delaney asked Sjoblom to verify that she was correct in calling a previous vote “not passing” which some in the group thought was incorrect. Delaney reiterated that there has to be at least eight people vote in favor for a motion to pass and Sjoblom agreed.

In an email to Delaney, Jessica Turner, from County Planning & Development Services wrote, “I wanted to let you know that a couple of members inquired about the vote count required for a motion to pass. I provided them with Article VI, Section V of Policy I-1 as it clarifies that votes are based on the authorized membership. I also confirmed that for the Fallbrook CPG any motion has to pass with at least eight members.”

The group discussed how to respond to the cease-and-desist, which Sjoblom said could involve the entire group since the accusation in the letter is that Delaney may have called several members.

Sjoblom explained that an option was to respond with a letter provided by the Brown Act legislation which doesn’t admit guilt but does affirm that the group won’t violate the Brown Act in the future. The thought was if a lawsuit was filed, a judge would likely dismiss it because the letter had already been filed.

The cease-and-desist letter was served from the CARE Law Group, which was retained by Stover. The letter states, “... Member Stover … is seeking redress from you (Chair Eileen Delaney) to refrain from further violations and interference of Member Stover’s official duties and privileges. By this letter, it is demanded that cease-and-desist unethical and violative conduct of the Ralph M. Brown Act.”

The letter cites a call Delaney made to Stover regarding a project that Stover believed was, or could have been, a violation of the Brown Act. The letter continues to outline Stover’s response at the next meeting acknowledging the phone call and her concern about the Brown Act. The letter states she also aired her discontent with the divisive and personal attacks being made on another FCPG member and secretary, Ross Pike. Finally, she disclosed that she was presenting a California Public Records Act request for all minutes, writings and recordings of previous FCPG meetings as she had heard that Delaney had “called other members concerning the aforementioned project.”

Stover also alleged that Delaney called her a liar, purposefully muted her during a meeting and threatened her.

Delaney confirmed with Sjoblom that she would have had to call a majority of the planning group which she denied and said she has documentation to prove it.

Delaney also denied the threats.

“However I’ve encouraged everyone to listen to the recording,” Delany said. “You will hear that I never said the things she accused in the letter and the whole thing is ridiculous.”

The last paragraph of the letter threatens Chair Delaney that her failure to respond will result in a lawsuit being filed for direct action against her and will ask the court for an award of money damages, court costs and attorney fees, as permitted by law.

De Meo asked Sjoblom if planning group members are protected by the county if they are sued, to which Sjoblom replied that they were.

“Certain members of the group that think almost everything is a Brown Act violation and if I was to call another person on this group and talk about a project, that is not a Brown Act violation,” De Meo said. “Now if I were to call 10 members about the project, that would be a violation. So what I see happening here is that because of continued threats from procedure and Brown Act violations, it’s hindering the group from doing its job.”

De Meo questioned whether sending a response letter like what was suggested would cause more potential liability.

“All kinds of accusations are being made about this group not being transparent and none of that has ever been true in the 10 years I’ve been here,” he said. “These issues that we are dealing with here in the last four or five months have never happened before but certain members seem to think that people are violating procedures and violating the Brown Act and that brings us to where we are now.”

De Meo said his concern with putting in a letter that they wouldn’t violate the Brown Act (in the future) was that they would be admitting guilt, which council said it wouldn’t be admitting guilt, but it was OK to either do the letter or not.

April Schimke, a member of the public, asked why the county doesn’t do more and provide Brown Act classes.

Delaney explained that it’s an annual requirement for members to participate in Brown Act and ethics training. It wasn’t clear from the meeting whether all the members had participated in those training sessions.

Planning Group member Stephanie Baxter said she didn't think they as a group should tolerate the bad behavior.

“... Cyberbullying, passive aggressive communication, public defamation, which is defined as injuring another’s reputation without good reason or justification, and what we are learning and what we are seeing the last eight months as a body is that there is no good reason or justification for such an accusation and people who are good and skilled at getting gossip out and slandering others and spreading mistruths, and delighting in the undermining of others have no place in public service, especially in a wonderful, beautiful place like Fallbrook,” she said. “You may think you were bringing someone like Eileen to justice but in reality, you are just undermining yourself as a public servant and the group and the community. How can applicants and citizens and the county take us seriously if we’re bickering like this?

“County counsel is probably getting calls every day, public arguments are happening on social media and it’s dragging our community down,” Baxter said. “It’s not appropriate to drag the public into this and it has been since January.”

De Meo agreed with Baxter, saying he “didn’t like people who faithfully served the board for years being dragged through the mud.”

“Out of 100 meetings in over 10 years, there were only four where people weren't civil to each other and they’ve been dragging people through the mud over issues that aren’t even issues at all and they are working toward being nonfunctional,” he said

Two votes on the issue, one to not send a letter and the second to send a letter, failed to pass so the group decided to instead write a public statement to be discussed in September.

Baxter said she had never met anyone “as stringent about following policy as Eileen Delaney” and that “she’s always provided integrity and leadership" and she is blessed to work alongside her.

Stover spoke at the end of the meeting, reiterating what she had said in the letter. She said she had talked to the county and taken guidance from them after not knowing how many people Delaney had talked to. She said she felt Delaney had been hindering her in her job on the board.

In a Tuesday morning phone conversation, Delaney said that “While the last few months have been rocky,” she is “encouraged that we are all going to be working together going forward in our role advising the county on planning and land use issues in Fallbrook. Our planning group has worked very hard so that Fallbrook maintains its beautiful rural community character and I hope we can continue to do this.”

 

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