In case you missed this over the weekend, problems surface in West Covina City Hall:
Hernandez at center of controversy
By Ben Baeder, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 11/07/2008 11:46:29 PM PST
WEST COVINA – Politics at City Hall are getting personal.
Over the past two months, a councilman has sought police protection at public meetings, alleging he’s been intimidated by fellow council members.
And two top city staff members filed complaints about the same councilman, with one demanding $3 million and a guarantee he won’t be fired until he is 60.
At the center of all the complaints is Councilman Roger Hernandez, who claims it is his right to manage city employees, questioning the value of their work and their ethics as needed.
“The people elected me to do what I think is right for the city,” Hernandez said. “The ethics of the city staff are my responsibility.”
Hernandez’s complaints about city staffers have upset his fellow council members, he said.
After a closed-session meeting on Sept. 2, Hernandez told the city’s police chief that council members Mike Touhey and Steve Herfert physically intimidated him.
“Mr. Hernandez informed me that for the past several months he has felt very unsafe during closed-session meetings,” wrote West Covina police Chief Frank Wills in a Sept. 10 memo.
Touhey never touched Hernandez but “often invades his personal space and points a finger very close to his head or chest while in an agitated state,” Wills noted in the memo.
Hernandez also said Herfert “made him fear for his personal safety” and threatened to “get” him, according to the memo.
Hernandez asked Wills that a police officer be present during closed-session meetings.
Herfert and Touhey said nothing close to intimidation ever took place at a closed-session meeting.
Touhey said he and Hernandez have been at several events together since Sept. 2.
“If he was so afraid of me, why does he sit right next to me?” Touhey said.
Herfert said the whole discussion of threats is absurd.
“Every time (Hernandez) has a problem, he basically blames it on someone else,” Herfert said. “We’ve never had (physically) confrontational closed sessions. I’ve never threatened Roger, and he has never threatened me.”
Three weeks after the argument in the Sept. 2 closed session, Community Development Director Chris Chung demanded $3 million related to a claim he made a year ago. In Chung’s complaint, he says he deserves $3 million because of a hostile work environment created by Hernandez.
Chung claims that Hernandez, over the past two years, has publicly and privately criticized development deals overseen by Chung. He also claimed that Hernandez cussed at him.
Chung has diabetes, high blood pressure and an ulcer because of his dealings with Hernandez, said Victor Jacobovitz, Chung’s attorney.
“In this situation, our client’s condition has been drastically affected by the conduct of Mr. Hernandez,” Jacobovitz said. “These are conditions that could shorten his life.”
Hernandez denies harassing Chung. He acknowledges he once cursed in Chung’s presence, but contends he never cursed directly at Chung. He rarely ever talks to Chung, he said.
“Put me on a lie detector test,” he said. “I would gladly take one. I never have talked to a member of city staff like that. Never.”
Then on Oct. 23, Public Information Officer Susan Williams also filed a claim with the city, saying Hernandez has caused her to become physically ill.
In the complaint, she said Hernandez harmed her by naming her when discussing the elimination of the city’s public information officer position.
Along with irritable bowels, hair loss and nausea, the episode made Williams fear she would have a heart attack, she wrote in the report.
Williams, who did not return several calls seeking comment, did not detail how much she seeks from the city.
In an e-mail, she wrote: “It is with great regret that I had to file a claim. However, I have been negatively affected both personally and professionally and feel that I must protect my health, welfare, reputation and stand up for what is right.”
Touhey said Hernandez should go through the city manager when he disagrees with an employee.
City workers are in a union that demands certain protocols, he said.
“There’s still union rights and I respect that,” he said. “You can mention an employee’s job, but you shouldn’t say the name.”
Hernandez said the complaints are an organized attack against him because he often votes against development projects favored by the other members of the council.
Either way, Hernandez has a right to bring up the performance of city employees, said Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition.
Even naming an employee in the context of budget cuts is most likely legal and acceptable.
“It would seem to me the council member is expressing his or her right to speak,” Scheer said. “And that includes speaking critically about an employee.”