CATHEDRAL CITY – The precise financial price tag of the upcoming special election has yet to be calculated, but the emotional cost that six weeks of unbridled, ruthless attacks has taken on residents and public servants is incalculable.
Longtime friendships are strained at best and irretrievably broken at worst. Some residents threatened Councilmembers with investigations all the way from the Riverside District Attorney to the state Attorney General. Some residents have filed restraining orders against other residents with promises of more to come. Other residents mocked the four public servants on the City Council for not knowing the basics of how to run a meeting. Even professional city staff members were ridiculed for not better guiding the City Council through the process of filling the vacancy.
What is the cost of all the turmoil to the city?
Uken Report has learned that leaders who have business with the city and would normally come to the City Council chambers have chosen to stay away because of all the controversy. They have instead chosen to conduct business through the U.S. Post Office.
The vitriol started immediately following Mayor Gregory S. Pettis’ death on Jan. 15. Lobbying for the vacant seat started almost without pause. There was even a verbal dustup at Pettis’ Celebration of Life on Feb. 1.
Some immediately put forth former Mayor Stan Henry’s name; others began pushing former City Councilmember Shelley Kaplan. Both men told Uken Report they would serve if asked.
Then, things began to spin seemingly out of control.
A vocal minority argued that Kaplan, a progressive openly gay man who left the City Council in December, should be tapped to fill the seat. They argued his progressive values best aligned with those of the late mayor. Kaplan was also part of Pettis’ inner circle of friends. On Feb. 13, Kaplan supporters orchestrated a turnout to pack the City Council Chambers in support of Kaplan for the seat. Among the crowd were people from Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and unions. None could vote in Cathedral City. Kaplan was in the Chambers but did not speak.
A handful of people spoke on Henry’s behalf. There was no choreographed effort to support Henry. He sat quietly in the Chambers with his wife by his side. Henry did not speak.
On Feb. 13, the City Council voted to fill the vacant seat by taking applications from residents at large. Fourteen people from across the community applied, including Henry and Kaplan. Each applicant was asked to answer a series of six questions.
In the two weeks that followed, the attacks on social media intensified and character assassinations became more frequent, especially toward Henry.
Some residents ratcheted up the verbal abuse when a Freedom of Information Act request showed that Mayor Pro Tem John Aguilar forwarded an email to Henry. The email was from Andy Jessup with words of support for Henry. When Aguilar forwarded the email he added a note saying he was convinced Henry had a 3-1 vote.
All hell broke loose.
At what cost?
Lynne O’Neill, a onetime friend of Aguilar’s, filed a complaint with City Manager Charles McClendon alleging a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act. You may read the complaint here.
As the City Council prepared to make an appointment from the pool of applicants on Feb. 27, 25 people voiced concern about the process.
Onetime self-proclaimed fans of Henry quickly found fault with the process.
“I’m watching democracy fall apart,” said Ellen O’Rourke.
Bill Holzhauer held up a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, advising the Council to read it. The book is a guide for conducting meetings and making decisions as a group. He left the book with the city clerk.
Kaplan, one of the 14 applicants and a onetime friend of Aguilar’s, told Councilmembers he thought the entire process was a “sham.” “I am afraid that some members of the Council have lost the trust of their constituents.”
Kaplan theorized that some on the City Council did not favor his appointment because of to whom is married – Alan Carvalho – not because they are concerned about Kaplan’s capability.
Kaplan told the City Council whether he is on the board or not, his husband will not remain quiet.
“Let me say that as a vocal activist that is not his nature,” Kaplan said. A resident of District 1 in which the special election will be held, Kaplan is expected to run for the seat. The winner will hold the seat until December 2020.
In rapid succession, residents filed to the podium to complain that the process was “flawed;” that no interviews or background checks were conducted; and that the appointment was nothing short of a “GOP takeover.”
Mayor Mark Carnevale said it had been “one of the hardest couple of weeks.”
The cost of the turmoil was wearing thin.
Henry was portrayed as wanting to roll back regulations on cannabis and eliminate Cathedral City’s status as a Sanctuary City. Henry, the longest serving police chief in the history of Cathedral City, was also portrayed as anti-LGBTQ. None of the accusations was backed with substance. Henry said publicly none of those accusations hurled at him was true. He said he wanted to help move the city forward and not revisit issues and votes that were debated and made years ago. An alleged private photo of Henry surfaced on social media. The attacks on Henry were relentless.
In separate discussions with Uken Report before Pettis died, both Henry and Pettis said that while they were usually on opposite sides of the political spectrum, each man respected the other. They debated, discussed, and sometimes even argued, but once a decision was made, it was made and they moved on.
As Henry left the City Council on Dec. 10, 2018, Pettis publicly called him the best mayor Cathedral City ever had.
So, was the cost of all the upheaval worth it?
Aguilar, at the eye of the storm, addressed the crowd gathered on Feb. 27 in a calm, steady tone, calling the hyped accusations B.S., and without using his name, referred to Kaplan’s supporters as “thugs.”
Aguilar’s complete statement follows:
“Thanks to everybody for your comments tonight,” Aguilar said. “It was difficult to hear some of the comments, but I respect everyone having the courage to come up and speak your mind. I’d like to respond first with a couple of comments regarding this email exchange that folks have brought up. — and then a related comment to this process — which at this point I can assure you is anybody’s guess as to where it’s going to land.
“Some in the community are trying to portray this email issue as some diabolical plot that was a cover-up for a decision that was already made. That is B.S. That is not true. First of all, let me very clear that all four Councilmembers … have been very careful not to discuss individual candidates with other councilmembers while this process was still underway. And, I can assure you and let you know that we had opportunity at many social occasions and events to talk about the potential candidate pool and we didn’t do that.
“What we in fact did, some of us did, was discuss how disturbed we were with the social media and personal campaigns against certain candidates and vitriolic attacks some members of the council, including myself and former Mayor Henry had — not just to ourselves but to our family and how distasteful all that was.
“One example was the barrage of comments from a particular segment of the community telling me that if I did not vote for a particular candidate I would be ostracized, shunned and even suggested they would rain hell down on me and my family. I am not immune to those who wish to express their opinion under the First Amendment rights. I totally get that. That’s part of what I bought when I ran for Council. However, this whole experience has given me a bitter taste of what many in the community have been experiencing from this small group of attackers over the last several years.
The email that I forwarded to Mayor Henry I did so in order to show to him that despite the barrage of negative, hateful, vicious social media attacks against him, they were attributed to one potential candidate and his gang of thugs, that there were in fact reputable individuals in the community that believed he would be viable candidate, in this case Mr. (Andy) Jessup. It was simply a gesture to balance the onslaught of vile attacks against the former mayor and his family with some positive feedback.
“Now, I also, and apparently I’m under investigation by the District Attorney so this will all come out, I also made an assumption based on the fact that since the Council unanimously voted at that last Council meeting to open up the application process to candidates beyond just District 1 that there might be potentially others on the Council who supported the former mayor. I didn’t know that for a fact. Frankly, I have no shame in saying that publicly Mayor Henry would be a great choice for a variety of reasons and I’ve made no secret of that.
“I supported the motion to open this up to districts because I wanted to see if there were other more qualified candidates who could fill the position for the remaining 18 months until we go to district elections. It’s clear based on the number of applications we got particularly in Districts 1 and 2 that there are some great candidates who will be considered in an election. I think that’s a great thing.
“Now, tonight, I will be listening to my colleagues’ comments and voting for what is right for the city. Now, I keep hearing that I need to vote for someone who will continue Greg’s legacy. What I know from being Greg’s friend is that he wants me to vote my conscience. Residents, many of you out there tonight, are telling me we need someone in this position to bring back the historical continuity that we lost in Greg, someone who has the leadership and integrity to continue our progress for all segments of our community without the liability of any baggage that could continue to harm the city. I can tell you as long as I’m on the Council I will ensure that none of the most significant decisions that have been made in the past regarding LGBTQ issues, sanctuary cities, and others will be at risk.”
As the City Council voted 3-1 to call for a special election, much of the crowd erupted in applause. Carvalho pumped his fists in the air and exclaimed, “Democracy wins.”
At what cost?
- Mark Carnevale: Mark Carnevale
- Fountain of Life: City of Cathedral City