Heated discussions focus on potential interim city manager during council meeting

By Lauren Westmoreland

City Clerk Tara Kindall reported that she had received seven emails that afternoon to read aloud during the public comment segment of the meeting, with all senders asking Tara to read the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Two additional emails were also requesting to read the pledge aloud, in addition to stated concerns about where tax dollars were being spent, with allegations of misconduct raised.

Deputy City Clerk Tara Kindall stated that she had responded to each member of the public with a copy of the city council meeting agenda, with the pledge highlighted at the top of the agenda.

City council communications

Councilmember Phil Oels reported that aside from shoveling snow, he had been in urgent meetings with the ad-hoc committee responsible for recruiting an interim city manager, with current City Manager Lauren Knox soon to depart her position.

Councilmember Bill Powers reported on his activities around FEMA. “I looked at the new law effective Feb. 1, which is the new green waste collection mandate from the state, to see how that will affect us,” Powers said. “Information states all residents and businesses will not be allowed to add any green waste to landfills, with food waste collection boxes potentially to be placed at restaurants and even at the residential level.”

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Powers also reported attendance at a Juvenile Justice meeting, with 12 youths in foster care and nine in juvenile hall.

Councilmember Stan Peiler said, “I had no meetings scheduled to report on, but I know many are happy that we got a break from the snow.”

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Cooley reported on attending  a CALAFCO training session, stating “It was an excellent presentation on property tax situation in this state.” Cooley also worked on the same ad-hoc committee to hire an interim city manager with Phil Oels and thanked both Oels and city staff for their assistance in the urgent endeavor.

Mayor Pat Morton concluded council communications with her report that there were many fewer children served this past Christmas than usual.  “This last year we had 65 girls and 67 boys to give presents to from the Angel Tree program, and that is usually closer to 100 children,” Morton said. “EPCAN also didn’t have nearly as many people that wanted holiday meals as they had anticipated, so I am hoping it’s a good sign for the city.”

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Fire chief updates

Beckwourth Fire Department representative Gay Miller reported that Chief Bret Russell and the Beckwourth Fire Department sent their congratulations to Mayor Morton.  She then read from a letter penned by Russell, which stated in part that “the Renegade Light Parade was a great experience and well planned, and that Beckwourth Fire District was happy to be involved.”

With no reports from Plumas County Sherriff’s Office or the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District, City Manager Lauren Knox gave her brief report, that the American Rescue Plan Act funding guidelines have been released and the topic will come up in a future meeting soon.

The consent calendar was then approved by unanimous roll call vote, with one public comment asking for the title of the resolution to be read into the record.

2020-2021 Audit presentation

First on the agenda was the presentation of the 2020-2021 fiscal audit by CFO Susan Scarlett. “As we have done for the last two years due to covid, we have had remote audits,” Scarlett explained. “The auditors expressed an unmodified opinion which is the best they can give.”

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There was one finding referenced in page 57 of the audit, an issue with State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP funding and a contractor. “Because of covid, contractor Dan Bastian was unable to do a lot of the work that he would normally do; it’s a timing issue, not a financial issue. What’s booked here is pre-paid.”

STIP funding has done much work around the city in recent years, Scarlett explained. “The major projects we get through the Transportation Commission are really important.” Copies of the audit report are available to the public upon request by email.

Council Committees, Boards and Commissions

Council looked to ensure that all council committees, boards and commissions were up to date with the new year. After some discussion,  Oels asked to dissolve the Ad-Hoc Fire Wise Committee.

During public comment, local Ashlee Sims asked why the Local Emergency Services Study Group, or LESSG was not listed in the committees. The city responded that the LESSG is a study committee, and that there are more entities than just Portola involved, not appointed by the city.

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“The council appointed members of the fire department advisory committee to be its representatives on the LESSG committee. The fire department advisory committee has a broader scope of activities than LESSG,” Cooley explained.

The council approved the committees with the one noted change by unanimous roll call vote.

Conditional offer of employment and agreement for interim city manager

Due to the upcoming vacancy in the role of city manager, council tasked an ad-hoc committee comprised of Councilmember Phil Oels and Mayor Pro Tem Tom Cooley at the Dec. 29 special meeting to search out candidates for the position.

During this time, Cooley and Oels made contact with former Plumas County District 5 Supervisor Jon Kennedy to request his consideration of the position. With Kennedy’s background and experience in the county, the ad-hoc committee felt he would be well-suited to the sudden need to fill the position of interim city manager.

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The meeting then opened to a heated period of public comment, with Ashlee Sims stating that she had several serious concerns, citing Article 7, Section 5 of the California State Constitution, regarding temporary employment of government employees. She also stated her concerns about public property and funds, and that they “may not be used for any personal use.”

“This contract is a drain on the public financially,” Sims said. “We are not responsible for financing Mr. Kennedy’s escapades.”

It was noted that if he accepted the position, Kennedy would be serving in his position from within the city at a secondary residence. It was then publicly clarified that regarding the comment about the agreement violating California Article 7, Section 5 that the article applies to state employees, not local or city employees.

An anonymous woman, who refused to identify herself, then submitted her concerns, which ranged from accusations of a lack of transparency from the city on the topic, as well as allegations of a lack of due diligence in the interim city manager hiring process, as well as requests to know Kennedy’s qualifications for the role.

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Kindall also reported a few emailed comments on the agenda item, concerning Jon Kennedy as a potential interim city manager, with one from a Leah Turner raising questions about his experience running a city, as well as concerns about where he would reside, as well as questioning his awareness of current events and concerns in the city.

Turner questioned whether the hiring of Kennedy would best serve the citizens of Portola, asking if the situation had been rushed or pre-planned. She was also concerned at an alleged lack of any background information on Kennedy.

Cooley and the other members of council denied any previous knowledge of the sudden vacancy of the position.

Morton noted that the ad-hoc committee had discussed offering the interim position to Leslie Chrysler or Todd Roberts as had occurred in years past, and both are fully engaged with their prior commitments, respectively.

Other emails endorsed Kennedy as a candidate, with local Steve Heskett stating in his email that he was “pleasantly surprised to see that Jon Kennedy would be taking this role – Kennedy has been a constant advocate for this city and community.”

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Ben and Paige Folchi wrote to congratulate the city, stating in part, “Congratulations from Graeagle Outpost and Folchi Construction on making Jon Kennedy the next interim city manager. We have known Mr. Kennedy for over 12 years, and he is an involved parent and community member … with a well-rounded skill set, with communication being his greatest talent. His love for Plumas County will be an asset for us here in the city.”

Another resident, Jim Murphy, also endorsed Jon Kennedy. His email stated in part, “Jon’s private and public interactions have innately qualified him as the most qualified candidate for the interim position. He has working knowledge of Plumas County issues.”

With the close of public comment, Cooley suggested that council make a conditional offer of employment to Kennedy, “with successful completion of finance, criminal and credit background checks, in addition to a physical exam, and if those conditions are met, the contract can be signed with Mr. Jon Kennedy.”

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Cooley went on to state, “We are fortunate to have his knowledge of the area, and a wide swathe of the community are familiar with his abilities and devotion to the ideals of local government. Jon still has family and friends in the community and has maintained constant contact with the community. It would be difficult to find someone like this with such short notice – it is extremely important that this position be filled as soon as possible.”

Cooley expressed that both Jon and his wife were born in Plumas County, and that his kids went to school in Portola. “He is developing land for a home in the Graeagle area,” Cooley said. “He will reside within city limits by Feb. 1. His home in Graeagle will be in the required response time of 15 minutes.”

In response to earlier concerns about Kennedy utilizing the city vehicle to commute to his home in Ukiah, Cooley said, “The use of the city vehicle to occasionally commute to Ukiah – it’s not a gift of funds, it is a condition of the contract. The city has a car to fill these actual needs, and he does not foresee frequent commuting.”

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Oels added that any commuting done in the city vehicle would be for a short period of time, and Cooley then went on to add, “This is an emergency situation. I’ve seen this gentleman perform over the years.”

In regard to Kennedys’ qualifications, Cooley went on to state, “I think it is accurate that he has not held the position of city manager before, but his 30 years of business management, dispute resolution, budgeting, public policy, emergency services management, and so forth, more than make up for any precise degree in this area of expertise.”

Cooley stated that Kennedy had real life, relevant experience which may be worth more than someone who has completed a master’s program with only theoretical experience. “We would be in very good hands there if we make this conditional offer of employment to Jon Kennedy,” Cooley concluded.

Without further discussion,  Council moved to offer the position to Jon Kennedy, contingent upon the successful completion of all background checks, which was unanimously approved by roll call vote.

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Jon Kennedy then spoke and said that he is “excited to come to Portola and roll up his sleeves and get to work – let’s propel Portola forward.”

With that, council went into closed session.

The city council welcomes all to its meetings which are regularly held the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. Local interest and participation is encouraged and welcome.

The city council meeting is accessible to the public via live streaming at: https://zoom.us/j/3583067836 or by phone at: Phone Number 1.669.900.6833; Meeting ID: 358 306 7836.

Any person desiring to address the city council on any item not on the agenda may do so during public comment.

Public comments made during a regular council meeting may be recorded. Public comment will be accepted via email or chat on any item on the agenda at any time beginning at 6 p.m. and ending at the close of public comment on the item. Please direct comments to Tara Kindall, Deputy City Clerk via email at [email protected] or access the chat function on the Zoom meeting platform during the live stream.

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Members of the public may submit their comments in writing to be included in the public record.