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SELMA – In a brief special meeting Sept. 13, Selma’s mayor announced that the legal firm of Casso & Sparks was no longer working with the City and that an offer to another legal firm for special counsel services was being negotiated.

In her letter dated Sept. 11 to the mayor and councilmembers, Attorney Bianca Sparks Rojas wrote “good cause exists to terminate the legal services agreement between Casso & Sparks, LLP and the City of Selma, and all related City entities.”

She did not elaborate as to what those causes were.

The firm replacing Casso & Sparks was not announced just then; however the Sept. 16 City Council agenda shows that Fresno’s previously ousted Costanzo & Associates would be offered the job on a monthly retainer of $4,500. Additional services will cost $145 per hour for Neal Costanzo’s services and $135 for other attorney employees. For litigation services, Costanzo will be paid $165 per hour and $155 per hour for attorney employees of their firm. Funds to hire Costanzo will come from the general fund, the staff report in the agenda packet shows.

Rojas had been hired in July 2018 to replace Costanzo. He had been voted out in June 2018 in a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Jim Avalos dissenting.

Avalos at the time said he wanted to keep Costanzo on “because I felt he was needed for the city of Selma still. There are projects on the line that are very important.”

Rojas confirmed that she had submitted a resignation letter that was effective as of noon on Friday, Sept. 13.

“I have nothing bad to say about the City,” she said in a phone interview. “It was a pleasure serving the City and its residents and I wish the City nothing but the best in the future. There’s a lot of exciting projects and I wish the City well with all of that.”

The three Council members present at the special meeting - Mayor Scott Robertson, Avalos and Councilwoman Sarah Guerra - voted in favor of making the new legal service agreement. Councilman John Trujillo was not available because of the short notice of the special meeting. Councilman Louis Franco was out of the country at the time of this special meeting.

No public comments were made.

Upon return from the closed session at the Friday meeting, Robertson announced that Council had given direction to City Manager Teresa Gallavan to “negotiate the terms and report back to Council with the results.”

On page 35 of the Sept. 16 agenda, it states that “until another city attorney is appointed by the City Council, the special counsel is responsible to evaluate projects and their legal issues and provides recommended options to minimize legal risk and ensure due process in City decisions and has the authority to enforce Selma’s municipal code to represent the City in litigation.”

Robertson added he was correcting “misinformation spread Sept. 12, 2019 on Facebook by Selma Enterprise reporter Laura Maldonado that Bianca Sparks Rojas [was] likely being terminated in a special meeting called by the City Council. In fact, the city attorney resigned. The purpose of this special meeting is to discuss the appointment of special counsel for the City.”

Prior to this meeting, sources reported that an email was sent stating the city’s attorney would be fired.

In emails obtained by the Selma Enterprise, Councilman Jim Avalos was first asking on Sept. 5 for a performance evaluation of the city attorney. And then on Sept. 10, Avalos was asking for the attorney’s resignation to be discussed at a closed session at the end of Council's Sept. 16 meeting.

“[Avalos] has changed the Council request for a closed session item from performance evaluation of the City Attorney to termination of contract and employment of City Attorney (this is not necessarily the exact wording that would be on the agenda) and that the closed session take place at the end of the meeting,” the email dated Sept. 10 reads.

Councilman Trujillo asked during the Sept. 16 meeting if he would ever be informed as to why Avalos was asking for Rojas’ resignation, but Avalos declined to say so stating it was a personnel matter.

Trujillo said he’d received an email on Sept. 5, stating Councilman Avalos wanted to review the City Attorney. On the morning of Sept. 10, the mayor requested to review the firm’s contract and by 12:04 p.m. that same day, Avalos requested to rescind the evaluation and move it to termination.

“My only questioning on the dais is that as a public official, I’m one-fifth of the representatives of this community and I think we, as public officials, should have every right to know what occurred and what was the evaluation tool that was used to evaluate the city attorney? And how did it transpire from being evaluating to her resignation?”

Trujillo said he has yet to receive a response from the city manager and pointed out the wording in the attorney’s resignation letter.

“She had ample evidence as to why she could terminate the contract, versus representing the City for another 30 to 90 days. She had ample evidence. I’m privy to that, but I’d love for the Council to have an open discussion on what they’re operating and what their intentions are. I’m just asking for some information and our city manager, our city attorney and our council should be able to give us the reasons as to why we were going to evaluate her and then, all of a sudden, she resigned. We’re the actual bosses of her. Why can’t we get any information? Those are questions I’m asking and I’m asking them in public.”

Councilman Franco added that he thought the Casso & Sparks firm was professional and worked with integrity.

“As Councilmembers, to best serve the community, we need an attorney that’s going to tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. We got that with her.”

The latest Selma City Council meeting was Sept. 16. A stalemate was reached regarding district election maps and the decision was postponed until a special meeting tentatively set for 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27.

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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