The evidence in an investigation into complaints against City Councilmember Art Brieno details a 20-month period during which City officials knew of Brieno's allegedly inappropriate and potentially illegal behavior involving a staff member, but did little about it.
The independent investigation, conducted by attorney Mario Zamora, supports the claims by Community Development Director Darlene Mata.
The findings were given to the City in November 2020, then obtained by the Hanford Sentinel in February 2021 and released to the public. In March, Brieno was censured by the City Council, largely because of actions and comments outlined in the investigation about women, and Mata as a person and professional.
The investigation supports two main points of inappropriate behavior: negativity towards Mata and not being clear with her and her staff about whether he was making inquiries as a City Council Member or as a private citizen, contractor or advocate.
Evidence in the report also indicates Brieno violated various sections of the City Council handbook on numerous occasions.
City attorney Ty Mizote said the City did meet with Brieno during that period, but could not disclose what was discussed in those meetings.
The “Interference in Staff Functions” clause of the Council Handbook says council members are not allowed to publicly criticize city staff, but instead must direct criticisms through the City Manager.
The investigation lists numerous occasions in which Brieno’s actions could be defined as public criticism, although Brieno says he just likes to ask critical questions of staff, which can be misconstrued.
For example, in May 2020 the investigation shows Brieno became upset at staff over a survey which was sent to homeowners in his neighborhood asking whether a piece of property should be a park or become affordable housing.
Brieno said he was upset because he felt staff had intentionally failed to give him requested information about taxes and what home would be affected and “learned (he) can’t trust some staff.”
By Mata’s account, Brieno was upset he hadn’t been notified about the survey, which he didn’t receive as a renter. Mata and City Manager Mario Cifuentez reminded him that he was present in the meeting where the survey was ordered by council, but Mata wrote that he was accusatory and said staff had purposefully not notified him.
Later in May, Mata was asked to summarize the council’s instructions regarding a possible budget allocation which could go to the affordable housing project, if council so desired.
After summarizing the concensus, Brieno asked why Mata was “so fixed on” allocating that money.
“Why are you so fixed on it?” Brieno asked during the meeting. “I do not understand this. I mean this is the first time I have heard that you have already made up that commitment. Why do you have this?”
A month later, staff brought forward recommendations for dealing with an auto shop which had failed to meet code compliance for almost 20 years.
The Council Handbook states it’s the job of the Community Development Department to ensure that buildings meet the codes established by the council.
Brieno said he had become involved on behalf of the owner to make sure to ensure progress was made on complying with code, he said.
During that meeting, Mata wrote that Brieno “made statements to the effect that staff was heavy handed, even though he had been in at least three meetings over the course of the last year where staff had been trying to gain compliance.”
Evidence supported most of Mata's accounts of the events, though Brieno said the accounts had been skewed by the people involved, saying they had to “go looking for stuff."
“If you read that report there is nothing gross, there is nothing but stupid things I said,” Brieno said. “Never did I push her against a corner, never did I say you gotta do this, never did I tell her boss ‘hey, I don’t like her, you need to (fire her).’ Publicly, never did I shame her.”
Criticism in private meetings
The investigation outlined two occasions in which Brieno criticized Mata in private meetings. Mizote said such incidents would also violate the council handbook because they were not directed through the City Manager.
Mata recounted how in February 2020, during a meeting between herself, Cifuentez and Mizote, Brieno said she or her department were “singling out only certain people for code enforcement.”
Brieno said he often gets involved in city interactions with residents, particularly Spanish speaking residents, in code enforcement issues because they may not know what is being asked of them.
In another instance cited by Mata, Brieno and a local developer met with Jacob Sanchez, a candidate for city council in early summer 2020.
During that meeting, Brieno allegedly said that Mata could not handle her job and should step aside, that he didn’t trust a woman to hold the job, that a man was better suited and that he didn’t know how a woman got a job over a man, among other things.
Sanchez shared parts of that conversation with City officials, and according to documents in the report, the City was aware of it no later than August 2020.
Brieno said the comments were taken out of context. He claimed he never said a man would be better in Mata's position, but that he's had an easier time working with men. He also denied saying he didn’t know how she got the job over a man, but was inquiring as to her actual qualifications.
The investigation, however, found many of the reported statements lined up with Brieno’s comments during interviews.
Disclosure of closed session information
The investigation further documents a September 2019 closed session meeting, in which the council rejected a request for proposal by developer Jerry Irons. When the interim City Manager called Irons after the meeting, Mata said Irons already knew the exact outcome and believed she said he hadn't submitted a complete proposal.
Mata wrote that Brieno told Irons about the outcome of the vote and “did not disclose it truthfully just to disparage me.”
According to the city handbook, closed session information is to remain completely confidential and council members are not to have contact with the other party in any negotiation, including one such as Irons' proposal, Mizote said.
Brieno said if he did tell Irons the outcome of the vote, it was days later after he thought the developer had already been informed.
In July 2019, Brieno met with Mata regarding code enforcement issues on a mobile home, according to the investigation report. Mata wrote that she couldn't determine whether Brieno was acting as a councilman, contractor or on behalf of the home owner.
In her account of the meetings, Brieno wanted her to waive certain code requirements, which she said could not do. Brieno said he felt she had the discretion to make findings which would relieve the owners of an infraction.
Mizote said “findings” are based on whether a given issue complies with existing laws and regulations, not on personal opinion.
“I expressed my concern (to City Attorney Bob Dowd) that Art was abusing his position by pushing me to make a decision that he may be the private contractor on,” Mata wrote. “To date I do not know if he is or is not the contractor.”
The “Interference in Staff Functions” clause of the City Council Handbook states “... neither the City Council nor any member thereof, shall give orders to (City staff)."
Reflecting that, the censure against Brieno also states “Council Members are to avoid abuse of their position on the City Council to advance their personal interests or interests of parties for whom Council Members may work.”
Brieno said he was not acting as a contractor and has not held a contractor’s license for some time, though he admits he sometimes does small work for people he knows.
Censure first mentioned
In June 2020, after the council meeting regarding the affordable housing project, Cifuentez wrote in an email to Mata and other staff that Brieno’s behavior was “in direct violation of the Council Handbook” and he believed that violation had “risen to the level of requiring a Council Censure of Mr. Brieno.”
The investigation started three months later, after the City was contacted by Mata's attorney, and the censure eventually laid against him on March 2, 2021, was not for the violation the City Manager had referenced, but instead the allegations brought by Mata.