Cypress Council again seeks censure of Marquez after divisive special meeting

Council yet again will try to censure Council member Frances Marquez on June 27. Courtesy photo

In a hastily called meeting called on a Friday afternoon, the Cypress City Council met in special session to vote 4-1 to propose a censure resolution on Council member Frances Marquez for purportedly failing to provide information requested in a public records act filing.

After a two-hour, divisive meeting, the Council tried but failed to put the matter on this past Monday’s agenda but did vote to put the matter on its June 27 agenda.
With a regular Council meeting scheduled for the next business day, Marquez scolded the administration and council for scheduling the special meeting and “wasting taxpayer dollars.”

The meeting was held in chambers, yet inexplicably not videotaped. The meeting was recorded via “audio only,” and apparently, citizens must request it to be able to listen.
Currently, the city is being sued by Californians Aware, alleging Brown Act violations and a lack of transparency, and the city has also been served with another demand letter on redistricting that could lead to a lawsuit within the next 60 days (see related story).

The target of Friday’s special session was Marquez’ for her alleged failure to fulfill a document request from Fortis LLP Law Firm in Costa Mesa.
The PRA did not name the seeker of the information.

The PRA request cast a wide net to find out what Marquez has communicated about an extensive list of topics, many of which were decided before she won election to the council, according to document.

Mayor Paulo Morales said the meeting was called to propose a non-compliance censure on Marquez after he learned there was no signed affidavit from her acknowledging complete compliance with the PRA request.

“We were given a deadline at the request of the city manager to comply [with the request] which keeps the city itself out of a position of being sued or at least to where the city and the city clerk can respond to these records,” said Morales.

Morales was referring to a PRA request received by all of the Council members regarding the CalAware lawsuit. Marquez was the only member subject to the Fortis LLP request.
Morales said the goal of agenda item four “is to place a resolution on the June 13 agenda the upcoming meeting June 13 to the city council agenda censuring Councilmember Marquez for violating the laws, the state of California by failing to respond to Public Records Act requests.”

The mayor said Marquez had failed to respond timely to a PRA request, that she disclosed confidential info from closed sessions (previoussly) and violated the city’s new “civility” code, which he suggested was “a violation of the city charter.”

Further, he complained that “Cypress is really making the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. And that is bothersome to me.”

Marquez suggested the city’s actions on districting was the reason for all of the attention. ‘That’s the only reason any of this is happening,” she said.

“I want to point out that this meeting is a political stunt,” said Marquez. “It’s a form of harassment by everybody here on the dais. My attorneys and I have worked together with city attorney Fred Galante throughout this PRA process,” said Marquez.

And, said Marquez, she no longer felt comfortable with city manager Peter Grant, since she discovered documents that indicate “he had his hands all over” earlier PRA requests, prompting her to hire an attorney to ensure she complied.

“I hired an attorney with money out of my own pocket, from a major law firm, because I don’t trust the city administration. I had to use my own money because I don’t trust the system. I want to let you know that that is and so that’s the reason why.”

She also complained about Grant opening her mail after she was firsrt eleted.

She held up a letter from the former attorney general who wrote to congratulate her upon her election only to find it had already been opened by the city manager, an assertion he did not refute.

Marquez said she complained bitterly for months until the city manager stopped opening her mail. In addition, Marquez said she contacted several other cities and said she learned that In most of them, only the legal counsel and city clerk deal with PRA requests.
Morales, however, said it has long been customary for the city manager to open city council members’ official mail.

“So can I add to that because Council member Marquez brought up earlier that she had contacted a number of cities and none of them have a city manager that even quote, unquote, touches it,” said Morales.

“But here,” he continued, “the Public Records Act does not specify that the city manager is not involved in that process. In fact, city managers sponsored the day-to-day operations of the city as a part of that, as we have already seen, helps to facilitate making sure that we are in compliance,” said Morales.

Galante stepped in to say it is uncommon for city managers to be involved but since Grant manages the administration, and can set policy, if he wants to he can be involved.

“I will say that Councilmember Marquez’ statement is generally true,” said Galante. “I generally just deal with city clerks,” responded Galante. He said, however, since Grant has created a “directive” that all communications among the council “are to be provided through him, I can defer to him on that.”

Grant said “my role in this process so far has been to communicate requests for documents to you to support the city clerk’s office and reflect the fact that we have constrained council member Marquez.”

By constrained, Grant apparently meant a four-page letter he had hand-delivered to Marquez on January 26, 2022, forbidding her every conceivable interaction with city staff, and providing a detailed list of dos and don’ts that apply only to Marquez and not the other members.

Marquez said Friday’s meeting was out of order and an obvious attempt to discredit her. She said Grant had not even told her what the meeting was about.
Morales said he called Marquez, but she did not call back.

Marquez said the Grant and the Council knew most of the documents had been turned over and they were working with Galante to resolve questions over duplicative and ‘protected’ documents, so there is absolutely no lack of compliance.

Only because her attorney got COVID was there no signed affidavit, said Marquez.
Galante acknowledged he had been working with Marquez and her attorney, but said he also told them last Monday that he, alone, did not have the power to grant her an extension on document production.

“If I may, Councilmember Marquez is correct about the phone calls that we had the one clarification and her lawyer has emails for me is that I made it clear I don’t have discretion to extend the timeline,” said Galante.

Marquez said the whole process, dating back to the first “special” meeting during the holidays, after which she was “constrained” by Grant, is an effort to silence her or even try to oust her.

She said the Fortis LLP PRA request was overbearing, asking for detailed communications about items that happened even before she was elected, even asking for communications with friends of friends in a dragnet information swoop.

“Not all Council members were asked for this much information,” she protested. “There’s no due process here. This is like acting like a judge and a jury without a trial. And none of this is fair and none of this is right and none of it is also fair to the taxpaying residents today who are supposed to be able to see how their money is being spent,” cried Marquez.

“I have confronted all this pushback anytime I asked questions. I didn run for office to be best friends with my colleagues. I ran for office to represent my constituents to protect them, to inform them to help them. I did not run for office to spend my Friday being put on trial for something ridiculous,” said Marquez.

Several citizens spoke during oral communications, even some who said they disagreed with Marquez’ politics, said the treatment of her by her colleagues is harsh.

“The threat of censure by the city council. seems unusually harsh to me,” said local businessman Steve Mauss. ‘It could be easily misinterpreted as an overt attempt to remove her from her position on the council,” he said, “thereby allowing the remaining council members the opportunity to replace her with someone that is more closely aligned with their views.”

“She is elected by us,” said Dr. Malini Nagpal. “She represents us. Council woman Marquez, please keep doing what you’re doing and asking the questions that the remaining council members and Mayor over the last year seem to be afraid to ask or do not want us to know.”

“I’m in full support of Frances, even though our political views are completely different,” said longtime resident Tony Tanaka. “And this is not a political issue, you know, we need to stop bringing all the politics and all these issues. She has a voice. She’s speaking on the behalf of the people from Cypress.

“You guys need to be transparent,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Council voted 4-1 to approve both a “long” and “short” resolution of non-compliance against Marquez, rejecting her arguments of compliance. As of Friday, they had not decided which version to bring up for debate.

However, when they tried to place it on this past Monday’s agenda, it was ironically Marquez who had to explain to them that the new “civility” policies they passed to harness her had included a two- week waiting period for introduction of items to the agenda.

“I do not believe there’s a two-week waiting period,” said Galante. “I have to pull up the policy.”

After a brief recess to allow him to research the matter, Galante acknowledged that, indeed, there is a waiting period of 10 days.

Therefore, the group approved a motion by Jon Peat to schedule the resolution for a vote on the June 27 meeting. “We worked diligently to create a policy so we should follow it,” he said.

Going further, the mayor acknowledged public records requests were beginning to impact city operations.

“Processing a public records act request usually represents about 10% of the annual workload in the city clerk’s office,” said Morales, but “for the past few months, public records act requests have commanded almost half of the two-person City Clerk’s office time, the equivalent of nearly one full time position, plus countless hours of time from the city manager,” he said.

He also acknowledged that of late, the PRA requests have “unfortunately, become somewhat adversarial.”

“I think that there are certainly a firm out there or people out there that can also certainly represent the city and keep us from being exposed to litigation especially when it comes to this because I sadly I doubt that this is the last public records act request that we’re going to get,” said Morales.

On this item, the Council voted unanimously to hire a law firm or an attorney to take over what seems to be an increasing volume of requests for document in Cypress. They also agreed to develop a standard policy for responding to PRAs for both staff and elected officials.