HUGHSON — A citizens group is trying to make good on a grand jury's recommendation to oust three city councilmen who might have violated state political and election laws.
They're targeting Thom Crowder, Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley, who tried in the fall to fire City Manager Joe Donabed and rehire former City Manager Dave Whiteside.
Crowder, an ambulance company owner who was the main focus of the grand jury report, cannot distance himself from its findings. A rival ambulance company confirmed the grand jury's charge that Crowder sought to apply for a job by trading on his political influence.
City Council members are scheduled to discuss the city's response to the grand jury report at their meeting tonight.
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A group of about 15 Hughson residents calling itself Citizens for Better Government met Thursday night to discuss "strategies to address what we understand as transgressions by the City Council persons named in the Stanislaus County civil grand jury report," said Peter Sugia.
"In the best-case scenario, all three would resign and they would do it quickly," said Sugia, 58, a 10-year Hughson resident. "The next-best scenario would be at least one of them resign so there could be some balance back with the council."
If that doesn't happen, he said, his group will file a complaint with the attorney general's office, which has the power to remove council members. And the group will pursue a recall election against Crowder, Humphreys and Manley.
"I would hope that we wouldn't have to resort to pursuing avenues with either the attorney general or a recall," he said. "Both of them could be quite time-consuming and costly, and perhaps not successful."
Brown Act at issue
In a report issued last month, the grand jury found that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley violated the Brown Act, which governs public meetings in California, by conferring on issues via e-mail and plotting to remove Donabed.
It also found that Crowder violated the state Political Reform Act by trying to influence council decisions pertaining to property near his home and in promising to use political influence while seeking a job.
Crowder earlier denied the allegations and said he would not resign. He and Manley could not be reached for comment. Humphreys said Friday that he had nothing to say, but when asked if he planned to resign, he said, "Nope."
Crowder, 46, owns Hughson Paramedic Ambulance Serv-ice, a company with a history of financial troubles.
The grand jury asserted in its report that Crowder e-mailed another ambulance company Oct. 9, seeking a job and saying, "I have tremendous influence with the (Stanislaus County) Board of Supervisors, and could lend my name as an employee of your company."
Denies writing e-mail
Crowder said last month he had no recollection of sending that e-mail but that there were negotiations with another company to take over his. And, he said, given his nearly yearlong medical problems, he wouldn't have been looking for a job with another company.
But William Snell, general counsel for ProTransport-1, said Crowder did seek a job with his company. The Santa Rosa-based company, which has a location in Hughson, provided the grand jury with e-mails under a subpoena.
"The quotation contained in the report accurately reflects the documentation," Snell said last week.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said he was surprised to see the allegation that Crowder promised county influence in exchange for a job. "I think it may be exaggerating a little bit to make himself look more important to the other company," he said.
And Supervisor Vito Chiesa, whose district includes Hughson, said last month that Crowder doesn't have any more influence with or access to the board than any other constituent.
DeMartini said Crowder had nothing to do with the board's decision last month to leave Mountain-Valley Emergency Medical Services Agency, a five-county partnership that regulates paramedic companies.
DeMartini, Stanislaus County's representative on the Mountain-Valley board, said Crowder had a number of problems with the agency, such as paying fees late, failing to attend required meetings and not complying with regulations. But he said that had nothing to do with the issues that led the county to begin breaking the partnership.
Mainly, DeMartini said, it's a matter of Mountain-Valley, which includes Calaveras, Alpine, Amador and Mariposa counties, not being a good fit.
"Mountain counties have different needs than we do," he said. "We'd be more aligned to, and are going to look into a regional group with, Merced and San Joaquin counties."
DeMartini said Crowder's ambulance company has suffered financial setbacks since ProTransport-1 started serving the Hughson area.
"He's in an area that's not exclusive," DeMartini said. "ProTransport kind of moved into the area, which cut way down on his business."
Crowder and his company have a history of financial troubles. He has continued to accrue federal tax liens, the most recent in September, since a 2006 Bee story found his company owed more than $570,000 in county, state and federal taxes dating to 2002.
"It's been going on for years," DeMartini said. "I don't care who was regulating (ambulance service). He wouldn't get along with anybody."
Anticipating a large crowd, officials moved tonight's council meeting to the larger Senior Center. The Hughson City Council will meet at 7 p.m. at 2307 Fourth St.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.