It's been clear for some time that things are amiss in Hughson. Erratic, questionable and at times bizarre behavior by City Council members has left residents embarrassed and angry -- and outsiders scratching their heads.
Now, in an unusual Christmas week report, the Stanislaus County civil grand jury has documented apparent violations of two state laws by three councilmen -- and has called for their removal from office.
The 2009-10 jury's report, released Tuesday, leads us to share several thoughts.
First, we applaud the jury for its probe. As we've said before, these citizen panels serve a useful purpose in identifying and exploring problems in local government.
The jury's report cited three separate e-mails sent by Thom Crowder to all four other council members about city business and one e-mail each from Councilmen Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley that went to multiple colleagues. Such communication violates the Brown Act, the state's open- meeting law.
The report also accuses Crowder of violating the Fair Political Practices Act. The first incident involved participating in a discussion on a city project near property that he owns; the second, more troubling, was an e-mail to a prospective employer in which Crowder suggested he would use his political influence to sway county supervisors.
Second, we agree with the grand jury that these incidents should be referred to the appropriate agencies for further investigation. For the Brown Act, that would be the Stanislaus County District Attorney's office or the state Attorney General's office. The state Fair Political Practices Commission investigates charges of conflict of interest.
In cases of a Brown Act violation, the usual remedy is a do-over of any decision made under less than open circumstances. The Hughson council rescinded its majority vote to dismiss the city manager, so that has been taken care of. But elected officials who violate the Brown Act can be subject to civil penalties or misdemeanor charges. We urge one or more Hughson citizens to file formal complaints with the local and state agencies.
The FPPC typically imposes fines on officials who violate the conflict of interest laws. Again, a citizen complaint is in order, in addition to the jury referral.
Third, Hughson residents need to decide whether they are satisfied with such leadership and, if not, to take action.
It seems unlikely that any of the three councilmen will resign, as the grand jury recommended. Crowder even claims the grand jury made mistakes, even though it cites the specific dates and direct content from the e-mails.
The grand jury suggests that an outside entity might remove the three from office, but to us that truly is a remote possibility and not in the best interests of the community.
Crowder's term expires at the end of 2010. We can't imagine why the voters would return him to office given his persistent bullying and his checkered history on and off the council; the question is whether they want him to serve until then.
Manley and Humphreys each are only one year into their four-year terms. If citizens want to get rid of them before 2012, they'll need to mount a recall drive, a process that can be expensive, time consuming and divisive.
Fourth, we believe Hughson needs new leaders to step forward.
The city needs critical thinkers who are able to get past animosities and personal agendas and focus on short-term and long-term issues, including operating within budget and planning for streets and water.
Voters will have a chance to do that next year, when the two council seats and the mayor's post are all up for election.
The immediate question, though, is how this council can tend to business when there's so much rancor and when three of the members hold the city manager in such disdain.
But it can be done if citizens insist that their council members stay on task and keep all of their discussions out in the public, where they belong. That requires concerned citizens to read every agenda, attend every council meeting and speak up.
Fifth, lest anyone think these things happen only in in Hughson, think again. These issues can -- and do -- occur anywhere, for several reasons.
For one thing, e-mail is so pervasive that it's tempting for all manner of elected officials to communicate this way, thus creating, whether intentionally or unintentionally, serial decisions that violate state law.
For another, all too often there aren't enough good candidates for local offices, which helps people like Crowder get back in office.
For yet another, small governing boards -- such as Hughson's five-member council -- can veer off course rather quickly and easily. That's because it only takes three votes and, if one member is missing or one position vacant, two votes to cause dysfunction. Plus, one dominant personality can have much influence.
Sixth and finally, there's always a temptation for elected officials to micromanage, to try to exert their authority beyond setting policy, overseeing budgets and directing the city manager or CEO.
That almost always does more harm than good.
The grand jury report makes it very clear that's exactly what has occurred in Hughson.
As embarrassing as the report may be to the residents of Hughson, it provides compelling evidence and a valid reason for them to do whatever is necessary to get their city government back on track.