HUGHSON — Embattled City Councilman Thom Crowder has missed nearly half of his meetings over the past year. But that's not enough to remove him from office.
Some residents are hoping state Attorney General Jerry Brown will step in, and sent a letter to his office seeking to implement a Stanislaus County civil grand jury report that called for the ouster of Councilmen Crowder, Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley.
In the report issued last month, the grand jury found that the three men violated the Brown Act — the state law that regulates public meetings — by conferring on issues via e-mail and plotting to remove City Manager Joe 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.
Monday night, Mayor Ramon Bawanan and Councilman Matt Beekman demanded that the three step down. But only Manley was there from the group targeted by the jury; Crowder and Humphreys missed the meeting.
For Crowder, it was his 10th absence over the past 25 regularly scheduled Hughson City Council meetings. He was excused from the meetings because of continuing medical problems.
Bawanan asked for attendance records at the council's Dec. 14 meeting. At that time, Crowder had missed nine meetings over the past year. Humphreys had missed six meetings, Bawanan two and Beekman one. Manley had perfect attendance.
According to City Attorney John Stovall, if a City Council member misses regular council meetings for 60 consecutive days, "his or her office becomes vacant and shall be filled as any other vacancy."
But, in a memo to Donabed, Stovall pointed out that the rule applies to absence without permission.
Although "permission" is not defined by law, Stovall said his take is that it's up to the City Council.
At each meeting, the council roll is called; in recent months, Bawanan has said Crowder was "excused" when he hasn't been there.
He did not say that Monday night, but he said Wednesday that he considers Crowder and Humphreys excused from the meeting because they notified him that they would not be there.
"If we don't hear from them, it's unexcused," Bawanan said. "We haven't been that restrictive."
Crowder e-mailed Stovall, Donabed and Bawanan on Monday afternoon that he was in San Francisco meeting with doctors regarding upcoming knee surgery and wouldn't make it back in time for the council session. Bawanan said Humphreys' wife called him, saying he wouldn't make the meeting. Humphreys said Wednesday that he was in the emergency room Monday night.
"I'm very sorry that I got sick, that's all I have to say," he said.
Wednesday night, Crowder still denied wrongdoing and said he has no plans to resign.
Bawanan said it is difficult to conduct the city's business when a council member regularly misses meetings.
"Some votes require four-fifths of the council," he said. Those votes include city fees or taxes.
According to Stovall, it would be up to the attorney general to enforce the law and remove an absent council member.
Some Hughson residents are trying to get the attorney general's office involved immediately.
Twenty-three people signed a letter from Citizens for Better City Government to Chief Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette, asking him to fulfill the grand jury recommendation that Crowder, Humphreys and Manley be removed from office.
"We feel that the continued presence of the three council members creates a financial liability for a city already reeling from claims, grievance and lawsuit expenses, not to mention the divisive and negative feelings their actions have caused within the community," the letter states.
Henry Hesling, a Hughson resident on and off since 1974, said the three men should step down because they can't effectively lead the city.
Hesling, who formerly served on a civil grand jury, took offense at Crowder's remarks last month that the investigation was "shameful" and its conclusions mistaken.
"Grand juries are very thorough," he said. And, he added, there clearly was hard evidence against Crowder, Humphreys and Manley.
"I just basically think they've got themselves into a mess," Hesling said. "I think they've lost the trust of the community."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.