Two contentious issues were placed on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisor’s agenda this week, relating to District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin, which he later called a “witch hunt” by other supervisors.
The agendized issues were whether to require supervisors to attend and take part in assigned county committees, particularly one relating to Gitlin, and whether Gitlin himself should have used the county seal in a letter to a private company lobbying the termination of an employee.
While Chairman Chris Howard opened the first item Tuesday by saying he did not want to point fingers, he noted the board has had issues in the past couple years with supervisors fulfilling duties on county committees.
Howard noted a previous meeting where concerns were aired and discussed.
“It really came down to personality issues,” Howard said, “but I thought some concessions were made and we would move on. Lo and behold, we had another letter that came in through the Local Transportation Commission recently, that basically said ‘I can’t work with two supervisors or a member of the city council on this commission and at this point, I am going to move on.’” Howard said he wanted to continue the discussion in order to assure the public the responsibilities of the office are carried by all supervisors.
Howard asked if there could be commitment by the board to fulfill supervisorial duties.
County CAO Jay Sarina read a rule that states the board chair will appoint members to boards and committees each January, and appointments will be approved by the board.
“Any dispute between two or more board members with equal time in office shall be resolved by the chairperson,” the rule reads.
District 5 Supervisor Bob Berkowitz said his concerns were addressed and resolved at the last meeting.
However, when asked to weigh in, Gitlin said the discussion was an attempt to single him out and publicly embarrass him. He said the Local Transportation Commission contains three supervisors, resulting in his input being negated on every issue.
“It’s all about personality,” Gitlin said. “It wouldn’t matter what I’ve suggested, but we’re going to single out Gitlin, right here, on television and we’re going to call him out. I said I’d consider it. Rules are made to go two ways folks.”
Gitlin asserted that District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said he did not want to serve on the Solid Waste board, and was excused from serving on that board.
“I’m not going to serve on a committee that doesn’t care what I think or say any which way,” Gitlin said. “You need to find someone with a better fit, Mr. Chairman.”
Gitlin said he serves on many committees with people who do not agree with him, but felt he had been singled out regarding the Local Transportation Commission.
He said Howard violated rules by taking him off of committees he was serving when he was appointed chairman. Gitlin said the rules need to apply to all supervisors.
Reading from a list of boards, District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan said she attends all assigned committee meetings, which takes up a significant part of her time.
“I find it frustrating when another supervisor says ‘I don’t want to sit on that board because I don’t like her or because she was mean to me, or I don’t like him.’ It’s about being adults. It’s about doing your job. We don’t all see eye to eye and that’s what makes committees what they are. It’s to have those opinions and points of view come into play.”
Cowan said she sits on some boards because Gitlin refused them or was asked to leave.
Hemmingsen said he found it baffling why, if supervisors have such aversions to one another, do they show up for the Board of Supervisor meetings. Hemmingsen said it’s part of the position to take part in committees, telling Gitlin “Do your job.”
When asked, Sarina said staff could look at the administration manual, with help from county counsel, to look at other county’s policies, and come back with alternatives for how to enforce the rules regarding committee assignments.
Gitlin responded, saying he feels he’s not violating rules, but that being taken off previous committees by the chairman violates rules.
“You can’t have rules that just affect one person,” Gitlin said, challenging Hemmingsen to replace himself on the Solid Waste Committee.
“So on this witch hunt, and we’re not finger pointing, just understand the street goes two ways,” Gitlin said.
With a 3-2 vote, Berkowitz and Gitlin voting no, the board directed staff to look into the issue further.
After having Sarina read the county policy aloud, Howard said he has had many conversations with constituents who read a recent letter from Gitlin to Western Communications Inc. asking for the termination or resignation of Triplicate Editor Robin Fornoff.
“In that letter, there is the use of the county seal,” Howard said. “It hasn’t been the first time and it has been brought to our attention in the past, of this use. I’m not sure if the supervisor has had discussion with county counsel or county administrative officer specific to this policy, but in bringing the policy back before the board, it’s a reminder that we do have a policy here in place about its use.”
Howard said that by using the seal on the letter, Gitlin was essentially speaking as the entire board in lobbying a private company for the removal of an employee.
That’s not this board’s business,” he said. “That’s the business of that private entity, but to represent the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors as one individual with our county seal, that opens us up and exposes us, so this issue does need to be discussed, and more importantly, we need to have a firm commitment from our supervisors about the use of this policy and, more importantly, about the use of our seal. That policy has been put in place for a reason, so we ensure that we speak as one voice when as decision is made here at the dias.”
Berkowitz asked for specific policies related to the use of the seal and what has been approved by previous boards.
“Previous boards have approved this policy,” said Sarina, “The standard operating procedure for use of the seal was on the letterhead of the Board of Supervisors, or for individual supervisors representing their district. That action is standard practice.”
When asked by Berkowitz, Sarina said it would be permissible for a supervisor to communicate with constituents using county letterhead with the seal.
“If you’re asking, ‘can you write a letter to somebody,’ yes,” Sarina said.
District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan said the letter was not written on county letterhead, but on social media with a county seal pasted to it.
“I personally felt like he was representing the board,” she said.
“I did not see the letter,” said Berkowitz, “and if he put the county logo on it, and it was a letter addressed to a person, ... it looked like that was his feelings and it was permissible under the rules.”
Howard said he’d spoken with County Attorney Liz Cable, who was not at the meeting, as he felt the letter exposes the county to litigation. County Attorney Joel Campbell Blair said the board should decide how it wants to control correspondence and relationships with the public and if it wants to further specify the use of the county seal.
As for the letter, Campbell-Blair explained, “The board member’s ability to expose the county to litigation is really independent of whether you use the seal. If you are serving a function, if you are out there in the community, if you are talking to people, if you are in public, if you are sending letters, and you do anything that’s defamatory, it exposes us to liability whether or not you use the seal.”
He said the issue of the seal’s use is political and up to the board to deal with.
“Exposure to litigation is something independent of that,” he said.
With short comments, members of the public expressed a range of reactions, from a sentiment that laws and policies silence local politicians to the letter being over the line. Resident Aaron Skroback derided Gitlin for what he felt was an attempt to limit free speech and the freedom of the press.
Howard pressed staff to look further into the issue, asking staff to revisit the policy, and whether any similar actions in the future might warrant punitive action.
After some bickering among Cowan, Gitlin and Berkowitz, the floor was given to Gitlin.
“There was nothing in that letter that said I represented the Board of Supervisors in this pronouncement,” he said. “I could put the disclaimer, ‘I speak only for myself.” I’d be happy to do that. I’ve been using that letter for six-plus years. No one has said anything until today, and now we’re here talking about lawsuits.”
Responding to Skroback by name, Gitlin said the claim asserts free speech applies to everyone but him.
“I actually have free speech,” Gitlin said, “and you guys are treading on very dangerous water if you try to quell my free speech.”
He went on to say he represented only himself in the letter, which he could send again without the seal.
“No, Mr. Chairman, you will not control me on this,” Gitlin said. “You’re abridging my free speech and you can’t do that.”
Following further discussion, the board voted 3-2, Gitlin and Berkowitz voting no, to direct staff to investigate if repercussions should apply for misuse of the county seal, and to send a letter to Western Communications explaining Gitlin’s letter was not written on the board’s behalf.
However, another motion was defeated by a 2-3 vote, Gitlin, Berkowitz and Hemmingsen voting no, regarding possibly changing the policy to more specifically regulate when the seal can be used in correspondences from board members.
Hemmingsen and Berkowitz agreed that such direction would be setting limits where they are not needed.