Issues with the tone and behavior of Lompoc City Council members and the city manager's performance — or perceived lack of performance — were brought to the forefront Tuesday night at City Hall.

The public comment portion of Tuesday's Lompoc City Council meeting lasted nearly an hour as 21 people addressed the council, with all but one speaking specifically about the manner in which the council has conducted itself over the past four months during an often-contentious budget deliberation process.

The majority of the speakers chastised members of the council for a perceived lack of professionalism toward city staff and, specifically, City Manager Patrick Wiemiller, while others thanked some council members for asking tough questions and attempting to hold Wiemiller accountable for his actions.

The meeting was held just two weeks after Councilmen Jim Mosby and Victor Vega both openly called for reviews of Wiemiller’s job performance, as well as possible disciplinary action or termination.

In the end, the council ultimately decided to have a closed session discussion with Wiemiller and the city’s legal team prior to the next council meeting on Oct. 3. The goal of that session will be to have a frank, open discussion with everyone involved, and to allow the council to review its own practices and discuss ways that it could better communicate both internally and with city staff.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because I think there was a lot of overreaction and reactions, and we’re seeing the repercussions from that right now,” said Councilman Dirk Starbuck, who initially proposed the closed session at the end of Tuesday night's meeting, which lasted nearly three hours. “Somebody once told me, ‘If we’re all thinking the same, somebody isn’t thinking.’ And that was pretty obvious there was a lot of thinking happening here.”

The lead-up to the decision for a closed session was several meetings — some of them combative — in the making.

The tone of those meetings was called out by several of the speakers.

Lompoc resident Linda Lee said she normally watches the council meetings on TV at her home, but she said she felt compelled to attend in person Tuesday to share her thoughts on the way things have gone.

“It’s more than a level of dissension, it’s almost like it’s outright hostility between some members of the council and (Wiemiller) and I think this is not productive,” she said.

Former Lompoc Mayor Joyce Howerton and former Councilwoman Ann Ruhge agreed.

“People around the state are making fun of Lompoc … because of the behavior of our city council,” Howerton said, before imploring the council to review what its handbook advises about decorum.

“I can tell you, reading that handbook will take a lot less energy and time than dealing with a grand jury investigation and a recall (election),” she added.

Ruhge also referenced the outside perception of the city.

“Now is the time to stop the politicking and posturing,” Ruhge said. “Your behavior has embarrassed and appalled the total community and we are now the laughingstock of the county.”

Other speakers called the council members’ recent behavior “childish” and suggested they work on collegiality, while another offered suggestions on how to avoid the situation in the future, such as by adopting a budget preparation guide that would ensure that certain information is provided within the document and isn't contingent on months of questioning.

While those speakers decried the perceived animosity, a handful of other speakers thanked those council members who asked the sometimes difficult questions, and some pointed out that government isn’t always nice.

“It’s a messy business, this thing called democracy,” Lompoc resident Chris Darling said. “I would remind the people here who don’t want to have anybody with hurt feelings, who don’t want any contentious behavior, that in a democracy sometimes it comes to that. Sometimes when questions aren’t answered or when you get multiple answers to the same question, we have a right to know what’s going on and, by God, I want to know what’s going on.”

Darling then personally thanked Mosby, Starbuck and Vega and asked the council members to “please don’t be a rubber stamp. Please question every single thing that happens, because the money that these people are spending is our money.”

The council members and Wiemiller all refrained from commenting on the matter until the end of the meeting during a period reserved for council comment and requests.

It was during that portion of the Sept. 5 meeting that Mosby and Vega initially called for reviews of Wiemiller’s job performance. Those calls failed due to lack of support from other members of the council, but Starbuck did ask Vega that night to restate his request at the Sept. 19 meeting. In the end, however, it was Starbuck himself who set the wheels in motion on Tuesday.

Councilwoman Jenelle Osborne, who spoke out about the behavior of some of her colleagues at the Sept. 5 meeting, said Tuesday that she would go along with Starbuck’s request for a closed session meeting if it wasn’t termed a “review,” but instead was called an “internal workshop” and included dialogue about the council's own boundaries and guidelines.

City Attorney Joe Pannone interjected that it would need to be called a review in order to meet the conditions they were seeking while still satisfying the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open meetings law.

With support from Osborne and Vega, Starbuck’s request was successful.

Mayor Bob Lingl, however, continued to oppose holding such a meeting. He pointed out on Sept. 5 that the council had already performed two job reviews on Wiemiller in the past six months and he reiterated Tuesday that he felt like another one was unnecessary.

“For the life of me, I don’t know what this is going to do other than have another round to possibly satisfy one or two individuals,” Lingl said Tuesday. “I just don’t understand this.”

Vega used a portion of his time to respond to some of the comments that were directed at him earlier in the night. He said he agreed that everyone should be professional and able to talk things out, but noted that isn’t always as easy as it may seem.

“Until you’re in our shoes, it’s very difficult to come up here and do this job and do the amount of homework that was necessary to even come up with the questions,” he said.

He suggested that if people wanted yes-men on the council, there might as well not be a council.

Vega then pointed out that he had spoken privately with Wiemiller since the Sept. 5 meeting and offered the floor to Wiemiller for comment.

Wiemiller, who hadn’t previously addressed the situation outside of offering an apology to Vega on Sept. 5 for his own tone during an Aug. 22 meeting, then briefly explained that he was in full understanding that he serves at the direction of the council.

“Just to hopefully take away any doubt in anybody’s mind about what the order of authority is within the city, clearly the City Council and at any time the vote of the majority of the city council is what sets policy and guides governance and provides ultimate administration for the city,” he said. “And then you in turn implement your policies through your city manager. So if there was any doubt about whether I understood who has the ultimate authority, that definitely … lies with the majority of the City Council.”

In other action Tuesday, the council approved a set of agreements to allow the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol and the Santa Maria and Guadalupe police departments to use the Lompoc Jail to hold arrestees instead of transporting them to the main jail in Goleta.

The council also unanimously approved a rental assistance program for low-income residents, a program that would allow the city to use $50,000 to offer loans and/or rebates to new or existing business owners to improve the appearance of their businesses, and to allow the city to spend another $47,500 — for a total of $58,600 — for a consultant to work on the city’s transition to district-based elections.

The first public hearing for the district-based elections will be at the next regular meeting of the council, scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at City Hall, 100 Civic Center Plaza.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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