The Silver Lining of Pleasant Hill City Clerk Scandal

As a rule, City Clerks don’t seek the limelight. But Kimberly Lehmkuhl, the infamous former City Clerk of suburban Pleasant Hill, California, has made a sport of breaking rules and marching to her own drummer. So it’s no surprise her unprecedented job failure and wacky resignation letter made nationwide news.

While public attention to this story has focused largely on Lehmkuhl’s failures and Twitter antics, the enduring lessons of this story have nothing to do with her. Rather, City mismanagement of the problem offers an instructive case study in what-not-to-do when things go wrong.

Why Was a Serious Problem Tolerated for Over a Year?

lehmkuhl pleasant hill city clerk scandalLehmkuhl failed to produce City Council meeting minutes during her first year in office. So it’s no wonder residents continue to ask, “How was this allowed to go on for so long? Why wasn’t this problem addressed right away?”

In all likelihood the problem would have continued had it remained under wraps because its root cause is a dysfunctional organizational culture.  It was only after the story caught the attention of reporters that the City took action to assign staff to perform essential duties.

Until the press got hold of the story, the situation was allowed to snowball despite the risks and implications of doing so.  Such incompetence is cause for serious concern.

Lehmkuhl may be gone, but the root cause of the problem remains.

“We’re Helpless”

In early 2013, during Ms. Lehmkuhl’s first few months in office, the problem was clearly apparent. Week after week, month after month, she produced no meeting minutes. Instead of taking steps to ensure the responsibilities of the City Clerk’s Office were accomplished, the only action taken by the City was “talking to” Ms. Lehmkuhl, to no effect.

In essence, City Manager June Catalano and then-Mayor Michael Harris did little more than throw up their hands in helplessness while the public was kept in the dark.

Councilman Michael Harris, who served as Mayor during Lehmkuhl’s first year in office, said “We basically have no control — as we found, unfortunately — or very little control over what the city clerk does.” Ironically, Harris’ excuse-making sounds a lot like Lehmkuhl’s. But Harris’ deflection is absurd. Of course you can’t control the actions of another human being – but there are things you can do to address the business problem at hand.

The throw-up-our-hands-in-helplessness routine is self-evidently bogus and misleading. The City Manager had the authority — and the duty — to ensure the City business was done. Likewise, the City Council had a duty to lead — not just stand by, doing nothing and pleading “there’s nothing we can do.”

In fact there were a lot of things the City could do — and Councilmembers finally did them in January. But they took action only after bad publicity and public opinion forced them to do so.

As a Contra Costa Times editorial put it:

Amazingly, the City Council, city manager and city attorney never alerted the public. Instead, emails obtained through the Public Records Act show, City Manager June Catalano’s staff tried unsuccessfully to privately prod Lehmkuhl to produce. When that failed, Catalano should have stepped up to find a solution, but she didn’t.

It’s unlikely the public will ever know the whole story. But it doesn’t take an expert to see something is seriously wrong when an organization is unable to address problems constructively, particularly when they involve essential business functions.

Dirty Laundry Kept Under Wraps

As is typical of public agencies, Pleasant Hill prefers to downplay problems and, instead, divert attention to “happy talk” topics and feel-good initiatives. The trouble is, when problems are downplayed and residents feel ignored or, worse, bulldozed by City Hall, the relationship between public officials and residents erodes. Trust evaporates. And everything becomes more difficult.

This is why Councilmembers and staff should treat the City Clerk scandal as a learning moment, to be analyzed and its lessons applied to future decision making.

Pleasant Hill residents should demand leadership from their elected and appointed public officials. Ignoring, denying and concealing problems does not constitute leadership and shouldn’t be tolerated. Most importantly, residents must get involved in paying attention to what’s going on at City Hall and play an active role in holding public officials accountable.

Good intentions don’t count.  Results do.

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  1. Kirk says

    The one home-based permit holder has never had any kind of problem or complaint. The former Police Chief investigated him personally and said he was “clean as a whistle”. Said permit holder was later harassed by City staff and Council members and only the threat of making the issue public and legal action forced them to stop the harassment.

    The radii (distances) were provided by LCAV. I for one would love to hear Harris or Durant explain how a special interest was allowed to hijack the city legislative process. I’d also love to hear Mayor Flaherty explain what drove him to change his position on the ordinance (which he voted against when he was on the Planning Commission). Given the lack of any apparent merits of the Ordinance, it seems reasonable to wonder what kind of future political favors / support the Mayor expects to receive from LCAV/Brady etc. At a minimum, he should be able to articulate tangible reasons why he changed his mind and why this item continues to use up so much valuable Council and staff resources when it solves no problem and is, at best, of dubious legality.

    This whole thing smacks of the corrupt practices of cities like Chicago. The citizens of Pleasant Hill deserve much better. Maybe they will take action this November to send Council Member Harris to a well-deserved retirement.

  2. J Baptist says

    City Council members,

    I am writing regarding the ongoing debacle of your attempts to place onerous restrictions on firearms and ammunition retailers in Pleasant Hill. As a resident of Concord, who works in Walnut Creek, I am often in Pleasant Hill for shopping, visiting friends, or just passing through. It saddens me that a city I am in so often would choose to run itself like a banana republic.

    I wonder why it is that you have decided that it is appropriate to have an unelected outside political fringe group write ordinances for Pleasant Hill. This is troublesome when the ordinance is not designed to address any actual problem, and does not improve quality of life or public safety for those in Pleasant Hill and/or surrounding communities. This is especially troublesome when those ordinances are discriminatory in nature, and seek to deprive citizens in Pleasant Hill and surrounding communities of the ability to enjoy their constitutionally protected rights. If I were a Pleasant Hill resident, I would also be furious at the negligent way that this attempted ordinance is wasting taxpayer money, and placing the city of Pleasant Hill at serious financial risk.

    The fact that the ordinance was clearly not passed in a proper manner, that the planning commission as bypassed int his zoning ordinance, that the public was kept in the dark and even lied to while this monstrosity of an ordinance was being pushed through with backroom deals and secret alliances is sickening. A map of the exclusion areas created by the ordinance was never created or made public until after the council had voted on it, despite requests from the public to see such an item, and statements made by the City Attorney and other backers of the measure that it would allow plenty of space for these businesses to be located.

    One of the reasons that supporters of the ordinance gave, and that resonated with some members of the public, was the idea of a home based retail firearms business located in an apartment complex, where retail customers would be trekking through the common hallways festooned with firearms. That “problem” didn’t need a special ordinance to resolve it. I’m certain that the city’s permit process for home based businesses already has provision for denial to a business if it will create undue traffic into or out of the residence – particularly a mulit-unit residential complex – or create parking problem sin a residential area, no matter what type of business it is.

    How were the separation distances for firearms and ammunition retailers determined? Were they determined by some scientific method, or just given to you by those outside lobbyists?
    How were the activities that firearms and ammunition retailers are to be distanced from determined? What are the criteria for a business or activity to be harmed or endangered by proximity to retailers that are already one of the safest and most heavily regulated businesses in the state?

    Since unaccompanied minors can’t even go into the stores, why does it matter if they are close to a school, park, or daycare center?
    Since banks are a dangerous business – they have a lot of cash, and thus attract dangerous criminals, wouldn’t it be better to regulate their locations in the city, keeping them far from schools, day-care centers, parks, and residential homes? How about pharmacies, which are often targeted by dangerous drug addicted criminals, as a source of drugs? Or gas stations, with highly flammable and potentially toxic chemicals present? Don;t these businesses present much greater dangers to children – so why are firearms and ammunition retailers being targeted instead of the much more dangerous banks, pharmacies, and gas stations?

    Why does Pleasant Hill feel that the existing federal and state supervision of these businesses is inadequate? Have there been failures by teh BATFE and CA DOJ in regulating these businesses? Did the Pleasant Hill Police Department ask for these increased regulations? Do the regulations place an undue burden on the Pleasant Hill Police Department, as well as on the businesses themselves?

    What is the intent of the ordinance? It does nothing that would prevent a criminal from using a weapon (of any kind) to harm other people. It does not address the problems caused by inadequacies of our mental health system, and lack of reporting of dangerous mental health issues to law enforcement. It does nothing at all to deter criminals from violent acts.

    What it does do is to increase the costs of operating a firearms/ammunition business in Pleasant Hill. It makes it virtually impossible to open a new firearms/ammunition business in Pleasant Hill, or even to relocate an existing business. With the increased compliance costs to the targeted businesses, it will naturally increase the costs to customers, as well as violating their right to privacy by requiring video/photos of purchasers to be taken and given to the police, as if buying a box of shells for your VP Biden approved shotgun is a subversive act. The ordinance will have a chilling effect on the exercise of the 2nd Amendment rights of citizens in Pleasant Hill and surrounding communities – exactly as it was intended to do by its authors.

    So, as you decide whether or not this ordinance is good for Pleasant Hill, keep in mind that it opens the city up to lawsuits due to violations of rights guaranteed by the 2nd, 4th, and 14th Amendments, and also to lawsuits because it strongly appears to have been passed in a manner that violates various other laws for openness and accountability in government, that it places unwanted burdens on the Police Department, and that it will in no way improve public safety or quality of life for Pleasant Hill residents.

    It’s time to put this debacle behind you, and move forward with other projects – ones that will actually benefit Pleasant Hill and its residents.

  3. Samantha Pfaff says

    It stuns me how many people are uninformed about serious issues. Pleasant Hill government is appalling bad. Just look at the debacle that is the Firearms and Ammunition sales ordinance. “No, no, it’s not a zoning ordinance!” What else is lurking that we don’t know about?

  4. Ken Hambrick says

    Way to go Wendy. You are right on track. Most of what you say about the Pleasant Hill council and management goes for Walnut Creek too.

    Too bad we can’t get the kind of leadership the citizens deserve in these cities, the county and the state.

  5. Carol M. Hehmeyer says

    Excellent article, again, by Wendy Lack. If we only had about 10 more citizens as alert and participatory as Wendy, our city would be in much better shape.

    I know, from door to door walking on various issues, that most PH residents have NO idea what is going on. That is dangerous!