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Legal Wrangling Intensifies Over Cathy Murillo-Jason Dominguez SBCAG Flap

Cathy Murillo Click to view larger
Cathy Murillo

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo “has usurped a public office wrongfully,” attorney John Thyne III wrote in a letter Tuesday to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

The letter, dated March 14, 2018, alleges that Murillo and Councilman Eric Friedman conspired to oust Jason Dominguez from a position as a member of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) policy board.

“At its core, this case involves two City Council members endorsed by the Democratic Party working together to oust from a powerful committee a City Council member who won his seat without the Democratic Party endorsement, and it is exactly the type of malfeasance in office that the public abhors,” Thyne wrote in a letter obtained by Noozhawk.

The legal flap centers on Murillo’s first meeting in office, on Jan. 9, when the council on a 3-2 vote appointed Dominguez to fill a vacant spot on the policy board of SBCAG, an influential transportation panel.

Councilmembers Kristen Sneddon, Dominguez and Randy Rowse voted for Dominguez at the Jan. 9 meeting. Murillo and Friedman voted for Murillo.

But a month later, Friedman and Murillo called for a new vote on the appointment, and Rowse flipped, siding with Murillo and taking the seat away from Dominguez

The legal challenge was filed on behalf of James Fenkner, a Santa Barbara financial analyst.

Thyne sent his original “Quo Warranto” request to Becerra on Feb. 16. Becerra’s office must give approval of the “wrongful usurpation of a public office” allegation before it can go to trial.

Jason Dominguez Click to view larger
Jason Dominguez

“I was just outraged,” Fenkner told Noozhawk. “It’s like the rules don’t matter. “

Fenkner said that the city has high standards for members of the public when it comes to matters of design review.

“There are six colors of white and if you deviate from that the city will come down on you," he said. "When it comes to their own business, anything goes.”

Fenkner, who supported Angel Martinez in the November 2017 mayor’s race that Murillo won, said that while everyone was reeling and coping with the impact of the deadly mudslides that hit Montecito on Jan. 9, “these folks are figuring out how they can violate their own rules to put themselves on their own board.”

Murillo said in a sworn statement of facts that the council was within its power to remove Dominguez from the seat.

“Removal is proper at any time and for any reason as explicitly authorized by the SBCAG JPA (which states): The representatives from each city may be the mayor or any member of the City Council and shall serve so long as he or she shall hold office or until resignation or removal by majority vote of the City Council represented.”

Murillo also said she did not break the state’s open meetings law.

“I carefully considered each action I have taken in connection with this matter in order to assure compliance with the Brown Act and the City Council’s rules of parliamentary procedure,” Murillo wrote in a sworn statement dated March 5.

However, Fenkner and Thyne, according to their legal papers, contend that Murillo spoke with a majority of the council prior to the Feb. 6 meeting that appointed her. 

(Fenkner) believes Ms. Murillo discussed this matter with Mr. Randy Rouse (sic) who improperly changed his vote at the February 6, 2018, meeting, and it is incontestable that Mayor Murillo discussed it with Mr. Friedman who joined her motion. As such, this constitutes an off-the-record discussion with the majority of council members," Thyne's letter states.

Randy Rowse Click to view larger
Randy Rowse

Since the sixth member of the council, Gregg Hart, recused himself from the vote because he is an SBCAG employee, three people would have made up a quorum for the meeting.

Rowse has told Noozhawk that he did not speak to Murillo prior to the vote, and only changed his mind because he didn't want to part of political gamesmanship of Murillo's detractors.

He said the appointee should be the mayor and that he didn't like how Murillo's political opponents were using the SBCAG appointment as a way to politically hurt her. 

City Attorney Ariel Calonne said there was no violation of the law and the council had every right to appoint Murillo instead of Dominguez.

“A city’s representative to SBCAG serves at the pleasure of the the appointing City Council,” Calonne wrote

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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