Even if the Fresno City Council won’t admit it, it is well known that taxpayers are funding Nelson Esparza’s legal defense.
But how much is unknown.
The city is keeping the people in the dark about the bill accumulated thus far as attorney Mark Coleman and his team go about their work defending Esparza.
Esparza, the city council president, faces one felony count of attempted extortion and one misdemeanor count of violating the city charter. The charges stem from an April incident where Esparza allegedly threatened the then-city attorney’s job.
The city of Fresno, through its attorney’s office, declined GV Wire’s Public Records Act request for an updated invoice. Esparza’s case returns to court Thursday for an arraignment.
Esparza’s attorneys also have a pending motion to exclude evidence and dismiss the case. The main argument: Esparza’s conversation with then-City Attorney Douglas Sloan was privileged and should not be used against him.
The contract between the city and Coleman revealed that he will be paid $350 an hour. Associate attorneys will be paid $250 an hour.
Meanwhile, the Fresno City Council was scheduled to discuss Esparza’s criminal extortion case at last Thursday’s meeting. And, once again, the council opted to keep the public in the dark on how they voted on the issue and how much taxpayers are covering. It has now been 123 days of silence.
This is the same council that voted to give its members hefty raises earlier this year.
Enough is enough. Taking a vote in a closed session and still not reporting the decision publicly makes a mockery of open meeting laws.
Council 0-for-5 in Transparency
On June 23, before Esparza was officially charged, the council voted to fund his criminal legal defense, a legal memo obtained by GV Wire stated. At the time, Esparza sued fellow councilman Garry Bredefeld for defamation. Insiders told GV Wire that when Esparza learned that the council would fund Bredefeld’s defense as well, Esparza dropped his lawsuit.
The council has had an opportunity to come clean on its vote five times. Every time, the council had nothing to report, including from its most recent meeting.
At the Sept. 29 meeting, some on the council did not bother to show up. Insiders said there was not a quorum in closed session. Esparza has recused himself from all action, as he should. Councilmembers Mike Karbassi, Luis Chavez, and Garry Bredefeld said they were all present. The whereabouts at the time of Miguel Arias, Esmeralda Soria, and Tyler Maxwell haven’t been divulged to the public.
And, the council apparently is now navigating its transparency issues with Esparza’s case without the benefit of legal expertise. The City Attorney’s Office has had to recuse itself, conflicted out because it is directly involved in Esparza’s legal problems. Multiple sources tell me that the outside counsels the city council hired are no longer providing advice.
How to Fix the Transparency Problem
In its August memo (see below), outside attorneys James Sanchez and Matthew Lear said a member of the public can contact the city and demand a cure to this problem.
“The City is potentially exposed to an action from the District Attorney or any interested person,” the memo said.
Moreover, the attorneys recommended that the council announce publicly how the Esparza legal defense vote went. So far, it has not.
I’m an interested person. I always believe in transparency in the government agencies I cover.
In the apparent absence of anyone else making such a request, here it goes. I borrowed a form letter from the First Amendment Coalition and filled in the blanks.
A Letter for the Fresno City Council
Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza
Members of the Fresno City Council
Dear Fresno City Council,
This letter is to call your attention to what I believe was a substantial violation of a central provision of the Ralph M. Brown Act, one which may jeopardize the finality of the action taken by the Fresno City Council.
The nature of the violation is as follows: In its meeting of June 23, 2022, the Fresno City Council took action in closed session to fund the legal defense of Fresno City Councilman Nelson Esparza (item 5-B on the June 23, 2022 agenda).
Under Section 54957.1, specifically 54957.1(a)(3), action was taken and not reported in open session.
Pursuant to Government Code Section 54960.1, I demand that the Fresno City Council cure and correct the action as follows: publicly report the actions of June 23, 2022, and any other subsequent actions taken in closed session regarding the Nelson Esparza matter (listed on the agenda as Nelson Esparza v. Garry Bredefeld; Nelson Esparza v. City of Fresno; and People v. Nelson Esparza). This includes the vote result, how each member voted, and information related to funding Mr. Esparza’s legal defense (including all contracts and invoices to date).
Government Code Section 54960 allows for the finding of past actions unlawful without necessarily declaring them null and void.