Big Trouble in Little Santa Maria? – Art Montandon

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Big Trouble in Little Santa Maria? BY SUN STAFF We looked it up. Right there in the dictionary. Scandal. To paraphrase Mr. Webster, it’s damage to reputation, public disgrace. Defamatory talk and malicious gossip. It’s what happens when someone’s conduct brings shame or offense. If you haven’t noticed, that’s what’s going on in Santa Maria right now, and it involves everyone from the city council, to the city attorney, to former police chiefs from two different cities, to alleged prostitutes, to the district attorney’s office. Scandal. We don’t use that word lightly. Just about everyone involved will tell you that the other side—those guys—they’re the ones stirring up trouble, perpetuating the lies, fueling the fire of hate. They’re the ones who may tarnish the good name of the city, and that of anyone who gets in their way. Or that they’re the ones who started it all in the first place. So who to believe? We decided that the only way to be fair would be to get all the facts we could, and then let everybody speak for themselves. In the following pages, we delve into past problems, present events, and the possible future of this troubled issue. Read it all; we’ve broken it up into three separate stories for you. And take your time. The gossip won’t go away anytime soon. We just hope the truth will outlast it.

The past: Did history repeat itself? Central Coast residents pose parallels between one city attorney, two cities, and two dismissed police chiefs BY ANDREA ROOKS He was visible. He was popular in the community. He worked well alongside the police officers association. The police chief enjoyed success in the community he protected. And then he was gone. To the community, it appeared sudden. Seemingly with little explanation, the city manager placed the chief on paid administrative leave. The city council and city administration couldn’t be as forthcoming as everyone—themselves included—would have liked, but suffice it to say the chief’s leave was a personnel issue. Modest public outcry ensued. After the city council upheld the chief’s termination, he worked out a retirement settlement and left city employment. To Santa Marians, this sounds like a rough rundown of what happened to former Chief John Sterling last year. To Atascadero residents, it’s along the lines of what happened to former Chief Richard “Bud” McHale in 1996. “Reading what went on in Santa Maria with Sterling—it’s a repeat of what happened here,” said former Atascadero Mayor George Highland. The link, assert some in the community, is Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon, who was Atascadero’s city attorney until he resigned in 1998. As Highland reflected back on what happened while he was mayor of Atascadero, he viewed McHale’s termination and subsequent retirement as largely the city attorney’s doing. “In retrospect, it’s my opinion that Montandon got the confidence of a … city manager … who wasn’t sure of himself, and used that to attempt to get rid of anyone on staff who didn’t agree with him,” Highland said. “He used the naiveté of the city council members to get an investigation of McHale the way he wanted it done.” Montandon, on the other hand, explained that both terminations were justified and handled properly—at the will of the respective city managers, not due to his influence. …… “The spin they’re putting on it is I have some sort of hypnotic ability to beguile city councils to make up allegations out of thin air and get chiefs of police fired,” Montandon said. “There are a lot of die-hard supporters looking for a reason for this to have happened to their hero.” Atascadero Former Chief McHale brought his side of the story forward after again seeing Montandon’s name in the news. He learned of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s recent investigation into Montandon’s alleged involvement with the trial of the Cummings sisters, who faced prostitution-related charges (see “The present” on page 13). “I have a feeling that police chiefs in general, if they spend any time in the office at all, they begin to learn many things about many people,” said McHale, who’d been Atascadero’s chief since the city incorporated in 1979. “I think many times the attorneys feel threatened by the knowledge that the police chiefs attain.” In McHale’s case, he said he learned of some alleged skulduggery going on with the city of Atascadero’s involvement in restoring the Carlton Hotel. “I had citizens coming to me when I was police chief saying that … there were some funds passing back and forth between the city manager and the investor,” McHale said. He said that he felt obligated to look into the matter but didn’t think City Attorney Montandon would be responsive based on their rocky relationship. “I thought, ‘Who do I report this to?’ I knew Montandon was always angry or non-communicative with me,” McHale said. “I can contact the assistant city attorney or contact the attorney general. I chose to report it locally. “Upon reflection, I should have reported it to the attorney general.” He explained that he believed the conversation made it back to the city manager and played a part in McHale’s eventual placement on administrative leave. The Aug. 29, 1996, New Times cover story reported that the city manager did hear of the conversation, but the Carlton issue didn’t factor into the decision to place the police chief on leave. Instead, the city decided to investigate McHale after receiving a letter supposedly from an Atascadero citizen. To this day, officials don’t know where it came from, Montandon said. Both the address and name were bogus, but the letter alleged that McHale had a sweetheart deal with a Ford dealership, among other improprieties. “I was on leave for months while the situation was being, quote, investigated,” McHale said, noting that the city hired an outside investigator when it had the option to work with the sheriff’s department instead. “[The private investigator] wasn’t really investigating, he was out to prove I’d done something illegal,” he alleged. “He never did, and the city withdrew everything.” That withdrawal led to one of the major differences between the stories of McHale and Sterling. Both retired, but McHale retired after counter suing the City Council. In Santa Maria, the Council agreed Sterling retired due to management differences, and both sides dropped any negative claims.

Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon:
“The spin they’re putting on it is I have some sort of hypnotic ability to beguile city councils to make up allegations out of thin air.”

The Atascadero Council members dropped any adverse action, dropped their case against McHale, and McHale in turn dropped his suit, reached a settlement, and retired. Montandon said he suspects McHale settled his suit only after Montandon gave McHale’s attorney a copy of a motion to strike the suit. In that motion, Montandon said, are evidences and documents that would have made it easier to validate McHale’s original termination. “If they both sign a consent form, I will release the documents, depositions, investigation reports, and their taped interviews supporting McHale’s involuntary departure from the city of Atascadero,” Montandon wrote in a response to the Sun. To that, McHale scoffed. It’s “an interesting snow job,” he said. “That’s laughable. “If there was any substance to anything, they would have taken action. It’s all history.” If it’s all history, Montandon wondered why it had to be brought up again. “I find it sad that Mr. McHale and Mr. Highland feel compelled to come to Santa Maria and attempt to resurrect an incident in history almost eight years old from another county to create conflict among us,” Montandon said in his written response. “The only interest I had in any of this at this point in time,” McHale explained, “is that I noted that there were so many similarities in what was occurring in Santa Maria and that which occurred in Atascadero. “My assessment of John Sterling is he was an excellent police chief and was doing a fine job for Santa Maria,” McHale said. “He probably didn’t kowtow to the personal whims of people in City Hall, and it got him into trouble.” To that end, he said he doesn’t want to dilute the significance of what happened to Sterling in 2003. “His situation is current, and he needs to be considered for reinstatement,” McHale said. “My situation is eight years old.”

Former Police Chief John Sterling:
“Honestly, I feel like I was a guy walking down the sidewalk and hit by a drunk driver, and now somehow I’m being blamed for making the guy drunk.”

Santa Maria John Sterling’s situation is now eight months old. He said he’s not looking to stir up trouble or bad blood, he’s waiting to see what the City Council will do next—if anything (see “The future” on page 14). Since he retired on May 31, 2003, Sterling has all but remained completely out of the public eye. Even now, he’s reluctant to discuss his future in Santa Maria—he knew the City Council upheld his leave, he negotiated a retirement package, he left. When the Sun contacted him on Jan. 22, Sterling presented a letter he’d written reflecting on the events past and present. “There is no law enforcement agency or DA’s office in the state that would recognize Art Montandon’s actions as anything remotely mimicking a legitimate investigation,” Sterling wrote, referencing the recent county DA inquiry into Montandon’s actions relating to the Cummings’ case. In person, Sterling said that while he was police chief, he had numerous conflicts with Montandon centering on management decisions. Specifically, he said the major conflicts dealt with how much time he spent in the Hispanic community, how and when to begin dealing with blight in the West Newlove neighborhood, and how the city wanted to handle terminations, specifically of police officers. For the record, city officials maintained and Sterling agreed that it was solely management issues that led to Sterling’s being placed on administrative leave and his eventual retirement settlement—no alleged video, no nasty personal allegations—nothing negative in his personnel file as of the settlement date. But rumors of impropriety have persisted in relation to Sterling’s departure. According to the document filed by the DA’s office in December, Montandon wanted a purported video tape of Sterling entering a massage parlor run by April and Irene Cummings, who were found guilty on Jan. 21 of conspiring to commit prostitution (see “The present” on page 13).

Former Atascadero Mayor George Highland:
“It’s my opinion that Montandon got the confidence of a weak city manager and used that to attempt to get rid of anyone on staff who didn’t agree with him.”

No one will confirm that tape’s existence, and Sterling has insisted from day one that he’s never been to said massage parlor. The Cummings sisters have also publicly alleged that other city and county officials were clients of theirs, allegations that have since been denied and/or disproved. With regard to Montandon’s conduct during the DA’s prosecution of the Cummings sisters, the Santa Maria Police Officers Association (POA) in August 2003 wrote a letter to the City Council demanding Montandon’s immediate removal. Montandon declined to return phone calls regarding the Cummings investigation issue, but Mayor Larry Lavagnino’s September letter in response to the POA made it clear that the City Council believed Montandon acted within the scope of his city-attorney duties. “The city attorney … has the full authority to be involved in any personnel matter and has full access to all personnel files and all investigations,” the mayor’s response reads. Most recently, the City Council on Jan. 22 issued a statement again supporting Montandon and his reported actions involving the Cummings case. “The role of the city attorney includes defending the city from lawsuits and assisting in official city investigations. Sometimes evidence gathered in a criminal investigation is critical to the city,” the release reads. “While both the city attorney and the District Attorney’s offices seek to properly represent the public they serve, their efforts may not always coincide.” Sterling furthered that Montandon to this day has not allowed the purported massage-parlor issue to die down, a question Montandon declined to return Sun phone calls about. But Montandon did later say that it’s true he and Sterling often didn’t mesh with regards to management issues. “I confess that I did not always agree with him during his four years with the city of Santa Maria,” Montandon said in his written response to the Sun. He explained that the seeming similarities between McHale and Sterling were hardly personal. He said he’s been Santa Maria city attorney for almost 20 years and worked with a total of five chiefs of police, and he had good working relationships with most of them.

Irene Cummings:
Cummings and her sister allege that, after they were arrested for prostitution, Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon offered them a deal in exchange for a videotape he thought they had. Montandon has declined to return phone calls regarding that case or the subsequent allegations.

Sterling said he’s still stung in some ways by the manner in which he was dismissed, but has made his peace with city management. “I did not mesh with [City Manager] Tim Ness or Art Montandon, so maybe I shouldn’t have been police chief here. Maybe they were right about all of those issues,” Sterling said. “But I sure as hell never went to any massage parlor. “Honestly, I feel like I was a guy walking down the sidewalk and hit by a drunk driver, and now somehow I’m being blamed for making the guy drunk,” Sterling said. Past, present, future When Sterling’s administrative leave hit the news in May 2003, he was told he wasn’t alone. McHale contacted him and shared his story. “He introduced himself and said that the same thing had happened to him with Art Montandon in Atascadero,” Sterling said. “It was scary, the similarities between the two stories. He would start a story, and I would be able to finish it. And I would start a story, and he would be able to finish it. That’s no exaggeration.” Regarding those conversations with Sterling, McHale agreed that it was eerie and amazing how strikingly similar their stories appeared. He speculated that their stories both had to do with city management’s fear of the two chiefs’ successes in their respective communities. “As a police chief, you’re faced with many decisions many times that are ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’” former Chief McHale reflected. “The test is to do that which is in the best interest of the community—you can’t go wrong,” he said. “But that isn’t always true if you consider the ramifications to your career.” Looking at the bigger picture, City Attorney Montandon stressed the importance of keeping the focus on Santa Maria’s future. “Though our community has grown significantly during my 20 years of service, it has remained as it began, a friendly place where we work hard and help each other,” Montandon wrote to the Sun. “Sadly I see a group of people trying to change Santa Maria to a place where rumors are promoted and turmoil is commonplace,” he continued. “We must all work together to keep Santa Maria a great place to live and work.”

The present: DA investigates allegations of bribery Since last July, the Santa Barbara DA’s office has been looking closely at Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon BY ABRAHAM HYATT On June 18 of 2003, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Deputy Prosecutor Kimberly Smith walked into a Santa Maria courtroom. That wasn’t an unusual day for Smith: She was the assigned prosecutor for People v. April and Irene Cummings—the highly publicized criminal prostitution case that involved two Santa Maria women. And while the case was spicier than the area was used to, the day was routine in that it was supposed to simply be a time for Smith to finish arguing why the sisters should be brought to trial. But after entering the courtroom, Smith’s day took a surprising turn. In a declaration she signed in December, Smith said she was called into the judge’s chambers along with the defense team and Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon. The meeting, she was told, was off the record at the city attorney’s request. Smith said that at that time, Montandon asked the court to release original audio evidence tapes from the Cummings case to him because of “allegations of tampering.” To explain why that was so surprising to Smith and the rest of DA’s office, it’s necessary to look at a criminal case in terms of sides. Using a sting operation, the Santa Maria Police Department had investigated the Cummings sisters, then turned the case over to the DA’s office. On the other side of the court, the defense team, made up of Michael Clayton and Michael Scott, was defending the women against those charges. But here was Montandon, a city employee, apparently siding with the defense. In late January of 2004, Smith didn’t return phone calls regarding the case, but her supervisor, Assistant DA Christie Stanley, was quick to describe why his behavior was so unusual. First off, she said, she’s never seen a city attorney seemingly ally him or herself with the defense. It happens often enough, she said, that the defense will claim that a piece of evidence has been tampered with, and when that happens her office has its and the defense’s experts check it out. “But [Montandon] was behaving in a way that was very unusual,” she said. “It was like [he was] behind the scenes, trying to do things that were just not right.” And as for his side, Montandon declined to return repeated phone calls regarding this story. A Jan. 22 press release from the city stated that the attorney had “legitimately inquired about evidence,” and claimed that the DA’s office had never “contacted the city for its side of the story.” Back in that June 18 courtroom, Smith said the judge denied Montandon’s request and told him to make a formal request to the DA’s office and that any request should also be served to all parties. According to Smith’s report, Montandon never made any such request. And, according to her declaration, that wasn’t the only contact she had with Montandon. Not only did she describe seeing him talking to defense attorney Clayton at the Cummings’ preliminary hearing, she also said she discovered that Montandon allegedly contacted the Santa Maria Police Department looking for evidence seized in the prostitution case. And the reason he was looking, Smith claimed, was that he had a defense expert report that alleged “evidence tampering.” In her statement, she said she was alarmed to find that the city attorney claimed to have such a report. Smith said she called Montandon and asked for a copy, but was told that due to a pending internal affairs investigation, Montandon “could and would not provide a copy.” She said that Montandon then asked her for a piece of evidence—a page from the Cummings’ appointment book that allegedly contained then-Police Chief John Sterling’s name—on behalf of Clayton. Smith said she asked Montandon why he was making a request on behalf of the defense attorney when the city attorney wasn’t even involved with the trial. No answer is recorded, but Smith then said she advised Montandon to abide by the law and let the defense team make a formal request to the DA. That echoes what Stanley said months later regarding her office’s standard protocol. She said if Montandon had a question about any piece of evidence, the appropriate procedure would have been for him to contact the DA’s office and let them know there was a problem. “The way it was done and some of the statements that were made were just very upsetting,” she said. “Never since the 1980s, when I started with the DA’s office, have I ever seen any city attorney behave that way.” E-mails and videos At about the same time that Smith was interacting with Montandon, Stanley’s office heard rumors that someone pretending to be from the DA’s office was offering the Cummings sisters an unspecified deal. The DA’s office later confirmed that the allegation was not true, but did discover this: Santa Maria activist Joe Furcinite of Recall Our City Council had helped the women type up affidavits about Montandon’s interaction with them. No deals had been offered, but the sisters and Furcinite had hoped those statements would have some effect on the DA’s prosecution. In those statements, both Irene and April allege the city attorney called them in May of 2003 and offered them a deal in exchange for a copy of a specific videotape he thought they had. And this is where the story gets really convoluted. At some point before 2003, William “BJ” Wagener alleged he shot a video of then-Police Chief John Sterling entering the Cummings’ massage parlor. Since then, Wagener has refused to comment on the existence of the alleged videotape. And Sterling adamantly maintains he has never been to any massage parlor. Regardless of that, the Cummings sisters claim that several months after the chief had been placed on administrative leave, the city attorney was looking for the alleged tape. In her affidavit, April quoted Montandon as saying to her: “You just won the lottery. You just have to go find the ticket, and the ticket is the videotape that BJ has.” As for why he was so set on getting the tape, Irene remembers him saying it was because he wanted to “make sure [Sterling] never holds office.” Irene also alleges that Montandon met with her and her lawyer, Clayton, and offered to get them an evidence expert to use in court in exchange for a copy of the Sterling videotape. Along with Montandon, neither April’s nor Irene’s lawyers have answered repeated phone calls about these allegations. But there’s perhaps more than just he-said-she-said accusations here. The Sun has an e-mail that appears to be between Irene and Montandon, and has confirmed that the accounts listed on it are active. Montandon allegedly hasn’t denied having e-mail contact with the women either. In court documents the DA filed in the Cummings case, Montandon allegedly admitted to Smith that April had e-mailed him. After that, the city attorney allegedly offered to continue to communicate with the sisters. It’s that kind of alleged behavior that has the DA’s office up in arms. In those same documents, Smith is quoted as saying she told Montandon “it would be totally inappropriate for anyone to communicate with a represented defendant, through him or otherwise.” Stanley, Smith’s supervisor, said that the reason his contact would be so “totally inappropriate” is because attorneys have an ethical duty to not communicate with people who are represented by other attorneys—especially in a criminal case. And that’s not just Stanley’s opinion, either: The court document her office filed in the Cummings case listed four Superior and Supreme Court rulings that define why Montandon’s alleged behavior could be construed as inappropriate. When is a bribe not a bribe? As the DA’s office worked to compile information about Montandon’s involvement in the Cummings case, an unknown individual told them that Montandon had allegedly offered a bribe to Wagener’s attorney, James Holland. DA Chief Criminal Investigator David Saunders sat down with Holland on Oct. 15, and at that time, Holland allegedly said he got a call from Montandon back in June. In a DA office memo that chronicled that interview, Saunders said Holland and the city attorney talked about the college they’d both graduated from and the work Montandon had done in Atascadero (see “The past,” page 8), and then the conversation turned to several issues that Montandon wanted to take care of in a “global settlement.” According to the memo, Holland said that in return for the alleged Sterling tape, Montandon would resolve both a lawsuit Wagener had filed against the city and why the city had stopped the broadcast of one of Wagener’s public-access shows last year. On top of all that, Holland said the city would pay Wagener and him an unspecified amount of money, and Montandon would “make the Cummings case go away.” DA officials feel these offers could be construed as a bribe. But now, a little more than three months later, Holland denies making those statements, despite the fact the DA’s office claims to have a tape of that conversation. Saunders is completely wrong in saying he was told that Montandon offered a bribe, Holland said. “I didn’t say that to Saunders. It’s not true.”

No Comment, But
“Because we are not making comment at this stage doesn’t mean that we are not looking very closely into this situation,” said Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino in regard to the allegations surrounding City Attorney Art Montandon.

Holland went on to say that Montandon did communicate with him, but only as two lawyers discussing a civil suit that had already been filed against the city of Santa Maria. Holland said that when a civil action is filed, it’s not unusual for the subject of money to come up, and he and Montandon were well within their rights to discuss a monetary settlement. “And to the extent that Saunders says that I admitted or agreed that there was a bribe, that’s just flat wrong,” he said. “That’s just false.” Despite Holland’s claim that Saunders misrepresented his statements, Holland didn’t deny another part of the DA investigator’s memo: that Holland and Montandon had discussed Wagener’s alleged videotape. When asked, Holland said it wasn’t a strange turn for the conversation to take. They had been talking about Wagener, and since Wagener had allegedly shot the video, it was natural for the conversation to turn to the alleged tape itself. As for why Montandon would feel the need to bring up that supposed tape, it was Holland’s theory that the city attorney was looking for evidence to justify, after the fact, that the city was right in firing Sterling. “Montandon had stated to me,” he said, “[that he wanted the alleged tape] because it would assist him in defending against the efforts of the POA.” Holland quickly corrected himself and said that it had been too long since that original conversation, and that he wasn’t sure if Montandon had actually referred to the Santa Maria Police Officers Association. “But it was clear he wanted to use it,” Holland continued, “in defending his decision to have fired Sterling.” In response, Saunders said he was unable to comment on Holland’s denial. An unclear future As of Wednesday, Jan. 28, the day before this story was printed, neither Art Montandon nor the Cummings’ lawyers, Michael Clayton and Michael Scott, had replied to repeated phone calls made over the course of seven days. Irene Cummings was uncertain how the allegations would affect any future litigation; the city council’s response to the entire situation was unclear (see “The future” on page 14); and the DA’s office was waiting to make a decision on future action. One way to look at the DA’s side is to say its office investigated Montandon for offering bribes: “It appeared he was offering to do something in return for something else,” DA’s Stanley said. “So it could be classified as that.” But, she said, her office didn’t investigate him as a person; they simply conducted an investigation and turned up things that were “out of the ordinary and unusual.” Stanley said that it seemed to the DA’s office that Montandon’s behavior could constitute an interference with the criminal case. And so they put together everything they could and filed it with the Cummings’ judge so that he would have no doubt that the DA’s office was not involved in Montandon’s alleged actions. “Obstruction of justice is sometimes the shorthand phrase. That or [section] 148 of the penal code,” she said, describing what Montandon’s behavior could be construed as. “Our main goal in filing that document was to protect whatever kind of conviction that might occur.” And as for what comes next, Stanley said her office hadn’t decided on any specific course of action. Almost any decision’s available, she said, ranging from nothing all the way up to criminal prosecution. “But we certainly haven’t made a decision yet,” she said. Sun Arts Editor Abraham Hyatt can be reached at

The future: What happens now? Santa Maria’s City Council is mostly silent on allegations surrounding city attorney BY ANDREW PARKER What a long strange trip it’s been—and it may not be over yet. On Dec. 30, 2003, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office filed a notice alleging third-party interference on the part of Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon in the case of April and Irene Cummings, two sisters later convicted of conspiracy to commit prostitution at their Santa Maria massage parlor (see “The present” on page 13.) The notice, prepared by the DA’s office and filed in relation to case No. 1086745, alleges that in June 2003, Montandon offered a deal to James Holland, an attorney in an unrelated case, in exchange for an alleged videotape of then-Police Chief John Sterling entering the Cummings’ business, and at one point contacted the Cummings sisters—actions the DA’s office says he was not authorized to take. Sterling was put on administrative leave in May 2003 over conflicts with city management. “Any action, investigation, or contact with defendants undertaken by Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon related to this criminal case was neither authorized nor sanctioned by the District Attorney’s Office,” Deputy DA Kimberly Smith wrote in the notice. “Mr. Montandon was not given the authority to negotiate nor attempt to negotiate any disposition in the referenced criminal case.” The notice requested that the judge in the case, Rick Brown, make a finding that misconduct was reported to the court, which he did. A request to have Montandon barred from future contact with case evidence was denied. Whether there will be further investigation remains to be seen. Assistant DA Christie Stanley said the county’s main goal in filing the notice was to protect a possible conviction in the Cummings case. She said the office has considered everything from taking no action to considering the potential for criminal prosecution. Montandon is one of only two officials employed by the city council—the other is City Manager Tim Ness, who in turn oversees each city department. The city’s only official response to the matter so far has come in the form of a Jan. 22 press release attributed to “Mayor and City Council’s Office.” “The city legitimately inquired about evidence in the People v. Cummings case,” the statement reads in part. “The city neither intended nor do we believe it caused any interference … any statements to the contrary are erroneous. If the District Attorney’s office truly disagrees, on proper legal grounds, with any of the city’s actions, then we invite a thorough review by any legitimate higher authority of all parties involved in this disagreement over our respective roles.” The statement goes on to read: “There will be no further comments from the city of Santa Maria at this time concerning this matter.” As of press time, it was difficult to ascertain what the council plans next in response to the allegations, or if there will be any further official comment on the matter. Repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment from individual City Council members both before and after the release of the statement yielded varied results. On Jan. 21, the day before the city issued its press release, Councilman Marty Mariscal said he felt it inappropriate to speculate on the council’s next course of action, considering the DA has not filed formal charges. “I don’t question their ability, nor am I trying to quell the opinion,” he said. “But I’m not aware of anything this individual has done that is unethical. If there is information that validates the allegations, then by all means, I encourage the DA to file charges. “My only question: Is the report available to the public? I don’t have a copy, and I would think a city councilman would have been given one.” Mayor Larry Lavagnino initially declined comment on the matter. “No comment at all,” he said. “I’m gonna leave that to the DA,” though he later added in an e-mail, also before the press release arrived: “Because we are not making comment at this stage doesn’t mean that we are not looking very closely into this situation.” Councilman Leo Trujillo said that while he was aware of “hearsay” surrounding word of the DA’s queries, he was unsure of the purpose behind the investigation. “I think it’s very premature to look at these things right now,” he said. Councilmembers Alice Patino and Bob Orach were unavailable for comment the week of Jan. 18, when the press release was issued. Both returned phone calls seeking comment on Jan. 26. Patino said she was not aware of the investigation, having been unavailable to review the matter since around Jan. 17. “I didn’t even know any of this stuff,” she said. “You’re telling me. I hate to plead stupidity or ignorance, but I’ll have to call you back.” As of press time, she hadn’t returned the call. Orach deferred comment to other councilmembers, saying he was traveling out of state later in the day to attend to family health issues, and did not expect to return before press time. George Highland, the former mayor of Atascadero who worked with Montandon when he served as city attorney there in the mid-1990s, says it is not uncommon or unreasonable for councilmembers to be in the dark on issues of potential importance. “Councilmembers, even the best educated of them, don’t know everything they should know,” he said. “If someone in administration doesn’t point something out to them, they are liable to make mistakes. Mostly, we’re just people off the streets.” Attention now shifts to Montandon, who declined to return phone calls from Sun staff about his role in the Cummings case. Allegations surrounding his actions in both the DA’s investigation and Sterling’s departure (see “The present,” page 13) have taken their place alongside reports of the departure of former Atascadero Police Chief Bud McHale in his days there (“The past,” page 8). At their Jan. 20 meeting, the three city councilmembers in attendance—Lavagnino, Mariscal, and Trujillo—voted to add a provision to city code that requires a newly elected council to wait 90 days before terminating a city attorney’s contract. Montandon reportedly requested the addition during his October employment review. Mariscal pointed out that the city attorney can still be terminated for cause at any time. “We did it to create consistency for city employees,” he said, citing an identical provision for the city manager. “It brings parity to the way we deal with them.” Of the five councilmembers, Lavagnino, Orach, and Trujillo are all up for reelection in November. Patino and Mariscal’s terms expire in 2006. m Sun Staff Writer Andrew Parker can be reached for comments or story ideas at News Editor Andrea Rooks and Arts Editor Abraham Hyatt contributed to this story. Source:

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