Ah, Indian Wells. The city that keeps giving.
On Nov. 6 voters approved by a two-to-one margin a city ordinance that establishes a formal policy for selecting the mayor. Those following the drama know why. Two years ago the council changed its long-held policy of appointing the longest serving council member to the city’s top post to pass over Mayor Doug Hanson.
Since being elected in 2010, Hanson had been mired in controversies that included being accused of harassment, creating a hostile work environment and misconduct stemming from an incident at the city-owned IW Club dubbed “Hamburger-gate.”
The council eventually relented and Hanson claimed the post last December. He has pushed for the ordinance ever since and Indian Wells residents, who have grown increasingly mistrusting of City Hall, passed Measure Q with 65 percent of the vote. Seniority not politics was supposed to rule the day.
Councilwoman Mary Roche is next in line. No one disputes that. Given that the only other councilmember with seniority is Patrick Mullany, who has already served as mayor, the next likely candidate would be Ted Mertens, the top vote getter in the recent election. Residents assumed this much. But this is Indian Wells. Nothing is ever that simple.
At a patio party earlier in the month, Hanson introduced Mullany as the next mayor pro tem. (Cue fireworks, please.)
Three separate residents have threatened the city with a lawsuit. Council met in closed session Nov. 15 and emerged with an idea: to hire a retired judge with JAMS, an arbitration group, to settle the dispute for an expedited $10,000.
Interim City Manager Rod Wood said last week that he hoped the decision would head off any possible litigation.
“What we really want is a judge who will look at it from a legal stand point,” Wood said. “We’re not giving the judge any indication what our view is. There’s no argument from our side and the other side because we don’t have a side.
“This is so we can avoid an unnecessary fight in the community.”
A sticking point seems to hinge on the fact that the mayor must serve for at least one year prior to being selected and that the same applies to the mayor pro tem. Here’s the problem, though. The ordinance doesn’t say that. In fact, it’s fairly quiet about the whole mayor pro tem issue. But what it does say is that the second-most senior council member who “without serving as Mayor shall be appointed” mayor pro tem.
That should disqualify Mullany, right?
So, I contacted Stephen Deitsch, the city’s attorney. It’s truly amazing how you can talk to someone for five minutes and nothing be said.
“I rendered initial advice to the city, but that does not necessarily mean that would be my final, formal opinion,” he told me.
Sometimes attorneys make me want to pull my hair out.
Mullany has been staying quiet. I can’t get him to return my phone call. But behind the scenes, residents say Mullany believes he rightfully should be mayor pro tem, which means the former FBI agent would serve as mayor twice in his four-year council term.
Residents see this as a “power grab,” said City Hall watcher and Indian Wells resident Andy Elchuck.
“They’re trying to circumvent it because it was poorly written by the attorney and now it’s costing us another 10 grand,” Elchuck said. “This is all about the existing council members wanting to put the new members in their place.”
I’ve done some calling around and everyone I spoke to seems to think the judge won’t be siding with Mullany.
We won’t have to wait long. Wood tells me the city has already received an opinion and he promises I’ll know – which means you’ll know – today. God help the council if the judge sees it Mullany’s way. Elchuck promises fire and brimstone, which is always fun.