Fangary files suit over mayor rotation
by Ryan McDonald
Hermosa Beach City Councilmember Hany Fangary has filed a lawsuit against the city and several of his fellow council members, the most significant example yet of the tension riving Hermosa’s local government.
News of the lawsuit became public last week at an extraordinary meeting at which several elected officials relayed a bizarre account of a feud between Fangary and City Manager Suja Lowenthal rooted in the former’s anger at the loss of council member parking spots at City Hall. That tension with Fangary had been building for more than six months leading up to the night of Nov. 19, the council members said, when they voted to abandon the traditional order associated with the city’s rotation of the ceremonial mayor position, and name Justin Massey, rather than Fangary, mayor pro tem.
Fangary’s wife Dina, named as the plaintiff, is asking a court to order the council to overturn that decision. Fangary is serving as the attorney in the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week. City Attorney Michael Jenkins, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, called the filing “unprecedented.”
“I have to say, I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and I’ve never seen a sitting city councilmember, acting in his capacity as an attorney, suing the city of which he is an elected city councilmember,” Jenkins said.
Though Fangary did not take the opportunity to respond at the meeting, in a follow-up interview he denied some of the accusations leveled at him by his colleagues last week, including that he used time on the dais during meetings to get personal work done, and said that the parking space was only “one of the issues” that he had with Lowenthal. He declined to go into further detail, citing what he said were instructions from Jenkins about the impropriety of discussing public employee evaluations in public. But he voiced generic worry about the direction Hermosa was headed, saying that while the city had become more transparent in the period that coincides with his election to the council, “I just see that a lot of that is going away.”
“The big picture issue that I have, that I’ve discussed with my colleagues, is I have a concern that the way the city is heading is minimizing interaction with the community, community dialogue, and that instead of community interaction, the city is going to make decisions, and tell the community afterward,” Fangary said.
Three of Fangary’s council colleagues, along with Jeff Duclos, whose term ended last month, have said publicly that they have full confidence in Lowenthal.
Last week’s meeting came in response to a request from resident Tony Higgins, who alleged that the decision to appoint Massey rather than Fangary at the mayor rotation, which caught even close followers of Hermosa’s local government by surprise, constituted a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law. Jenkins instructed the council that they could rescind that vote, open public comment on the question, and take a new vote, which under state law would “cure” any potential Brown Act violations from the mayor rotation ceremony without actually admitting that one occurred.
In the end, the result was the same — the council voted to make Massey mayor pro tem, although this time, newly elected Councilmember Mike Detoy changed his vote to back Fangary — but the process was dramatically different, with impassioned pleas from residents and several council members near tears. Massey called Fangary’s behavior “gratuitously combative,” and said his colleague regularly invoked “hypertechnical interpretations of the Brown Act” that were consuming time and money from city staff.
Told that Fangary had called his comments “hateful,” Massey said he and his colleagues spoke with “no personal animus.”
“This relates entirely to challenges in managing the city,” he said in an interview.
Those challenges are centered around the way that Fangary’s strained communications with Lowenthal impact his ability to do his job. Fangary said that he is no longer communicating with Lowenthal in person outside of council meetings. That decision is motivated in part, but not entirely, he said, by the disagreement with her over the parking space.
“At some point earlier in the year, I felt that my presence at City Hall wasn’t welcome. So instead of taking time out of my busy scheduled to attend to business at City Hall, I used emails or texts,” Fangary said in an interview.
Fangary, who previously served as mayor and mayor pro tem after being elected in 2013, said that his past stints in those positions showed that in-person or phone contact with the city manager was only occasionally necessary. He recalled doing two phone calls a month with previous city managers Tom Bakaly and Sergio Gonzalez and interim city manager John Jalili.
Bakaly, who is now serving as the CEO of the Beach Cities Health District, and Jailii, who is retired, declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for the city of Azusa, where Gonzalez is now serving as city manager, confirmed that Gonzalez had received phone and email inquiries for this story, but he did not respond.
Fangary said that, had he been named mayor pro tem, he would have agreed to phone calls with Lowenthal. His council colleagues offered both a greater need for communication between the city manager and council leadership, and a portrait of broader dysfunction. Massey pointed to the need for quick responses from elected officials at unpredictable times, such as when then Mayor Stacey Armato issued a statement in response to a racial slur being scrawled on a city tennis court this summer. And Mayor Mary Campbell said that Fangary’s behavior amounted to “wreckless, unnecessary destabilization” that was making other staff besides Lowenthal uncomfortable.
While last week’s decision may have settled the mayor rotation question, it is unlikely to resolve the underlying tension. Asked about calls during and after the meeting for him to drop the pending lawsuit, Fangary said he had no plans to, and added that the comments made by his colleagues during the meeting added to his concerns. Along with filing his lawsuit to overturn the mayor rotation decision, Fangary had sought a temporary restraining order to prevent last week’s meeting from taking place, which Judge Mary H. Strobel denied in a one-sentence order.