Residents rebuke Selma officials for ‘childish’ behavior

Selma residents criticize council, staff for “unprofessional” behavior as the council rehashes mayor’s complaints against city manager, disclose details of investigation and approved settlement

Members of the Selma City Council listen to public comment during the regular council meeting June 3, 2024. (Serena Bettis)
Serena Bettis
Published June 5, 2024  • 
1:00 pm

SELMA – The atmosphere at Selma City Hall grew tense as a discussion item brought up during a council meeting prompted elected officials, city staff and residents to openly exchange what could be described as “ill will” toward each other.

Criticism shared at the council meeting on June 3 focused on the “unprofessional” and “childish” conduct of all members of the Selma City Council, as well as City Manager Fernando Santillan, in their interactions with each other and the public. Residents said they witness council members argue, roll their eyes and smirk when they disagree with each other, which takes away from the council’s ability to improve the city.

“I just am disappointed with the entire council,” resident Erica Cabrera said. “This has been long going, … we’ve had similar issues in year’s past, and I would just hope that members of the community would look at all pieces of information. … We need to have reasonable conversations, we need to be thoughtful in what we are doing, and it goes for both sides.”  

A settlement agreement struck between the city and Santillan during the council’s closed session on May 20 sparked the discussion of these frustrations, as the agreement required the city council to release the findings of an investigation into a complaint made against Santillan by Mayor Scott Robertson. Santillan also requested that the council issue a public apology to him because the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing on Santillan’s part.

Other terms of the settlement agreement — approved by a 3-2 vote, with Robertson and Guerra voting against it — included a $350,000 payment to Santillan and a five-year employment contract extension. 

After the apology and investigative report were read, residents disputed the findings of the investigation and defended the actions of Robertson and Councilmember Sarah Guerra. They called out Mayor pro tem Beverly Cho and Councilmembers John Trujillo and Blanca Mendoza-Navarro for regularly voting on items in opposition to Robertson and Guerra and for not properly representing the wishes of their constituents.

Many residents also took issue with the terms of the settlement agreement and questioned why Santillan was being “rewarded” for mistakes the city has made. They specifically brought up an error made by the city last fall that initially omitted the trash collection rates from the property tax roll, resulting in higher-than-expected property tax bills for residents and a $50,000 correction fee the city paid to Fresno County.

“This is a joke, right? Like it’s ridiculous; so, so frustrating and infuriating to hear all of this — just (expletive),” resident Lorena Betancourt said during public comment. “Seriously, where’s our apology by the city manager for all the (expletive) he’s done?” 

In addition to the $50,000 spent by the city to correct the property tax error, residents were upset by the settlement payment made to Santillan — which will be paid out of the general fund reserves — and the attorney fees incurred by the city to settle Santillan’s legal dispute. 

During a time where cities are facing decreased revenues and increased expenses and individuals are feeling the brunt of inflation, members of the public said they feel the city is wasting taxpayer money on these items and failing to follow through on promises to give Selma residents a better quality of life. Residents also said the city is not fulfilling its obligation to be fully transparent with the public. 

For example, approval of Santillan’s employment contract extension was included on the meeting agenda, yet only the amendment to his contract was in the agenda packet and residents said they wanted to see the entire contract. 

Mendoza-Navarro pulled that item from the consent calendar and motioned to table it so that unspecific revisions could be made to the contract; the council voted 3-2 to table the item, with Robertson and Guerra voting against the motion.

Council apology

City Attorney Megan Crouch read aloud the findings of the investigative report that was conducted by third-party law firm Hanson Bridgett. Council members and Santillan shared their own statements on the subject as well, with Robertson and Guerra maintaining their disagreement with the report findings. 

The apology, read by Mendoza-Navarro, said the council was sorry for “the harassment attempts at intimidation and retaliation,” aimed at Santillan, “which have been subject by two members of this council,” Robertson and Guerra. 

It said that Robertson submitted a “baseless complaint” against Santillan on Feb. 6, 2023, “alleging harassment and intimidation” and requesting compensation in the form of health benefits until the age of 65 for Robertson and his wife. 

According to the apology statement, the allegations in the complaint were not supported by documented or oral evidence and the third-party review found “that Mr. Santillan has dutifully engaged in his role as a city manager and has appropriately served the community and has not engaged in any unlawful, improper or otherwise unbecoming behavior.”

The report findings said that Robertson’s complaint of workplace harassment “only offered conclusions and did not provide any detailed information establishing that Mr. Santillan engaged in harassing and/or retaliatory conduct.” Further, the report said the evidence showed that Santillan did not violate the city’s discrimination and sexual harassment policy, nor did it violate the city’s workplace violence policy and procedures. 

“Mr. Santillan has served our community during his tenure as city manager with great honor and dedication,” the council’s apology said. “We would like to thank Mr. Santillan for his hard work and professionalism in serving our community.”

In his own statement, Santillan thanked the council for taking Robertson’s complaint seriously and opening an investigation, “just as you would any other allegation of this type,” he said. 

“As the city attorney has just made clear by her reading of the summary of the investigative report, the mayor’s allegations of harassment and intimidation by me were not supported,” Santillan said. “The culture in the city of Selma is changing for the better, and with that change in progress comes pushback sometimes from those who wish to maintain the status quo because the status quo serves a personal agenda better.” 

Robertson said that much of the investigative report is “factually untrue” and is based on communication the investigator did not witness. 

However, according to the report, Robertson and Guerra did not agree to interviews with the investigator; instead, to gather the necessary information, the investigator viewed footage of Selma City Council meetings that are available online in order to review council members’ conduct.

For his part, Robertson maintained that the council members who continuously vote opposite him and Guerra are acting in the interests of city staff, not their constituents, and are silencing the voices of residents and Robertson himself.

“It’s obvious these three do not want to hear the truth,” Robertson said, referring to the other council members. “I call on the city council to open a truly fair evaluation of my claim with a neutral investigator and a legal representative that I have part in selecting, who will appropriately represent my interests, not just the interest of the three council members.”

Many residents who spoke during public comment on the item agreed with Robertson and said they have seen him be “harassed, bullied and disrespected” by another council member; however, other residents said they were upset to see the conduct of the entire city council.

“All of you should be adults and behave as adults and represent the community of Selma,” resident Yulma Martinez said. “You are supposed to serve the people of Selma, and leave your personal agendas home. All of the voters, please vote … all of them out, because this is ridiculous. You’re not professional, you’re not ethical; this is just embarrassing. I am just so angry that you’re not behaving as professionals.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter