Former and current council members told to repay $50,000 in reimbursements they received

East Palo Alto City Council members, from left, Lisa Gauthier, Carlos Romero, Larry Moody, Donna Rutherford and Mayor Ruben Abrica. Photo from city website.
East Palo Alto City Council members, from left, Lisa Gauthier, Carlos Romero, Larry Moody, Donna Rutherford and Mayor Ruben Abrica. Photo from city website.

BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer

East Palo Alto’s city manager and city attorney are asking five current and three former city council members to get out their checkbooks and pay the city a combined $50,000 for cellphone reimbursements that were improperly given to them starting in 2010.

And the city might sue the officials if they don’t pay up.

While it’s not unusual for officials in many cities to have their cellphone expenses reimbursed, East Palo Alto set it up the wrong way. In 2010, the policy to reimburse the council members was made as a motion by council members rather than an ordinance. Ordinances, which are regarded as a city law, require advance notice whereas a motion can be made verbally at a council meeting. Council approved the cellphone reimbursement policy as a motion, and City Attorney Rafael Alvarado has since determined that was illegal.

The policy said council members could either use city-issued phones or get $120 a month for conducting city business on their own phone.

The problem was revealed in a memo from Alvarado last spring. His memo said that one of the options the city could pursue in recouping the money is suing the former or current council members who don’t repay stipends they received in the last three years. Stipends received after three years are outside of the statute of limitations.

City Manager Carlos Martinez and Alvarado didn’t return messages from the Post seeking comment yesterday. It is believed the matter will return to council, possibly May 1.

At a Nov. 21 meeting, council members said that they believed the stipends were legal.

Councilman Carlos Romero pointed out the erroneous policies were approved in 2010 under then-city manager Magda Gonzalez and then-city attorney Vincent Ewing.

Mayor Ruben Abrica, who was on council in 2010, said in November that council was acting “in good faith” in thinking that the stipend plan by Ewing was legal.

“While I realize that this was an error on the staff’s portion, I too am quite concerned because when I was appointed and offered a stipend for my phone, I thought everything was in order and that’s why I agreed to do it,” Councilwoman Donna Rutherford said.

“This is quite embarrassing and I’m not happy at all about it, but I guess I will have to bite the bullet and pay for an error I didn’t cause,” Rutherford said at the Nov. 21 meeting.
Since then, Abrica has paid the city $6,460 and Romero paid $7,710.

The Post couldn’t determine yesterday how much is owed by the other current and former council members.

Besides the five current council members — Abrica, Romero, Rutherford, Larry Moody and Lisa Gauthier — stipends were also paid to three former council members, Laura Martinez, Peter Evans and David Woods.

In addition to the cellphone stipends, Alvarado’s memo said some council members also received $70 per meeting when they convened as the city’s now-dissolved redevelopment authority. Despite the RDA being dissolved in 2012, council members still received the $70 a month stipend.

8 Comments

  1. They had no idea this money they were getting was illegal? Sure, sure. Didn’t Larry Moody take a “loan” out of the city coffers and then forgot to pay it back ….. until it hit the press? Yeah, I believe they’re all innocent victims, totally clueless about the chicanery at City Hall.

  2. If it was the staff who erred here, I’d be OK with the council approving the reimbursements retroactively, if that’s possible …. I think the underlying issue is the small amount of money ($300/month) councilmembers get for their work. They’re definitely paid below minimum wage. I think a raise is in order.

  3. EPA city government has a history of corruption. The fact that the same people have been on the council for so long speaks for itself. Term limits may be needed to stop the corruption. The same with all emphasis of building of low income housing, which is ostensibly for the good of the poor but is known to involve under the table kick backs to city officials.

    • This isn’t corruption, it’s a mistake made by the two previous city administrators, including the city attorney. The council is supposed to rely on their legal counsel and city manager for accurate information.

  4. The City Council nor the Administration is corrupt don’t get it twisted! It was the city attorney who brought the issue forward to alert the city, the tax-payers and the city council that they received the payments in error. It wasn’t the city council’s fault. Stop trying to act like we are all corrupt over here. Stop looking for stories to say we are corrupt. The fact is this item wouldn’t be published by this Palo Alto Newspaper unless its something that can be considered controversial. They won’t print anything good about us. Nothing to show all our achievements more water, less crime, no murders, Pedestrian Over-Crossing, plans for low cost housing there are a ton of beautiful accomplishments taking care of the residents of East Palo Alto – write that! Remember you send you less worthy residents here to get help! Find one damn positive story!!! This paper refuses. They only print what they don’t have to get up and come of to EPA to get infor about. Daily Post should stop trying to shine a negative light in EPA and find the light in EPA. Shame on you Daily Post –

    • This publication can’t even get the facts correct. Who were the city administrators in 2010? Gonzalez didn’t become city manager until a couple years later.

  5. Yes, Marie, the paper should ignore the bad things that happen here. The best policy is always to bury your head in the sand and avoid reality. The Post should be very ashamed for reporting what is going on in the community. The paper should be full of happy stories about flower shows and children’s events. The paper should never tell us what’s wrong because we don’t want to know, and we never want to fix it. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it Marie! Shame, shame on that awful newspaper for wanting to tell the truth!

  6. The fact is there was a glitch in how this cell phone policy was handled and it was brought forth by the current administration, who could have burried their heads in the sand and not ruffle the feathers of the City Council, which happens to appoint both the City Manager and City Attorney. This story is so much about the LACK of corruption, and all about the highest integrity!!! This is a lot of money for this City Council. They aren’t wealthy and surely aren’t fairly compensated for the work they do. While the article read with facts, can there was an underlying story that was NOT told. That of integrity and transparency in a local government. I’m quite sure if this happened in ANY neighboring community, their council’s would have demanded reimbursement and compensation for such embarrassment! Likely even sued their former city attorney for such a major mistake!

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