The mayor of Hanford is not running for re-election and neither is the former mayor.
The California Department of Justice is snooping around Hanford City Hall, and a YouTube video showing Council Member Joleen Jameson putting on lipstick and making faces from the dais has more than 198,500 hits.
(See a collection of YouTube videos made at Hanford City Council meetings)
And the City Council just hired a city manager, Darrel Pyle, who resigned two years ago from the city of Tulare over a failed race track project that cost the city more than $1 million.
That's the backdrop to the Nov. 6 election in which voters will elect two members to the Hanford City Council. Mayor Sue Sorensen and former Mayor Dan Chin have decided to step aside. The two new members will join three relative newcomers: Jim Irwin, Joleen Jameson and Lou Martinez were elected to the council in 2010.
Hanford has been embroiled in nasty politics since March 2011, when the City Council turned department heads into at-will employees who can be fired without reason. Several senior executives, including Police Chief Carlos Mestas, have sued, saying the council violated due-process and free-speech rights. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
Meanwhile, the state investigation has caused a stir. DOJ investigators have attended at least two City Council meetings this summer, interim City Manager Pam McCarthy said. They've also talked to McCarthy, council members, city staff and residents.
"Locals refer to it as baby Bell," said former Hanford Sentinel publisher Neil Williams, referring to the corruption scandal that rocked the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, where several city officials have been arrested.
For the past several months, Williams has been an outspoken critic of Hanford's leaders, accusing them of holding meetings in violation of the Brown Act open-meeting law and retaliating against city employees.
Williams said he has spoken to state investigators three times, but he admits it is unclear whom or what the DOJ is investigating. "They told me they are conducting an official criminal investigation into political corruption," he said.
Agency spokeswoman Michelle Gregory would only say last week that the Hanford investigation is ongoing.
Williams said other people also have talked to state investigators, but they are afraid to speak out publicly. McCarthy, however, said there is no validity to the complaints.
"I'm not going to break the law and risk my career," said McCarthy, who has spent 30 years in public service, including 13 years as city clerk of Bakersfield. "If there was any criminal activity going on, I would have blown the whistle myself."
Chin said he is "aware of the DOJ investigation," and Sorensen said she has spoken to state investigators about alleged Brown Act violations. Asked if that played a part in her choice not to run for a second term representing the central area, she said, "There are lots of factors in my decision to step down.
"I'm not saying I'm done," Sorensen said. "I can still serve my community as a volunteer."
Chin, who served three terms on the City Council representing the northeast area, said the DOJ investigation had nothing to do with his decision. "I've always said 12 years is an ideal time to serve," he said. "It's time to do something else."
Chin said the allegations against the council have "never been substantiated."
Even more unfair, he said, is that the state agency remains mum on its findings. "My biggest disappointment is that the DOJ would come here and do an investigation, but leave a perception that there may have been some legitimate complaint when none exist," he said.
Chin questioned whether the state agency will be fair. He accused Mestas of orchestrating the allegations to get rid of him and former City Manager Hilary Straus. One of the state investigators also is a former Hanford police officer, Chin said.
"That's ridiculous," Mestas said. "I don't have any control over any state investigation. I don't have that kind of power."
But everyone from Williams to Sorensen to McCarthy admits that the legal fight and state investigation have taken a toll on the city's image. Chin and Sorensen also said they support the city's costly legal fight to keep department heads as at-will employees.
"It's a matter of principle," Chin said. "The public wants its public servants to be held accountable for their job performance."
McCarthy said the ongoing battle has made it difficult for her and other city employees to concentrate on their jobs. She came to Hanford in July 2011 as interim city clerk at the request of Straus. When Straus fell out of favor with the council, he resigned in February this year, taking with him $160,000 in severance pay.
Straus was replaced by Ron Hoggard, who previously had been Corcoran's city manager. Hoggard didn't stay long. In April, Hoggard resigned to focus on his bid for election to the Kings County Board of Supervisors. McCarthy took Hoggard's place.
Just last week, the City Council hired Pyle, the city manager of Coalinga. He starts Nov. 19. A telephone call to Pyle was not returned.
Attorney Michael Lampe, who challenged the city of Tulare over the race track and other issues, said the Tulare City Council majority -- not Pyle -- got the city in a financial mess. "I have nothing bad to say about Darrel Pyle. He's got a lot of talent. I'm sure he will do well in Hanford."
Sorensen and Chin said Pyle received high recommendations from his former employees.
"Hopefully, he will help the new council set goals so Hanford can move on," Sorensen said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @beecourts.