The city of Fresno has hired a private practice lawyer at taxpayer expense to advise Councilman Garry Bredefeld after the city clerk, who is African-American, complained to the council president and city administration about his remarks from the dais ripping NFL athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem.
Councilman Oliver Baines said Tuesday the city attorney has retained Fresno attorney James Betts.
Baines said he did not know why outside counsel was hired for Bredefeld. However, the hiring comes within weeks of complaints by city employees about Bredefeld’s public remarks. Baines said he would learn more details in closed session at Thursday’s council meeting.
Betts said he couldn’t talk about the situation and referred questions to City Attorney Doug Sloan, who said he can’t comment because the matter involves personnel and attorney-client privilege.
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Bredefeld, who has billed himself as a friend of the taxpayer, has so far refused to answer questions from The Bee about having a lawyer hired for him at city expense. When a reporter knocked on the door of his home in northeast Fresno, Bredefeld said “this is my home, you shouldn’t be here” and quickly closed the door. His staff did not return phone calls over three days.
The Bee filed a public-records request for a copy of any contract between the city and Betts. Sloan said the city is checking to see if there is a contract. “I don’t believe there is,” he said.
On Thursday Sloan offered more information. "Any time there's any kind of issue like that, it's normal to have an independent counsel," Sloan said. It's an arrangement that avoids a potential conflict of interest between a council member and the city attorney who answers to the council. "It doesn't come up very often, but it's normal to do that," Sloan said.
Last month, Bredefeld launched into a tirade about NFL athletes participating in the “take-a-knee” protest. The athletes say they are protesting police brutality and societal racism, but critics including Bredefeld say they’re showing disrespect for the flag, veterans and the nation.
Bredefeld also complained about abortion rights and lack of prayer in school, all touchstones of the so-called “culture wars” motivating conservative voters.
Last week, Bredefeld was taken to task by Baines, who called the remarks offensive. He said Bredefeld’s comments lacked historical context and compassion. Bredefeld missed an opportunity to bridge social divides in the community, he said. Baines is the only African-American member of the seven-member council.
African-American pastors and others also addressed the council to denounce Bredefeld and his remarks.
Bredefeld’s remarks also upset Mayor Lee Brand.
“It’s more about self-promotion than genuinely working on the issues the city has,” Brand told The Bee. Not only did Bredefeld carefully plan his remarks, but he also had a videographer film it and post it on YouTube, Brand said.
“He has his right to his opinion. But I told him this was never the forum to do it,” Brand said.
There was other fallout inside City Hall.
City Clerk Yvonne Spence, who is African-American, said she took offense at Bredefeld’s remarks and confirmed that she complained to council President Clint Olivier on the day that Bredefeld spoke to the issue from the dais.
Spence said she lodged a verbal complaint with Olivier because he’s the council president but did not file a written complaint. “I didn’t think it was the proper place for that to be done and it was offensive,” Spence said. The purpose of the agenda item in which council members address their fellow council members is to report on what’s going on in their districts, she said. “I just want them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Spence said Olivier called in city personnel director Jeff Cardell and City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter to hear her concerns, and eventually there were six people in the room.
Spence, the city clerk for six years, reports to the council and not the city administration. The Bee learned from sources that another city employee who works for a council member also complained about being hurt by Bredefeld’s remarks.
Olivier said he couldn’t comment on Spence’s complaint because it involves a personnel issue.
When asked if the council would consider adopting rules about remarks made from the dais, Olivier said no: “At this time, I have no plans to bring forth any changes to council procedures.”
Councilman Steve Brandau said the city brought in an outside attorney so the city attorney wouldn’t have to get into the middle of a dispute between Bredefeld and Baines.
He said he hopes the controversy calms down.
“It’s really tender, and we all have to work together,” Brandau said.