Selma City Council ends contract with its city attorney. But why?

Neal Costanzo exits the Selma City Council chambers Monday, June 18, 2018. The council voted that night to end the city's contract with Costanzo.
Neal Costanzo exits the Selma City Council chambers Monday, June 18, 2018. The council voted that night to end the city's contract with Costanzo. cdelgado@fresnobee.com

The Selma city attorney was dismissed Monday night after a drawn-out City Council meeting, made long largely by procedural impasse.

Attorney Neal Costanzo of Costanzo and Associates Attorneys at Law was let go with a 4-1 vote just after 11 p.m.

Selma Mayor Jim Avalos voted against ending Costanzo's contract, saying after the meeting, "I felt like he was needed for the city of Selma still." Avalos added that there were still some projects in mind for the city that he hoped to work with Costanzo on.

The reasons for letting Costanzo go weren't made clear during the meeting. After, Avalos only said that the council simply chose not to renew Costanzo's contract.

The decision by the council to terminate Costanzo's contract is apparently tied to a May 30 special council meeting. Avalos said the council met in a closed session then but that "we didn't do things correctly" – he did not go into detail about what was discussed during the meeting. According to an agenda document on the city's website, the city attorney was the focus of the May 30 special meeting.

Costanzo was absent and "clueless" about what the council did on May 30, according to Avalos. The mayor said that Costanzo later took note of the May 30 meeting and told the council that indeed the procedures were not properly executed and that what it did then was "null and void."

Monday night, interim City Manager Henry Perea brought in an outside attorney, Shelline Bennett, to advise the council. Bennett sat in the audience but approached the public speaking dais often.

Costanzo charged that Bennett was trying to get him to violate attorney-client privilege by pushing the council to get him to address confidential communication in public.

"You're being played," Costanzo told the council. "Just like you're being played on other things."

When Perea gave his opinion on how to proceed with the executive item on the agenda – city attorney discipline, dismissal or release – Costanzo told the council that Perea was not an attorney and his legal opinions weren't valid. Perea, a former Fresno City Councilman and Fresno County supervisor, retorted that he had a lot of experience on a dais.

As Perea and Costanzo bickered, council members were noticeably having their own side conversations. One council member yelled out, "Who are we listening to?" referring to whose opinion the council should respect. Councilwoman Yvette Montijo questioned how the item being argued by Perea and Costanzo made it onto the agenda in the first place.

At one point, Costanzo suggested the item dealing with him could be easily removed by the mayor. That appeared to catch councilmembers by surprise. Bennett, the outside attorney, said, "You can only remove something by vote." Costanzo argued that Robert's Rules of Order, which Bennett cited, "are not the law." The agenda item dealing with Costanzo was kept on the agenda.

Costanzo's disputes often drew grunts from the few audience members who stuck through until the end of the meeting.

Bennett guided the council on how to proceed with Costanzo. "You need to ask him if he wants it in open session. He either says 'yes' or 'no,'" she said. "If he doesn't respond or he indicates closed, you go into closed session."

Perea posed the question to Costanzo about whether he wanted to deal with the agenda item in public or in private. Costanzo never gave a "yes" or "no" answer. Perea read a notice aloud to Costanzo, and then posed the question again.

Eventually, the council retreated behind closed doors. They returned more than an hour later without Costanzo, and then voted to end Costanzo's contract with the city.

The interim city manager position was also listed under the "discipline" line on Monday's agenda, but not addressed by the council from the dais. After the meeting, Avalos said the item had to do with allegations Costanzo made against Perea, but the mayor did not disclose details. He said those allegations are still being looked at with the help of outside counsel.

Monday's meeting began with a large audience at the start, many of whom voiced support for Selma Police Chief Greg Garner after Avalos apparently made disparaging comments against the chief at an earlier meeting.

Two council members stepped off the dais to speak as community members and scolded Avalos for his comments. Avalos apologized but later stated that he was only speaking firmly about lack of communication from the chief. Asked if the police chief's job was safe, Avalos responded, "no job is safe."

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez