Political Notebook

Fresno County Democrats rife with internal dissension

The Fresno County Democratic Central Committee is an organization in turmoil.

Some members are leveling conflict-of-interest and mismanagement charges against party leadership. The committee’s financial picture has dimmed considerably as cash reserves have plummeted. Perhaps most serious, the former office manager is alleging age and gender discrimination and retaliation after she lost her job last month.

“It’s just a mess down there,” says Fresno resident and central committee member James Williams.

Party leaders dispute that notion. Both Fresno County Democratic Party Central Committee Chair Michael Evans and Selma resident Doug Kessler, the Region 8 director for the California Democratic Party, say everything has been done according to the bylaws. As for the gender discrimination and retaliation complaint, Evans says it is being taken seriously and an internal committee is investigating.

The only connection between the complaint and the conflict-of-interest and mismanagement allegations, he says, are “individuals who are historical troublemakers who have used this set of circumstances to push their agenda.”

It all started in January, when the central committee amended its budget to add a part-time executive director position to be paid $28,000 annually. There were several applicants, some members said, including Evans.

At around the same time, the committee approved hiring a campaign coordinator, also a part-time position. One of the applicants was Estella Kessler, who is Doug Kessler’s wife. Both Kesslers and Evans are Fresno County Democratic Party Central Committee members.

A subcommittee was formed to vet the candidates and conduct interviews, even as some expressed concern that Evans and Estella Kessler had submitted résumés.

Evans and Kessler were the subcommittee’s recommended hires. There was just one problem: The Fresno County Democratic Party Central Committee bylaws prohibited a member from being an employee of the organization.

Amending bylaws

In April, the central committee amended its bylaws so both Evans and Estella Kessler could be hired.

Anna Ray, a central committee member, says she found the entire process “shady” and wrong considering the added expense versus cash flow.

“I was totally against that because I felt it was a conflict of interest,” she says. “They are already on the committee and it’s a conflict of interest and we cannot afford three paid positions. We just weren't taking in that kind of money monthly to pay for that.”

Williams says the previous prohibition on hiring central committee members as employees “makes perfectly good sense, otherwise you are sitting around doing your own personnel review and giving yourself your own raises.” Without the prohibition, he says, “It does not avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Evans, however, says everything was aboveboard. He says all the decisions were made by a majority vote of the central committee, and the bylaws change was done on a two-thirds vote. Kessler adds that the bylaw change required two meetings.

Some central committee members allege Evans stacked the committee with supporters to ensure the bylaw changes were approved. Evans denies it: “I have never done that.”

However it went down, the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee now had three paid employees as compared to one. Before Evans and Kessler were hired, the lone paid employee was office manager Christine Conley, who started in January and is the one filing the discrimination and retaliation complaint.

The committee started the year with more than $26,000 in the bank, which is comprised of state and federal accounts. During the year, it raised an additional $50,000 through fundraisers, rental income at the party headquarters on U Street in downtown Fresno, dues and other ways.

By the end of October, the balance was less than $2,000.

Evans and Estella Kessler stopped taking salaries at the end of August. Evans says some “revenue projections” did not materialize.

“They went through an incredible amount of money,” says Williams, the central committee member.

Both jobs, Evans says, were focused on increasing voter turnout.

“Turnout last year was horrific,” he says. “We wanted to put in place programs to deal with that. We were able to do it on on a small scale. Our intention was to get some funding to do that larger scale and that hasn't materialized yet.”

Conley says at the same time she was dealing with several issues as the office manager of the downtown headquarters. Among them, she says, were being sexually and verbally harassed. She says she told Evans about the issues, but nothing much was done. Conley and her supporters allege it had become a hostile work environment.

Evans denies the accusation, but says the internal committee will determine if sufficient action was taken.

By the end of October, Conley was out. The reason, Doug Kessler says, was there wasn’t enough money to pay her. But Conley alleges the real reason was her complaints about the hostile work environment, her age and her gender.

She’s filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations-Labor Standards Enforcement, and the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. These steps are often precursors to filing discrimination lawsuits.

A hostile work environment

Conley recounts two incidents in which a man, an active Democratic Party member, made sexually suggestive comments to her while she was working at the office. Another man, who was an alternate central committee member, verbally berated Conley, as did a female on another occasion, she says. In addition, she also complained of financial irregularities that she found that happened previous to her being employed. But her complaints to superiors went largely unheeded, she says.

“What they did to me was unforgivable,” Conley says. “It was degrading and humiliating. I cannot let it go.”

Kessler says the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee has yet to be served with any official complaint. If it comes, he adds, “we will appropriately act and answer it.”

In the meantime, the central committee formed an ad hoc group to investigate Conley’s allegations. It is due to report back at the committee’s next meeting, on Wednesday.

Conley and her supporters say that, as with the effort to amend the central committee bylaws earlier this year to hire Evans and Kessler, the selection of the ad hoc group was engineered by Evans and the Kesslers to ensure it was stocked with allies. Ray, the central committee member, called it “a kangaroo court.”

Again, Doug Kessler and Evans deny the charge.

“Ms. Conley was with us for 10 months,” Evans says. “She started at the beginning of the year. She was a valued employee. We’re disappointed she has felt it necessary to take this approach. They are serious allegations. We want to make sure they are adequately addressed.”

Conley has her supporters. Longtime Democratic Party activist Billie MacDougall is one of them.

“I believe Christine,” she says. “I believe what she said, and we’re taking steps to defend her.”

Says Ray: “They don’t want Christine there because she knows where the bodies are buried.”

As both sides ramp up toward a possible legal showdown, both Evans and Doug Kessler say the central committee will make December’s rent payment.

Evans says it’s unclear if his or Estella Kessler’s paid positions will ever return, but for now they are gone. Conley has not been replaced.

More financial hard times could be in store, however. MacDougall, who is active with the Fresno County Democratic Women’s Club, says the group stopped holding meetings at the Fresno County Democratic Party office in downtown Fresno. The central organization has decided to continue paying rent until February, when it will take up the issue of whether to stay put or find another location.

Barbara Pyle, another longtime Democratic Party activist, says the clubs are in good working order and are currently the glue holding Fresno County Democrats together.

“The clubs are giving people a hook to hold on to when the central committee is falling apart,” she says.