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Laura Austin File Photo / The City Council members at the dias during a recent meeting. The City attorney, not pictured, advised both Mayor Eric Bruen and Councilman Solomon Rajaratnam to recuse themselves from a closed-session land purchase vote prior to the last City Council meeting.

Neel requests Bruen and Rajaratnam recuse themselves on property negotiations

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–  Normally, nothing happens before the Ridgecrest City Council meetings, but an unusual exchange took place last week.  Before City Attorney Martin Koczanowicz and the five council members dismissed themselves to the back room for their routine “Special Closed Session Meeting”, citizen Mike Neel called in to question an apparent conflict of interest involving Mayor Eric Bruen and Mayor Pro-Tem Solomon Rajaratnam.

Neel asked about one of the items on the closed meeting agenda.  The Council members were about to decide whether some City land could be sold to Desert Valley Credit Union.  Neel asked what the City is doing when selling land to the credit union when both the CEO (Mayor Eric Bruen) and a credit union employee (Mayor Pro-Tem Solomon Rajaratnam) would be part of the vote.  “This doesn’t look real good guys.”  He said he was sure they would proceed with the vote, but “I certainly would not expect to see Mr. Bruen and Mr. Rajaratnam back into the closed session.”  He asked the two to recuse themselves. And, if the two were recused, would they be allowed to “proceed ahead with real property negotiations of this type?”  He said, “I’d like to hear that answer and I’ll be listening.”

Koczanowicz agreed.  He said, “The mayor and Council member Rajaratnam need to recuse themselves from participating in this item.”  But to answer Neel’s second question, he said it did not need a majority vote. “A majority of the quorum will be sufficient because it’s not an expenditure of money.”  After the closed session, the attorney reported that the remaining three Council members had voted unanimously for the land deal to proceed.

During the normal meeting, four presentations were given.  First, Bruen recognized the police dispatchers by proclaiming April 14 as the beginning of the “Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.” He said the RPD dispatchers play an essential role in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of the City of Ridgecrest by “safeguarding life and property, by protecting them against violence and disorder.”

Councilman Skip Gorman made the next proclamation for a “Property and Evidence Professionals” Appreciation Week from April 1-7.  Gorman said these professionals are responsible for protecting evidence gathered for investigations, providing a vital public service for the community.

The third announced Brianna Kishlock as “Explorer of the Year.”  She was “extremely flattered and grateful” to be part of the program.  “It really changed my life for the good.”  Even though she experienced a rough family background of “manipulation and abuse,” this program taught her not to be afraid to reach out to people and “what has happened doesn’t define you.”

Captain Aaron Tucker gave life-saving awards to Officers James Quiroz and Jeremiah Lloyd.  By working together, the two officers saved the life of a woman by administering Narcan and performing CPR until Liberty Ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, where she made a full recovery. Tucker commended them for their “swift response, collaboration, and proficiency in life-saving techniques.”  This is Lloyd’s second award and Quiroz’s third.

There were three public comments.  First, Robert Blackwell spoke on behalf of the Kawaiisu tribe.  He said during the tribe’s First Amendment lawful protest on April 10, their sign, which was posted on a public sidewalk, was removed by a City employee per instructions from the City Manager, Ron Strand.  He showed the Council members “a general description of what you’re allowed to do in California and the United States when protesting.”  He said the law “protects citizens whether you’re native, black, or white.”  He said citizens have a right to protest without the government’s interference.  After the City took his property, Blackwell said he was issued a citation.

Blackwell, a retired attorney, said, “It’s really important you understand the 14th Amendment prevents any government from interfering with our rights.”  He said the City “violated the law,” and he has reported this incident to the FBI.  In closing, he warned the Kawaiisu tribe’s protests would continue that week.  He assured the council they would be lawful and he “expects the same from all the city employees.”

The third public comment came from an employee of Southern California Edison (SCE), Kyle Rossi.  He announced one of the company’s $50,000 college scholarships was going to Burroughs High School senior Serena Khara.  She was one of the 30 chosen for this International Awards scholarship.  Applicants must live in the company’s service area and have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0.  Rossi said Khara “blew that [the 3.0 GPA] out of the water.”  They must also show financial need and plan to pursue studies in STEM.  The recipients are eligible for summer internships at SCE after their first year of college.  Rossi said, “We certainly hope Serena takes us up on that, given her extreme talent.”

Mike Neel commented last with three issues. He said, “I am utterly disgusted with your City Manager!”  He referenced Blackwell’s story about the City’s violation of the tribe’s First Amendment rights and said, “You go down and take posters away from him and then find some half-baked excuse to send him a citation.”

Neel’s second complaint is the “blatant violation of our Fourth Amendment rights” by hiring Flock Safety to install 24 cameras throughout the city.  Neel said, “You probably wouldn’t like someone to watch all the mayor’s comings and goings – surveilled 24 hours on camera.”  He said, “You say you’ll keep us safe, but we’ll be surveilled 24 hours a day – anytime we step out of our house.”

His third complaint was the amount of police hired to oversee the City’s “Night on Balsam” events.  He said they are “drunk fests,” and Bruen claims 3000 people attend and hire 10 police officers.  He asked why the City continues to patrol it, costing the Czity thousands of dollars in overtime police work. He said, “This is a real sweet beauty for the police department staff.”  He asked, “What kind of party needs 10 police officers?”

The main Discussion/Action was presented by Police Captain Aaron Tucker, who gave a first (and last) reading of a proposal involving Blue Line Taxi service.  Shazad Ali, who has 20 years of experience, would like to run this 24-hour service in Ridgecrest.  He proposed in the franchise agreement with the City a sedan with a meter reading that charges a $3.50 drop fee, a $3 per mile fee, and an $18 per hour waiting fee.  He would offer senior and military discounts. The taxi vehicles would be inspected annually, and notices of these inspections would be posted in the vehicles.  All drivers must be licensed to carry passengers.  The council members voted unanimously to approve the proposal, and several amendments were added.