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Hercules City Council member Myrna de Vera. (Sherry LaVars/staff file)

HERCULES -- The makeover of elected leadership in Hercules last year after voter outrage over financial mismanagement and claims of cronyism raised hopes that a new, hands-on City Council would unite to clean up the mess at City Hall and bring the city's long-delayed development vision to reality.

But that effort has been complicated over the past year by an increasingly bitter feud between two of the council members who led the city's political shake-up. Their battle has consumed staff time, required extra legal work by the city attorney, and created an atmosphere of tension and sniping at City Council meetings -- prompting one community activist to call the new council's behavior a "circus" during a public scolding this summer.

While the discord simmered, a new city manager was working to stave off bankruptcy and restore financial health amid probes by the State Controller's Office and the FBI into the city's financial dealings. It boiled over with the transfer of the mayoral gavel in December 2011 from Myrna de Vera to Dan Romero.

The feud between de Vera and Romero flared up anew in recent months, this time over the actions of an advisory committee formed initially to help search for a new city attorney and later charged with a variety of tasks related to ethics, conflict of interest, nepotism and cronyism.

Jeffrey Wisniewski, a longtime council watcher and the publisher of the website Waterfront Watch, blasted the council's behavior at its July 24 meeting.

"It might be entertaining to watch, but you're not doing the city's business," Wisniewski said.

"It's not in the interest of this city to play war games with this council's agenda. ... Please stop this circus."

This was not what most voters expected last year when they completed a City Council makeover that had begun with the ouster of two incumbents in November 2010. Two months later, a third and longtime councilman resigned, and in June 2011 voters recalled the last two members of the 2010 council, which had been accused of passive acquiescence to the financial dealings of then-City Manager Nelson Oliva and his steering of $1 million a year in city contracts to his family's consulting firm while the city plunged into deficit.

Unity fades

With five new faces in place, the council appeared eager to move on from the public embarrassment the city had suffered under the previous council. But unity among the new council members, who had railed against the actions of their predecessors, was short-lived, as the anger between de Vera and Romero over the mayoral succession spilled into other matters.

In the recent flap, critics accused the Citizens Legal Issue Ad Hoc Committee of violating state open meeting rules known as the Brown Act, while defenders dismissed the critics as proxies of Romero.

In between, de Vera has feuded with the new city manager, Steve Duran, and, more recently, complained publicly that she has been bullied by him and Romero. This newspaper has made a public records request for documents related to bullying.

The dispute over who should be mayor is recorded in a series of emails that this newspaper obtained pursuant to a unanimous council vote later in the July 24 meeting to waive attorney-client privilege and release official correspondence related to the Brown Act. (The emails can be found with this story at ContraCostaTimes.com.)

It originated around September 2011 and culminated Dec. 15, 2011, when de Vera made a formal complaint to City Attorney Patrick Tang alleging that Romero had violated the Brown Act by lobbying other council members to elevate him to mayor -- a charge that Tang, in a report three weeks later, found to be unsupported by the evidence. The Brown Act limits the ability of members of legislative bodies to consult with one another outside public meetings.

In between, de Vera had urged Tang to expedite his investigation, and afterward she expressed disappointment with Tang's findings, questioning his impartiality and lamenting "corruption, cronyism and incompetence" at City Hall. Tang issued a nine-point rebuttal of de Vera's objections.

In an email to this newspaper this week, de Vera said that under Romero's leadership, "Hercules is heading down to even deeper financial and ethical problems."

She also insisted that her complaints over Romero's ascension to mayor amount to a battle for truth and transparency, something that was sorely lacking with the city's previous leadership. "Hercules' destruction was caused by leaders who did not view their role as public servants," she said.

For his part, Romero said the filing of de Vera's complaint in December "couldn't have come at a worse time," given the city's struggle to keep out of bankruptcy at a time it also was in negotiations with a developer over the future site of a train station. "We were scrambling."

"It truly is an embarrassment that we had to go through this," said Romero, who insists he never lobbied any council member for the mayoral job. "This is Hercules' dirty laundry coming out. I just don't see that this benefits the city."

Council shake-up

The roots of the mayoral flap trace to January 2011, when then-Mayor Ed Balico resigned and then-Vice Mayor Joanne Ward became mayor Jan. 24. At the same meeting, Councilman John Delgado, who as the top vote-getter in the 2010 election normally would have preceded de Vera in the mayoral rotation, moved to appoint de Vera vice mayor; the council approved, 3-1. In June, after Ward was recalled, de Vera ascended to mayor, and Delgado became vice mayor.

Months before the annual council reorganization in December 2011, Delgado apparently had made it known that he wanted to wait until the third year of his term, or 2013, to become mayor, in accordance with the customary rotation. That left Gerard Boulanger, William Wilkins and Romero as possible contenders -- or de Vera herself.

"If the vice mayor (Delgado) was not ready to take the position due to personal reasons, I could continue as mayor since council procedures also indicate that a mayor serves one full year," de Vera said in her Dec. 20, 2011, statement in support of her complaint, recounting a September 2011 conversation with Liz Warmerdam, who was interim city manager then. "I suggested that I could continue for six months until the end of the fiscal year or until the end of 2012."

De Vera's statement was not included in the package supplied by City Hall but was provided to this newspaper by de Vera, noting the council's waiver of the attorney-client privilege.

At other times before December 2011, de Vera said she wanted Delgado to become mayor.

On Dec. 13, Delgado was reappointed vice mayor. Next, de Vera nominated Wilkins for mayor; he declined. Then, Boulanger nominated Romero, who accepted and became mayor by acclamation. Two days later, de Vera filed her complaint.

Romero said he had heard around September 2011 that Delgado did not want to be mayor.

"I asked (Delgado), 'Is that true?' and he said yes," Romero said this week. "So I said, 'I would like to be mayor.'"

Romero said he did not ask Delgado for his vote, and that he did not talk to any other council members about wanting to be mayor.

In her email Monday, de Vera said she has no regrets about launching her complaint against Romero, although in hindsight, she might have gone about it differently.

"I should have filed a complaint against the entire City Council, which violated the Brown Act," she wrote. "Then maybe Attorney Tang would have opined that there truly was a violation by the body. The cure and correct would have been to rescind the appointment and revote in public."

Romero said de Vera's Dec. 20 supporting statement, in which she describes her individual conversations about the mayoral succession with Delgado, Wilkins and Boulanger, "shows it wasn't me that violated the Brown Act; it was Councilwoman de Vera."

He said he has no intention of filing a complaint at this time but suggested that others may want to bring it to the attention of the District Attorney's Office or the Contra Costa Civil Grand Jury.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.