HERCULES -- A Hercules resident and outspoken free speech advocate urged the City Council this week to ask the state attorney general to investigate a City Council member's role in silencing a critic.

"The standard by which the conduct of public officials, both elected and appointed, is to be judged ... is that even the mere appearance of impropriety must be avoided," resident Bill Kelly said in a letter to the city chastising Councilwoman Myrna de Vera.

Earlier this year, de Vera contacted a Pinole city employee about blogs on Hercules Patch by Hercules resident Kent Von Aspern, an employee of HDR Engineering, the contractor for the preliminary design of improvements to the joint Pinole-Hercules sewage treatment plant. A contract for a second phase of the improvements will likely go out to bid over the next 12 months.

Emails between de Vera and Pinole City Engineer Dean Allison appeared geared toward stopping Von Aspern's blogging.

In a widely circulated email Monday, de Vera apologized to Von Aspern and HDR, to the cities of Pinole and Hercules and their joint wastewater subcommittee, and to her supporters, saying she felt shame and regret for her action, which was brought to light by this newspaper earlier this week. Von Aspern had written several blogs critical of de Vera on Hercules Patch.

"I admit the incident was an act of poor judgment on my part," de Vera wrote. "I reacted inappropriately to a citizen's comment posted by contacting a Pinole official on two occasions. Even though I did not tell the Pinole official to silence the citizen, and the Pinole city official did not direct HDR to do the same, and there is no evidence HDR forced Mr. Von Aspern to stop blogging, my actions have caused the perception of a concerted effort to stifle a citizen's free speech rights."


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Kelly is running for City Council on Nov. 6. De Vera, whose term expires in December 2014, is backing three other challengers -- Sherry McCoy, Hector Rubio and Phil Simmons -- against incumbents Gerard Boulanger, William Wilkins and Mayor Dan Romero.

Two months ago, Kelly publicly denounced Romero, a staunch rival of de Vera, for silencing Simmons during a council public comment session by telling him, "You're not going to make attacks on council members."

HDR also has a separate, long-standing professional relationship with Hercules, with more than $8 million in contracts since 2005 in connection with that city's Intermodal Transit Center project.

In his letter to the council, Kelly said emails between de Vera and the Pinole employee cast doubt on de Vera's disclaimer. In one, dated July 3, Allison tells de Vera he spoke about Von Aspern's blogs with the vice president of HDR, adding, "I was told that discussions were made and we should not be seeing any future postings."

Two weeks later, de Vera emailed Allison that "Kent Von Aspern is blogging again." About an hour later, Allison replied, "This is not good." There have been no more blogs from Von Aspern on Hercules Patch since July.

Allison on Wednesday deferred comment to Pinole City Manager Belinda Espinosa; she said Pinole would provide an official comment soon.

An HDR senior official, Craig Olson, did not respond to requests for comment.

Von Aspern last week declined a request from this newspaper to comment.

Kelly, noting that de Vera is "a very powerful member of the Filipino community," said his complaint against de Vera "could cost me the election."

Later at Tuesday's meeting, resident Chris Tallerico called on de Vera to resign and for Pinole to terminate Allison. Commenting on recent complaints by de Vera that she is a victim of bullying by Romero and City Manager Steve Duran, Tallerico said, "Who's the bully here?"

De Vera recited her earlier written apology later in the meeting. She said she was ready to take the consequences of her action, and asked the rest of the council to treat her equitably, as it had treated "others" who had committed "First Amendment offenses," an apparent reference to Romero.

On July 24, the council, with de Vera in the lead, had scolded Romero for admonishing Simmons, who later became one of the challengers in the Nov. 6 council race. But the council took no further official action, and Romero apologized.

City Attorney Patrick Tang will look into Kelly's complaint and report back to the council, which will decide what, if any, action to take.

De Vera also said that recent reports about her in this newspaper had triggered "hateful" comments on blogs and that "some of the comments have become racial slurs."

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