Citrus board pushes Woods’ residency issue to Attorney General
It was courtroom drama at Tuesday’s meeting of the Citrus Community College District Board of Trustees.
After dueling presentations by 2 lawyers and emotional appeals from a resident and a trustee, the board voted 3-2 to apply to the California Attorney General requesting to sue longtime board member Gary L. Woods in quo warranto.
Quo warranto is a legal proceeding during which an individual’s right to hold an office is challenged. The board’s vote was based on the conclusion of an ad hoc committee, consisting of board president Sue Keith—who represents Claremont and portions of La Verne and Pomona—and board vice president Patricia Rasmussen, that there is significant doubt as to whether Mr. Woods lives where he claims.
Trouble for Mr. Woods, who has represented Azusa and areas of Duarte since 1982, began at the March 19 board meeting when John Fincher, former president of the Citrus College Faculty Association, questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Woods’ claim that he lives in a one-bedroom unit in the Saldano Senior Village Apartments in Azusa.
Mr. Fincher said he had received a letter earlier in the year from a former mail carrier alleging that, during the many years he delivered mail to Mr. Woods’ Azusa address, the trustee’s mail box would fill up for weeks a time and then suddenly be cleared out. When the letter carrier questioned the apartment manager, he was told the trustee “only used the apartment when he would work late and didn’t want to drive home.”
Mr. Fincher told the board it’s “curious” that Mr. Woods, whose income includes a career as an attorney as well as a position as a Pasadena City College professor, would choose to reside “in a one-bedroom rental, in a senior citizen complex, in a predominately fixed income area.” He went on to note that the California Teacher’s Association, the parent organization for the college’s faculty association, had begun an investigation.
Mr. Fincher said the organization’s sleuthing revealed that Mr. Woods owns an office building and a residence in Pasadena and co-owns a $1.1 million, 3,200-square-foot home in Sierra Madre. He said it also yielded photographic and video footage revealing that Mr. Woods resides in the Sierra Madre residence, leaving there each morning and returning there at night, he said. Mr. Fincher directed the board to view the alleged evidence at a website titled www.firegarywoods.com.
Any elected official is allowed to have multiple residences, Mr. Fincher noted, but under California Elections Code Section 349, you must have your domicile or primary residence in the area you are representing.
Mr. Fincher suggested that the board retain legal council and take steps to “vacate the Azusa position and begin the process to appoint a successor.”
Mr. Woods has denied the allegations from the start, a position he reasserted in an August 28 phone interview with the COURIER.
“I’ve been a resident there for 32 years. I’ve been a registered voter there for 32 years,” he said. “I’ve always gotten everything at my address in Azusa. All my documents go there: my driver’s license, bank statements, taxes, utility bills—no different from anyone who lives in a domicile.”
At their April 2 meeting, the board unanimously voted to obtain legal council regarding the residency issue. Soon after, the board contracted with Chris Keeler, a partner at the Fagan, Friedman & Fulfrost law firm. Since then, there has been a clear split on the board. On May 7, Mr. Woods and board member Edward C. Ortell voted against the formation of the ad hoc committee. On July 13, they voted against extending the committee through September 30. Ms. Keith and Ms. Rasmussen deemed the move necessary because they had not yet received enough information from Mr. Woods’ attorney, George Yin of the Kaufman Legal Group, to create an informed report.
At that same meeting, Mr. Yin cautioned the ad hoc committee to end its investigation and urged the board not to try and force Mr. Woods from his position. He argued that the proper procedure for addressing residency concerns is through the quo warranto process.
“To engage in other, non-legally prescribed proceedings opens the district up to potential lawsuits and ridicule,” Mr. Yin said. “The residents of the district and Mr. Woods deserve better.”
Parties trade accusations
Mr. Yin met with Mr. Keeler on Thursday, September 5 at Mr. Woods’ Azusa residence, allowing Mr. Keeler to investigate the premises and collect enough information for the ad hoc committee to make a recommendation. In anticipation, there was a full house at the most recent board of trustees meeting.
One of the first items on the agenda was public comment, during which time Shawn Millner, one of 4 hopefuls vying to unseat Mr. Woods in the upcoming November 5 local and municipal election, spoke. Emphasizing she was speaking as an Azusa resident rather than as a candidate, Ms. Millner said that the ad hoc committee’s report—which was posted in advance of the gathering along with the rest of the meeting’s agenda—had convinced her that Mr. Woods does not live where he claims. She requested the trustee resign immediately, sparing college stakeholders and Azusa residents from “this saga.”
“I’m confident that the Attorney General’s office will allow this board leave to bring suit against you for the seat you currently hold, and that a judge will further decide what we already know…your interests lie elsewhere as does your domicile,” she said.
Mr. Keeler subsequently gave a summary of the report he prepared for the ad hoc committee. Along with examining an array of documents, from Mr. Woods’ utility bills to bank statements, he shared that he had conducted a limited investigation the week prior to the meeting. During this time, Mr. Keeler said he observed Mr. Woods coming and going from his Sierra Madre residence.
While Mr. Yin presented some documentation that would support Mr. Woods’ alleged Azusa residency, other evidence seems to tell another story, according to Mr. Keeler. The address of Mr. Woods’ Pasadena property is listed on his driver’s license and, while he is in the process of changing his associated address to that of his apartment in Azusa, he only initiated the change on March 21.
Mr. Woods’ records show that he banks in San Gabriel, which is quite a distance from Azusa. Furthermore, while Mr. Woods provided utility bills for his Azusa residence, they were markedly low, Mr. Keeler noted. The trustee’s electric usage was $6.45 in June and $8.95 in July, topping out at $20.10 in August.
Mr. Keeler was careful to note that the evidence is not definitive. He saw Mr. Woods’ apartment firsthand and it did feature furniture, appliances and trappings suggesting that, “in sum, the space could be lived in.” What’s more, documents such as Mr. Woods’ phone bill and tax records provide some of the legal requirements for residency. With room for doubt, he said, the ad hoc committee is opting to take the matter to the Attorney General rather than to oust Mr. Woods from the board.
A board divided
Mr. Woods was silent throughout the board meeting, but that didn’t stop Mr. Ortell, who has been on the board since 1969, from rising to Mr. Woods’ defense.
Mr. Ortell took issue with Mr. Keeler’s description of the board’s approval of the investigation, which he said didn’t portray the split nature of the board’s decisions. He also suggested when Mr. Keeler says evidence “suggests” Mr. Woods doesn’t live in Azusa that he should clarify these conclusions are the result of conjecture.
Mr. Ortell, who called the investigation “a political charade,” insisted that Mr. Yin be allowed to give a counter-presentation immediately. Ms. Keith demurred, noting that Mr. Yin was already scheduled to talk later in the meeting.
Mr. Yin spoke soon after, refuting the conclusions of the ad hoc committee. There is no rule saying that an office holder cannot own real estate in another city, he said. Mr. Woods’ low utility bills, he added, are not indicative of fraud but instead of a busy schedule. Mr. Yin pointed out that Mr. Woods works 2 jobs and volunteers in the community as well as caring for his mother who is in ill health.
It’s little surprise Mr. Woods banks in San Gabriel, given the city’s proximity to Pasadena City College, Mr. Yin said. The attorney also wondered why board members would doubt that Mr. Woods would want to live in his Azusa complex, given that it is safe and well kept.
Mr. Yin said the uncertainty of the ad hoc committee, along with the history of such cases, suggests the board has little chance of winning its suit. He urged the board to spare taxpayers “what is looking more and more like a politically-motivated witch hunt.”
After Mr. Yin’s presentation, Mr. Ortell moved that the board take no further action. He went on to ask the board to repair its frayed relationships.
“Let the voters take their course, and let us get back to doing our job of keeping Citrus one of the finest institutions in the land. That’s my plea—not a vigorous one, but a heartfelt one.”
The board voted 3-2 to appeal to the Attorney General to sue, with Mr. Ortell and Mr. Woods dissenting.
“The subcommittee believes a substantial question exists whether Dr. Woods is a resident of Azusa,” Ms. Keith said. “For this reason, the issue merits consideration by the Attorney General, who is authorized to make an independent determination whether a substantial question about residency exists, and whether a public purpose would be served by a legal challenge to Dr. Woods’ office.”
As of press time, an application had not yet been prepared for the suit.