Hanford · Highlight

“Atmosphere” of harassment by ex-Councilman exposes Hanford to $1.25mil claim

Feb. 1, 2021 – The Hanford City Council is set to meet in closed session Tuesday to discuss the potential lawsuit that precipitated the resignation of now-former councilman Art Brieno.

Hanford Community Development Director Darlene Mata filed a claim against the City alleging that she was subjected to continued harassment from Brieno over the last year. 

Following the claim, the city commissioned an independent investigation into the allegations. 

A Jan. 6 claim filed by Rachele Berglund, Mata’s attorney, to the city details the various allegations. 

Last week, Berglund said Brieno had told some people that he “did not trust a woman to hold the job of Community Development Director, that a man was better suited for that job, and that he did not know how a woman got that job over a man.” 

According to the claim, an independent investigation initiated by City officials revealed that the gender harassment was just a small part of a much larger problem.

Last June, City Manager Mario Cifuentez emailed City Attorney Mario Zamora saying that Mata had just left his office “in tears” because she knew Brieno would “be upset with her” over a work task that she had to perform. 

“This man (Brieno) is creating an atmosphere where she can’t even feel comfortable performing her daily duties,” Cifuentez wrote. 

The investigative report revealed further workplace harassment as well as an invasion of privacy. 

Brieno reportedly told other individuals that he wanted Mata to be fired and made negative comments about her at multiple council meetings. 

Brieno also told another person that Mata was on stress leave, which Berglund points to as an invasion of privacy. 

The claim also details an incident when Brieno wrongfully disclosed Mata’s confidential personnel information. 

“On July 13, 2020, City Attorney Ty Mizote was compelled to email Brieno as a follow-up to their July 10, 2020 meeting reminding him, ‘statements of a personal nature [Mata’s medical condition] should not be made about City staff at public meetings; and a City staff member should not be discipline or terminated for following the law,’” the claim reads. 

Per the claim, Berglund noted that Brieno’s conduct was a clear violation of the City Council Handbook. 

The handbook states that councilmembers should “refrain at all times from rude and derogatory remarks, public criticism of staff, remarks as to integrity, abusive comments and statement as to motives of personalities.” 

Berglund said that Mata is prepared to go forward with a lawsuit against the city, but she would prefer a settlement to resolve the situation “quietly and informally.” 

As of the January claim, Mata requested the following as terms of the settlement: 

  • The immediate resignation of Brieno
  • Competent harassment training for all councilmembers
  • A payment in the amount of $1.25 million

Since Brieno stepped down due to “health reasons,” Mata has already had one of her demands met. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s closed session meeting, the City of Hanford released the following statement on Monday: 

“On January 20, 2021, Hanford City Council Member Arthur Brieno was notified that the Council would consider alleged misconduct by Mr. Brieno at a January 26, 2021 Council meeting. Prior to the Council’s discussion of the matter, and the possible censure of Mr. Brieno, Mr. Brieno resigned from his position on the Hanford City Council, citing health reasons. 

“The alleged misconduct was related to a complaint filed by a City employee for harassment and other conduct on the part of Mr. Brieno. After receiving the employee’s complaint, the City commissioned an independent investigation, which was performed by an outside party. The results of the investigation were shared with Mr. Brieno. 

“The City Council condemns discrimination in all forms and will not tolerate such conduct by City officials, including Coucil Members, its employees, or anyone for that matter. 

“The City Council expects its members to accord the utmost courtesy to City employees. 

“The City values each of its employees of all different genders, races, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations.” 

Jan. 28, 2021 – Details behind the abrupt exit of former Hanford City Council member Art Brieno are slowly being revealed.

Thursday night, an attorney for Darlene Mata, a high-ranking public official in the City of Hanford administration, previewed at the findings of an investigation conducted by Hanford’s City Attorney featuring a number of salacious details of harassment waged by the now-former Councilman.

Mata, who serves as Community Development Director for the city, has been on leave from city service over the targeted harassment of Brieno.

Among the claims, Brieno told unspecified people that he “did not trust a woman to hold the job of Community Development director, that a man was better suited for that job, and that he did not know how a woman got that job over a man,” per a statement from Mata’s attorney, Rachele Berglund.

Brieno also disclosed key personnel and medical records to others and publicly ridiculed an employee’s performance – usually a move taken up in a closed session discussion among the City Council.

Mata’s lawyer stepped forward Thursday to squash media-made claims that Brieno’s ouster stemmed from a dispute over code enforcement of an auto repair business with ties to Brieno – pointing instead to a wide range of harassment and discrimination issues rooted in Brieno’s conduct.

Berglund, Mata’s attorney, notes that there is work underway to resolve the on-going legal issues between her client and the City of Hanford.

This story will be updated.

The San Joaquin Valley Sun
Staff reports from The San Joaquin Valley Sun staff.