Hanford

Hanford lawmakers, city face suit by top city official over harassment claims

After failed settlement talks, Hanford Community Development Director Darlene Mata filed a lawsuit against the City of Hanford and Council members Art Brieno and Francisco Ramirez over harassment and discrimination allegations. 

Last January, Mata filed a government claim against the city, seeking $1.25 million in damages and Brieno’s resignation. 

That led to the city to commission an independent investigation into the allegations, which detailed several instances of harassment. 

Brieno initially resigned from the council in late January 2021, only to return to the dais in February to rescind his resignation on the basis that he never made it official in writing to the city clerk. 

Brieno and the council then rejected Mata’s $1.25 million claim, leading to a year of negotiations that ultimately culminated in the lawsuit. 

As detailed in the lawsuit, Mata submitted her first complaints against Brieno in July 2019, alleging illegal treatment of her. 

In July 2020, Brieno publicly said Mata was “heavy handed,” which was followed up by a warning from the city attorney to the councilman reminding him that statements of a personal nature should not be made about city staff at council meetings. 

In total, Mata made 16 allegations against the city and Brieno regarding gender harassment, invasion of privacy, unlawful disclosure of confidential personnel information and unauthorized disclosure of medical records and retaliation. 

As noted in the lawsuit, the city’s independent investigation confirmed 14 of the allegations were supported by evidence. 

While Mata has been away from her job on an extended medical leave of absence since November 2020, she claims the city did not attempt to contact her until April 2021 to notify her that she had used up all of her Family and Medical Leave Act time. 

The city council censured Brieno in March 2021 following the investigation, and by late June, Ramirez and Brieno started advocating for the censure to be lifted. 

“As officers and agents of the CITY, BRIENO and RAMIREZ continue to undermine and discredit MATA and the neutral investigation. As recently as March 1, 2022 and during the open session of a City Council meeting, RAMIREZ requested an early reorganization of the City Council, presumably removing the current Mayor – an outspoken opponent of Brieno’s illegal treatment of MATA – from her seat as Mayor,” the lawsuit reads. 

“At this same open session meeting, BRIENO admitted his mistake was what he told to the neutral investigator. Specifically, ‘I never denied I made some mistakes in the things I said to the investigator that put this [the censure] on me.” 

Mata’s claims against Brieno in the lawsuit were already made public in the investigation. 

One such claim involves Brieno saying that he did not trust a woman to hold Mata’s job and that a man would be better suited for it instead. 

Brieno also told a non-city employee that Mata was away from her job “on stress leave,” wrongfully disclosing her medical information. 

Mata demands a jury trial and seeks damages equalling her loss of earnings, employment benefits and future earnings and benefits.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.