LIVINGSTON — LIVINGSTON -- The city is facing a potential legal battle from its former community development director, who claims she was laid off because of her race and for refusing to carry out unethical actions on behalf of officials.
Donna Kenney, 54, was one of those let go by the city following a 3-2 vote by the council in August that approved a budget with four layoffs. Now she's filed a claim against the city for lost wages, benefits and other damages.
During that August meeting, Kenney was one of several people who spoke out against the layoffs. She argued that the city's plan to switch from a permanent planner to a contract planner would be more expensive and less efficient.
Kenney claims City Hall turned into a hostile work environment after the tumultuous 2010 recall that ousted a mayor and councilwoman over high utility rate increases.
"It's my option that the city manager is allowing the mayor to create a hostile work environment," Kenney said. "There are a lot of things that feed into that." Kenney, who is white, claims her race played a role in her termination. City officials say that's not the case.
"Partly, I was concerned that of the department heads and city staff that was being replaced -- the majority tended to be white people being replaced by Hispanic people -- and I felt that was part of the mayor's plan," Kenney said. "The mayor did make promises to clean house after the recall election."
Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza denied claims that Kenney was asked to do anything unethical. He said race isn't a factor, and that the city hires the most qualified candidates after thorough vetting processes.
Livingston's leadership has been through significant change over the past couple years.
Doug Dunford was replaced as the city's police chief by Ruben Chavez. Richard Warne was replaced as city manager by Jose Antonio Ramirez. City Attorney Jon Hobbs resigned and was replaced by Jose Sanchez. Kathryn Reyes, public works superintendent, left the city for another job and was replaced by Humberto Molina. Assistant City Manager and Finance Director Vickie Lewis retired and was replaced by Odi Ortiz.
Livingston City Attorney Jose Sanchez declined to comment on the matter since it's a claim against the city.
But City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez claimed Kenney wasn't laid off because of her race and wasn't asked to do anything unethical. "Absolutely not," Ramirez said. "Race, color, gender, sexual orientation does not matter. We treat everyone with ultimate respect."
"After much budgetary analysis, the layoffs were something that needed to be done," he said. "Hard times were upon us and we had to make some very difficult decisions," Ramirez said.
Fresno-based attorney Barry Bennett is representing Kenney. He maintains that his client was laid off because of her age, race and gender. He claims Kenney was pressured by city leaders to take unethical actions.
"She was under a lot of pressure to do favors for certain people and wouldn't do it," Bennett said. "She believed that if she had done what the council wanted her to do, it would have violated her responsibility to the city."
Bennett said the city had several choices when it came to making cuts to the budget, and he thinks discriminatory factors influenced the decision.
Kenney's claim against the city is slated to be denied under the consent calendar section of today's agenda. If the council denies the claim, Kenney and her attorney have six months to file an action in court. Though no specific dollar amount was given, Kenney is looking for more than $100,000 in damages, according to the complaint.
According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics make up the majority of Livingston's population at 73.1 percent. Asians make up 17 percent, non-Hispanic whites 8 percent, Native Americans 2.7 percent and blacks 0.8 percent.
Today's regular council meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 1416 C St., Livingston.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.