Livingston hires MCAG for planning

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comDecember 20, 2012 

— As the city faces possible litigation from its former head of planning, the council hired an organization during Tuesday's meeting to fill the vacated role.

The Merced County Association of Governments was selected over three other applicants -- Pacific Municipal Consultants, Collins & Schoettler Planning Consultants and Planning Institute, Inc.

Councilman Jim Soria motioned to award the contract to MCAG because they were the most local option. The organization will have to hire an associate planner to cover the position, and council members also liked that they'll have a say in who is brought on board.

The item passed on a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza and Councilman David Mendoza voting "no."

The arrangement the city assembled for its work with MCAG calls for a one-year contract with the cost to the city not to exceed $60,000 for the next six months, said City Attorney Jose Sanchez. That figure will be revisited when the fiscal year ends.

City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez said the costs could be much lower, especially during months with less activity. However, the city does have some potential projects on the horizon, and Ramirez wants to make sure there's adequate funding if they come through.

Two residents spoke on the item Tuesday night. One questioned whether a contract planner was more cost-efficient than a full-time employee and another expressed discontent with only having a planner available at City Hall part time.

The move from a permanent planner to a consulting firm hasn't sat well with all city officials and residents.

Ramirez said former Community Development Director Donna Kenney was laid off along with three other city employees to help balance the budget.

But before the decision was made during an August council meeting, Kenney pointed out that when the city used a contract planner in 2004 and 2005 rather than a permanent employee, the cost was about $20,000 a month, and when Kenney was hired, that cost dropped to less than $6,000 a month.

"The city's financial situation will not improve by replacing the permanent community development director with a less-educated or more-costly contract planner," Kenney said during the August meeting.

The layoffs passed on a 3-2 vote. Both council members who voted against the action are no longer on the dais. Planning commissioners and several residents also expressed their displeasure with Kenney's dismissal.

Kenney filed a claim against the city, saying she was laid off because of her race and for refusing to carry out unethical actions on behalf of officials.

That claim was denied on a 4-0 vote Tuesday as part of the city's consent calendar, which is reserved for items that are routine or noncontroversial. Espinoza recused himself from the vote because he's named in the claim.

Kenney and Barry Bennett, her Fresno-based attorney, are looking for more than $100,000 in lost wages, benefits and other damages. They have six months to file an action in court.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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