Los Banos makes firing-rule switch

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 22, 2013 

— The City Council only will need three votes to terminate the contract of a city manager effective Saturday.

Since 1959, Los Banos has needed a supermajority — a minimum of four votes — to fire the person in charge of city staff.

Mayor Mike Villalta said the change in policy to the Municipal Code makes city law match the contract of City Manager Steve Carrigan, who was hired in April with that stipulation in his agreement.

"Most cities have three-vote dismissals. This is something we should have changed years ago," Villalta said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove said the issue came up in March when the city was searching for a replacement for former City Manager Steve Rath. Stonegrove said the city's hiring consultant and the city attorney informed the council that most California cities allow for a simple majority vote to replace a city manager.

"It was a policy decision," she said. "We went in (the ordinance) and cleaned up a lot of language."

Stonegrove said some of the items changed, besides the number of votes it takes to terminate a city manager's contract, include allowing the person in the job to live outside the city limit and making the position gender neutral.

Councilman Tom Faria said he supported the change, which was unanimously approved June 5, because it makes the city manager and the council more responsive to the people.

"I think it's a correction of a long-standing problem," Faria said. "If you think about it, under the 4-1 (vote), two councilmen can meet without violating the Brown Act, so a minority can protect a city manager."

Not everyone agrees with the council's decision.

Former Mayor Michael Amabile said it leaves the position open to political whims.

"The danger of a simple majority is politics getting involved. The final decision could cause a revolving door and cost a lot of money; and your city staff doesn't know which direction to go because the person may not be there (long)," Amabile said. "The council is going down a slippery slope."

Only a procedural change

Amabile, who was mayor from 1994 to 2006, said that when he was in office, his council reaffirmed the 4-1 vote to terminate a city manager's contract and had a policy of waiting three months after an election before a city manager could be replaced.

Los Banos came close to terminating a city manager's contract in 1989 but, instead, then-City Manager David Witter resigned suddenly.

After the nearly $2 million embezzlement by former finance department employee Mary Ann Jones during Rath's tenure, there were members of the public asking that he be fired. No dismissal vote was taken, and a vote of no confidence failed 2-3.

Villalta said the change in the ordinance has nothing to do with Rath or the embezzlement. He said it is only a procedural change that his council believes was appropriate.

"A City Council in the future can change it back if they want to," Villalta said.

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