The sudden termination of Merced’s city attorney went unexplained Tuesday, with city officials saying only that Jennifer McGrath would receive a severance payment under terms of the contract that brought her to town just two months ago.
The City Council voted unanimously during a closed-door session Monday to terminate McGrath’s service. Members gave no explanation for the decision.
McGrath, the former city attorney for Huntington Beach, was hired by Merced in March. Under her contract, she will be entitled to a severance package of six months of salary, medical and other benefits, according to city spokesman Mike Conway. Details of the severance are still being negotiated, he said.
McGrath, who has more than 20 years of experience in municipal law, was set to make $180,000 annually in Merced.
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Conway said he could not discuss why McGrath’s contract was terminated, citing personnel issues.
Councilmen contacted Tuesday by the Sun-Star also said they could not discuss their decision. Multiple members of the council confirmed Monday’s closed session meeting was the only time they’d met to evaluate McGrath’s contract since she was hired.
Reached by phone Tuesday, McGrath told the Sun-Star she could not comment on the council’s decision.
McGrath, 47, is the second city attorney to leave Merced unexpectedly. She replaced Randolph Hom, who quit on Dec. 20, after just nine months in Merced to accept a better-paying position in Cupertino.
The council on Monday appointed Chief Deputy City Attorney Kelly C. Fincher to serve as the interim. Fincher makes $126,188 in annual salary and it has not been decided whether she’ll earn more in the interim job, Conway said.
“This has been a fast-moving action,” Conway said Tuesday. “So, council hasn’t been looking at the replacement beyond the interim.”
McGrath was chosen following a three-month search led by Roseville-based consulting firm Bob Murray and Associates. It is the same firm that found Hom, as well as Steve Carrigan, who became Merced’s city manager in January.
After two abrupt exits by city attorneys, Councilman Michael Belluomini said he would be dubious about using Murray and Associates again. “I think it’s time to let somebody else do the searching,” he said Tuesday.
McGrath came to Merced after serving as city attorney in Huntington Beach, a position that is an elected office. McGrath first won election there in 2002, and was re-elected multiple times even after a high-profile DUI conviction. She was arrested in 2005 and pleaded guilty, according to the Orange County Register. In November 2014, she lost a re-election bid to Michael Gates.
Mayor Stan Thurston brushed off any question about whether the instability in the city attorney’s office affects Merced’s development or day-to-day happenings.
The city and county recently have been in and out of discussions on a tax-sharing agreement, which city leaders have said is necessary for development. Fincher, the attorney appointed to succeed McGrath on an interim basis, is the wife of Merced County Counsel James Fincher, but Thurston said that would not be an issue for the tax-sharing negotiations.
“Kelly (Fincher) would not be involved in that agreement,” Thurston said. “I’m sure there’s no real conflict, but there’s always the perception. For that reason alone, she won’t be part of that legal analysis.”
Thurston said the city also will consider hiring an acting city attorney until it can find a full-time replacement.