LIVINGSTON -- Council members approved the hiring of a new assistant city manager/finance director last week to help keep the city's books in order -- but his work history is less than tidy.
On a 4 to 1 vote, the council approved hiring 39-year-old Odilon Ortiz Jr. to replace Vickie Lewis, who's retiring Oct. 31.
Councilman Frank Vierra voted against the hiring, but declined to go into detail about why he voted the way he did. "I need to talk to the city manager before I say anything," he said.
Though he carries extra baggage from a critical report about his time in Orange Cove, those who know Ortiz maintain that he's always performed his job ethically and was targeted by a former employer for exposing wrongdoings by other city officials.
There wasn't much discussion before the council approved the contract Oct. 4, but Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza did point out that Ortiz's contract calls for significantly less salary than Lewis. "I think it's a good contract -- it's a lot less than Vickie is making," Espinoza said.
Ortiz's three-year contract includes a base salary of $97,680 a year with a benefits package consistent with other management personnel. After seven years in the position, Lewis' base pay totaled $118,728 a year.
As an "at-will" employee, Ortiz can be terminated at any time with or without cause, according to his contract. If he were discharged without cause, he'd be entitled to a severance payment totaling three months salary and continued medical, dental and vision benefits for one month.
Like Livingston City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez, Ortiz worked in both Orange Cove and Firebaugh. He was fired from his position as finance director in 2007 from Orange Cove for having a "bad attitude" and "negative leadership."
Ortiz responded by filing a wrongful termination lawsuit in early 2008, claiming that he was fired for exposing fiscal misconduct by the city. The lawsuit complaint claimed Ortiz began an internal audit of the city after he found evidence of embezzlement by a city employee, despite his supervisor telling him not to take any action.
"While continuing to perform his job, plaintiff (Ortiz) discovered evidence of key employees incorrectly charging the city for personal expenses and failing to refund money spent," according to the wrongful termination complaint, which goes on to state that "he was terminated in retaliation for reporting illegal activities."
Ortiz had to eventually end the lawsuit because he didn't have the financial means to keep it going. He didn't return calls from the Sun-Star seeking comment.
Ramirez, who had previously recommended Ortiz to the council when he was the city manager of Firebaugh, said Ortiz saw wrongdoing when he was in Orange Cove, and made an effort to point it out.
"This is exactly the type of person we want to bring into Livingston," Ramirez said. "He had the fortitude to fight. That speaks volumes in the positive."
Out of five applicants, Ortiz was the best man for the job, Ramirez added. "Mr. Ortiz is a person of high integrity and hard work ethic," he said. "He was the best candidate of the pool."
Councilman Gurpal Samra agreed that they have the right man for the position. "I don’t want a 'yes sir, no sir' type person," he said. "He did what he thought was right for the community as a whole."
In a city with a history of misconduct by officials, Ortiz -- who's expected to start Oct. 21 -- may be the remedy.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.