Central Valley

Turlock takes aim at ex-city manager

TURLOCK — City officials say they ousted City Manager Tim Kerr last year because he misspent public money and didn't work enough hours, newly filed court records show.

The case, meanwhile, is drawing out tensions between Mayor John Lazar and Councilman Ted Howze, with Howze accusing the mayor of resisting firing Kerr to benefit political friends.

Kerr is suing the city for a retirement contribution of about $37,000 he says was left unpaid when the city fired him in January 2009.

In a cross-complaint, filed in March, the city claims Kerr gave away city money, hired people without getting necessary approval and didn't work full time.

The city claims Kerr directed the Turlock Centennial Committee to spend donations elsewhere, leaving part of a $90,000 loan from the city unpaid.

He also executed employment contracts without council authorization, the lawsuit says, and hired firefighters when the city was in a hiring freeze.

The city claims he only worked about four hours a day, and cites a resolution passed in January 2008 spelling out "standards of accountability" for the job. Though the resolution called for him to be on the job from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days, Kerr "continued to fail to be regularly present in the office, or elsewhere, to conduct city business during normal business hours," the lawsuit says.

Kerr would not comment on the lawsuit, referring calls to attorney Frank Zumwalt. Zumwalt could not be reached.

The lawsuit and the cross-complaint have made issues public that have been going on in closed-session council meetings for two years.

Councilman Howze, in an opinion piece published in the Turlock Journal, charged that Mayor Lazar resisted firing Kerr because some of the city manager's actions helped the mayor.

Conflict of interest?

Howze said one of the people Kerr fired was Lazar's former campaign manager, and that a liquor license Kerr approved for the Vintage Lounge benefited Lazar, the real estate agent on the transaction.

"Contrary to the widely rumored belief that the discourse amongst the Turlock City Council is ideologically motivated, the true divisive factor has always been nothing more than a difference between doing right and wrong," Howze wrote.

Later editions of the newspaper have included letters from people — including La- zar's boss, Bob Endsley — defending and supporting the mayor.

Lazar said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit, but that he took issue with what Howze had to say.

"I don't agree with his conduct and his comments, and we just have to agree to disagree," Lazar said.

He faulted Howze for bringing closed-session items into the public purview. Howze said it's fair game because as part of the lawsuit, it's in the public record.

"I'm certain there'll be future discussions about that," Lazar said. "This conduct's been on going for four years."

Distraction from other issues

Both men said the dispute and back-and-forth have been a distraction from the tough issues the city is facing, especially the budget, which is short $3.5 million. And both said that's where the focus needs to be.

"Obviously, we have more important matters ahead of us," Lazar said. "We have a budget to focus on, city streets and roads, and we want to maintain public safety."

Howze said whatever differences exist among the council don't come into play when making big budget decisions.

"When it comes to our fi- duciary responsibility, I take it deadly seriously," Howze said. "And this has been going on behind the scenes for two years — amongst us, it's not something new."

There's one other area in which Howze and Lazar agree:

The voters will have the final say over who's right in November. Neither man has announced plans to seek re-election, though Howze said rumors he's planning to run for mayor are untrue.

"Ultimately, I believe it's going to have to be decided at the ballot box," Lazar said.

"I don't think it's ever going to be behind us until a set of elections determines the outcome," Howze said. "I think it's going to take a complete turnover in political structure to right the ship."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.