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Is Hughson city manager villain or victim?

HUGHSON — Two very different pictures of city government — neither of them flattering — emerged Tuesday.

One painted terminated Hughson City Manager Joe Donabed as a stubborn, tyrannical boss who forced his employees to do work they weren't qualified for, forbade them to talk to City Council members and then spied on them.

The other depicted a network of deceit and manipulation by a City Council hell-bent on removing a strong, responsible leader.

A divided City Council voted 3-2 on Monday night to begin termination proceedings against Donabed. A final vote will take place in 30 days, as required by Donabed's contract.

Donabed said Tuesday he didn't think he should comment on the situation. He was in Fresno, visiting his brother.

Hughson director of planning and building Thom Clark is serving as interim city manager for the town of 5,000, best known for its fruit and nut festival in the spring and abundance of orchards.

Clark did not want to comment on the politics surrounding his new title, but said city business was proceeding Tuesday, including paving to wrap up a downtown street project and getting ready to start work on a $15 million waste-water treatment plant.

"We're professionals here," he said. "The city's in good hands."

Despite the silence from the top, some employees and a union leader said Donabed's ouster was past due.

Doug Gorman, a union representative for two city employee groups, said Donabed fostered a negative work environment that resulted in a number of complaints.

Gorman said Donabed forced workers to do jobs outside of their classifications and then started video and audiotaping them, claiming a criminal investigation was under way. Donabed also forbade them from talking to council members, Gorman said.

"(Union) members started noticing that phone lines started to beep," he said. "It appeared to us the city was wiretapping our employees to see who was talking to the council." Gorman said he took photographs of recording devices, including a desk clock that "had a lens in it that could record what was going on."

Union files complaint

Gorman said the union filed a complaint with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

Undersheriff William Heyne confirmed Tuesday his department has an investigation going on in Hughson, but said he could not elaborate on its nature.

"I'm hoping that somewhere soon we're going to see a change in how they treat their employees," Gorman said.

Finance Director Debbie Paul said Monday's decision did not take city employees by surprise.

"We viewed Joe moving his stuff out of his office a couple of days last week," she said, adding that Tuesday's mood around City Hall was one of relief.

Donabed's supporters, however, described the council vote as a step back for the city.

Planning Commissioner Candice Steelman said Donabed and his staff had done a lot to bring order and leadership to the city, getting projects finished and instilling a sense of accountability.

"He was trying to bring Hughson out of the Stone Age into a more professional way of doing things," she said.

Steelman obtained a January recording of Councilmen Thom Crowder and Doug Humphreys venting in the council chamber about sen-ior city employees, including Donabed, City Clerk Mary Heminger and Public Works Director David Chase. They're on tape because they were speaking near microphones at the council dais during a break from a regular meeting.

"Thom's on there saying he wants to put people back in that he trusts that he worked with before," Steelman said. "He's just doing whatever he wants, and I don't think that's in the best interest of Hughson."

Heminger has since resigned; Chase remains on the city payroll but is on leave, Humphreys said Tuesday.

"It's not disciplinary in any way," Humphreys said about Chase's leave.

Paul, who also is heard on the tape, said she was unaware the January conversation was being recorded because it took place while the meeting was in recess.

"I filed a police report," she said. "Recording somebody without their knowledge or consent is a violation."

At Monday's meeting, Crowder, who has been on the council on and off since the 1990s, asked staff to provide him with a copy of the recording. After the meeting, he said he could not comment on the council's action because it's a personnel issue. He could not be reached Tuesday.

Dismissal 'isn't complete'

Regarding Donabed's dismissal, Humphreys said Tuesday, "I think the only comment I have is things will prove themselves out over time."

He said the upheaval in city government has been a distraction. "I don't know where it all comes from, but a fair number of our employees are unhappy."

Humphreys said Steelman's claim that the council has people in mind to fill its top management positions is "absolutely ridiculous."

"This (dismissal) action isn't complete," he said. "If and when it is, I think we would be remiss if we didn't hire somebody outside the city to do a search and recruit."

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

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