Morro Bay continued to move forward on a controversial personnel matter with a vote on Sept. 24 that may lead to the firing of the city’s two highest paid employees: the city manager and city attorney.
A dust storm kicked up after Mayor Jamie Irons called a special meeting for Sept. 12, where the council met in closed session to discuss personnel matters. At that meeting, the council was met with a hostile public that used public comment period to call out council members for backroom antics, with many of those speaking in support of City Manager Andrea Lueker and City Attorney Rob Schultz.
The tone of the Sept. 24 meeting was a little different, however, as council members considered hiring an outside attorney to consult with the city in the matter. Before an eventual 3-1 vote, with councilwoman Nancy Johnson absent, to hire the attorney, the council saw a more leveled reaction from the public. The council spent three hours on the issue, largely devoted to public comment from a large audience that had plenty of residents standing along the back walls and no shortage of Acapulco shirts. Some residents voiced their support for the council’s judgment; some didn’t.
“I know there are plenty of people who are in support of your decisions. We voted overwhelmingly for you to represent us. We had an election, but unfortunately some people can’t face the truth. They were not elected,” said Morro Bay resident Linda Merrill.
As the specific discussion on the issue is restricted to closed session, the details at play are somewhat foggy. Still, there’s been no shortage of speculation and accusations. Residents spoke of a history of mismanagement in the handling of plans for a new wastewater treatment plant, how leases along the harbor have been distributed, and general charges of cronyism. Built-up discontent among the city populace created a shift in political winds after the 2012 election saw a new majority voted in. That included Mayor Irons. Just weeks before the new council took over, the previous council—including outgoing mayor Bill Yates—voted to adjust contracts for the city attorney and city manager, extending their severance pay from six months to nine months in the event that either employee is fired.
Those who voiced support for the council saw the potential firing as a form of house cleaning, serving as an essential part of the new direction of the city. While that may be the case, said other residents, the way in which the matter has been handled so far raises suspicions.
“You’ve won. Take the ball and run with it. But now you’ve got this pot boiling like crazy. Look at this crowd, this is ridiculous,” former mayor Yates said to Mayor Irons. “You put things on [the agenda]; you take things off; you’re acting like a king.”
Because the council is considering firing its city attorney, hiring an outside attorney was considered necessary in order to get sound legal advice to decrease the likelihood of legal challenges. The council approved doing so, allocating $12,500—or 50 hours at $250 an hour—for the contract. The mayor and another council member will select a firm for the council to approve at a later date. Councilmembers Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler joined Irons in voting for the hiring, with George Leage opposing. The vote illustrated a line that will likely be drawn throughout this issue.
“This minority group thinks it is their sandbox that they can control. They lost that control in the election of 2012, and they will do anything they can to get it back,” said resident Dorothy Cutter.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay