CALEXICO – As the city of Calexico attempts to “move forward,” several sudden and unexpected decisions of the city council seemed to move the city two steps back. The Calexico City Council voted 3-2 to place City Manager Richard Warne on a 30-day administrative leave, effective immediately, during closed session at a special meeting Tuesday evening.
Warne began as interim city manager on June 25, 2014 and later entered into a contract with the city as permanent city manager on June 17 of this year.
During the council’s closed session, loud voices and shouting echoed from the conference room where the meeting took place. Those waiting in the auditorium were ushered out by Gabriela Garcia, city clerk, until the meeting was concluded.
The recently-appointed interim city attorney, Robert W. Hargreaves, a partner of Best, Best & Krieger, made the announcement, leaving those present in shock.
“City council has authorized issuance of a 30-day notice of intent to terminate the city manager and has advised he leave the premises immediately, and not have further contact with city staff,” announced Hargreaves.
Michael Bostic, interim chief of police, escorted Warne out of city hall at approximately 5:58 p.m.
“All of the work that we have done for the last 14 months is on its way to being undone,” said Warne. “People deserve good government and it’s sad where we are today,” he added.
Voting in favor of his termination were Council Members Armando Real, Luis J. Castro and Mayor Joong Kim, with Council Members Maritza Hurtado and John Moreno voting against the move.
“The most difficult thing to work in this environment is that there is no explanation. The fact is there is a three voting block majority that seems to be Real, Castro and Kim all of the time,” said Hurtado. “To me, having brought in this new law firm without proper process meant that this was intentional and ended up being that way,” added Hurtado.
Among those present were several city employees who feared the action taken and wondered about their own future employment.
“Unfortunately our staff is in a panic. This has created a lot of instability; this is the last thing we need. God help Calexico,” said Hurtado.
In order for the city to continue with insurance coverage, the JPIA requested they create stability. Hiring Warne as permanent city manager fulfilled this requirement until Tuesday evening.
“I am so disappointed by these three council members. I’m not surprised if the JPIA pulls the plug tomorrow leaving us without workers comp and liability insurance,” said Moreno. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to our city, but whatever happens they will be the ones to blame.”
As the city of Calexico attempts to “move forward,” the sudden and unexpected decisions by several council members places the city in danger and without stability, according to several people in attendance.
“I tried contacting the JPIA yesterday to inform them of our decision, and as of right now no one has called me back,” said Joong Kim, Calexico city Mayor.
According to Kim, attempts are being made by Council Member Armando Real and himself in an effort to find alternative insurance companies.
“Our intention is to better the city, but the JPIA doesn’t allow us to fire or hire. They control our every move and we want freedom,” said Kim. “The JPIA isn’t the only insurance agency out there,” he added.
The news spread quickly throughout the city, instigating concern among residents and city employees.
“On my way here, I heard that Warne was fired,” said Daniel Romero, vice chairman of the Calexico planning commission. “I haven’t asked, but I assume the votes for this decision were council members Real, Castro and Kim. You three continue to do things to hurt the city of Calexico. Who knows what is going to happen with the JPIA now with you guys running the city. In that regard, I officially submit my resignation,” Romero said.
Romero was appointed to the planning commission in January by Council Member Real, and was a former mayor for the city.
“Recent incidents with budget issues, the non-transparency of giving council information of millions of dollars in monies that are not accounted for with no explanation raised a red flag. The budget numbers are inflated and we need to get to the bottom of this,” said Real.
Real said he asked Warne on many occasions to perform a forensic audit of the city budget with no results.
“Now that Warne has been placed on leave, we can conduct the audit and see where the city really stands. Who knows, the city could be bankrupt and we don’t even know,” added Real.
Best Best & Krieger is in the process of conducting the audit, hoping they can provide the city council with accurate numbers prior to the 30 days.
“I don’t feel embezzlement is in question, but there are millions of dollars unaccounted for. All I want is answers and to know where the city stands,” said Real.
In the event Warne is fired after his 30-day administration leave, Warne is entitled to eight months of severance pay as stipulated in his contract totaling $132,666.
Weary of the way the council meetings are conducted and the constant arguments between council members and the verbal attacks of residents towards city council, one resident took the podium and addressed the issue.
“Look around ladies and gentlemen, do you see any kids? I see adults and that is how we should behave. It is useless for a priest to invocate a prayer during our meeting. These meetings should be productive, not a war zone and accusational. It is offensive and impolite to use vulgar language when this is a public meeting,” said a resident. “This is a serious council meeting, not a circus.”
In addition to Warne’s administrative leave and Romero’s resignation, council members, including the city mayor, were officially served with recall notices stating the following;
“As an elected official we are to be truthful. Currently, the way the city council operated is truly dysfunctional. The city council should be working as a whole and it isn’t. I firmly believe that a completely new council is the only way the city can be restored. Our city council has failed the city and is no longer repairable. The hate and anger that exists between some council members is being diffused in the decision-making. Our council is concentrating more on the feud than on the citizens. This in turn, is hurting our citizens. Therefore, I believe the only way to fix the situation is to recall all five councilmen/woman. Let’s have a fresh start.”
The recall is being lead by Council Member Real who strongly favors a new city council.
A second “special council meeting” took place the following day, September 16, where board members voted unanimously, 4-0, to appoint city Public Works manager Nick Fenley as acting city manager subsequent to placing city manager Richard Warne on administrative leave the night before.
Fenley has served the city for over 36 years in different positions. Fenley began at the waste water treatment plant as an operator in training and since then has worn many hats within the city including acting city manager in the past.
In an effort to continue with daily city operations, Fenley will hold the position until a permanent city manager is appointed.
“My goal is to be pro-active and not re-active,” said Fenley.
According to Fenley, a group of city council members offered him the position without specifying names.
“The main focus is to keep the day to day operations going, keep my support staff informed of what is going on and focusing on advertisement for a permanent city manager,” added Fenley.
Fenley will continue to oversee the Public Works department.
The second meeting was conducted in a notably passive way.
Council members and Mayor Kim congratulated Fenley and showed much appreciation for his effort to contribute in moving the city of Calexico forward.