Hollister council names interim manager

Faced with public outcry over revelations of the settlement of an Iowa sexual harassment lawsuit against its choice for a new city manager, the Hollister City Council voted 4-1 Nov. 4 to hire Paul Eckert on an interim basis only.

The surprise decision, with council member and mayoral candidate Honor Spencer casting the only “no” vote, followed a nearly one-hour executive session, a 10-minute speech by Eckert defending his reputation and three anti-Eckert comments by Hollister residents.

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said last month the council had reached a rare “consensus” on its top choice to replace Bill Avera, who is retiring as city manager Nov. 13.

Last week’s council agenda named that top choice, and reported the council would be voting Nov 4 to hire Eckert.

The agenda said Paul Eckert “has proven able to perform the duties of the city manager in a professional and competent manner and … was determined to be the most qualified applicant in an open recruitment for the position of city manager for the city of Hollister.”

When it came time to vote, Vice Mayor Marty Richman presented a motion  “to hire Mr. Eckert as the interim city manager, pending the study of additional documentation by the city council.” Councilmember Rolan Resendiz, an ally of Velazquez often at odds with Richman, seconded the vice mayor’s motion. The mayor and the other council members offered no comments.

The council approved a $15,000 monthly salary for the new interim city manager.

Prior to the vote, Eckert began a speech “to introduce myself,” but after four minutes explaining how his qualifications and experience “aligned” him with the Hollister city manager position, he spent the next six minutes explaining his views on the settlement of a lawsuit filed against him in 2013 in Sioux City, Iowa. That lawsuit was settled in 2015 for $300,000, and cost the city an estimated $1 million in legal fees. Eckert left the Sioux City city manager position less than a month after that.

“It’s an extraordinary privilege to be considered, either for a permanent or interim position here,” Eckert told the council at the Nov. 4 meeting before the vote.

Social media reaction

A report of the Sioux City lawsuit and settlement by the Free Lance in sanbenito.com on Nov.1 ignited a social media firestorm, and prompted the public comments at the council meeting.

Cheryl Vaughn Booth of Hollister told the council, “If this council votes for him to be our new city manager, they are sending the message to every woman that works for the city of Hollister, every woman that lives in Hollister, that you do not believe women.”

“I find it very disturbing that we are even considering hiring this gentleman,” Salvador Mora told the council. 

Council members did not say what additional information they would be examining, or how or when they would begin their study. Richman suggested the decision whether to remove the word “interim” from Eckert’s title would be contingent on the results of the council study.

Earlier on Nov. 4, Velazquez had said, in response to Free Lance questions, that the council and its search firm had thoroughly reviewed Eckert’s background before reaching a consensus to hire him. Richman, who with Velazquez comprised the ad hoc council committee, said council members interviewed six finalists, including one woman, for the city manager position.

Velazquez said the council asked Eckert no questions about the Sioux City lawsuit settlement in his interview, but added that more details may have been distributed to council members after the interviews.

Selection process

Speaking to the public at the council meeting, Eckert said, “The council conducted a very thorough selection process.”

In his introduction, the Gridley, Calif., city administrator said, “I believe my alignment is very strong with your needs, particularly working with city councils. I’ve worked with councils that had very divergent viewpoints and perspectives, and I was successful… in bringing the council together and bringing the community together and the staff together and accomplishing great things.”

In discussing the lawsuit, Eckert said of the woman who accused him of four years of sexual harassment and of a retaliatory demotion: “I had no idea who that person was—the person was three or four people down in the organization…an organization of 750 employees.”

He characterized the lawsuit as a “retaliation” claim. He said at the council meeting that the 2004 report clearing him of any wrongdoing “could not be found, and ..[because] they couldn’t identify or describe the process that was utilized nine years before … the council decided to settle the claim.”

“I can tell you that the council were very supportive of me,” he said. “They did not want to see me leave.”

Eckert had been city manager of Sioux City for 11 years, and assistant city manager for 5 years before that.

Withdrew as candidate

Eckert was hired for the top administrative position in Gridley in 2016, and was city manager of Mount Shasta, Calif., population 3,200, from 2013 to 2018, according to his LinkedIn biography.

He was finance director in Morgan Hill from 1995 to 1997 and held prior administrative positions in three other California cities—Paradise, Foster City and Santa Paula.

Eckert holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Cal State East Bay. He is a Marine Corps veteran.

In Sioux City, Brittany Scott, an administrative assistant in the city public works department, alleged she experienced retaliation for previous complaints that Eckert had sexually harassed her for four years, beginning in 2000. She said the city had failed to follow its own policies about harassment and retaliation.

She said in her lawsuit that she endured roughly four years of unprofessional emails and unwelcome attempts by Eckert to get her to go out on dates and have an affair with him.

Four years of allegations

The Sioux City Journal reported that the harassment ended after two city council members investigating a separate sexual harassment allegation against Eckert questioned her.

Scott alleges that after that conversation Eckert arranged for her transfer to another department, a demotion and reduction of her position to part time, a move that cost Scott her health insurance and other benefits, the Journal reported.

“(Eckert) is vindictive, retaliatory and a master manipulator who covers up his misconduct very effectively,” Scott said in a complaint filed in January 2013 with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, before filing the federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.

Eckert denied all of her allegations. 

“These retaliation charges are baseless, and we will resist them vigorously,” he told the newspaper at the time. 

The July 2015 settlement in U.S. District Court “resolved all of Scott’s claims” and ordered the city to pay her damages and attorney fees.

In his LinkedIn profile, Hollister’s final city manager candidate described himself as an “entrepreneurial leader of large and small cities with populations of 85,000 to 5,000.”

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