Within days after the Hollister City Council backtracked on a commitment to hire Paul Eckert as its new city manager—hiring him instead on an interim basis—even that appointment was increasingly in doubt this week.
Eckert’s job status was to be the subject of another closed-door executive session on Nov. 13, where his hiring was to be reconsidered after just five days on the job. City Manager Bill Avera begins his retirement Nov. 15.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Councilmember Rolan Resendiz.
Resendiz said Wednesday morning that he expected Vice Mayor Marty Richman and Councilmember Honor Spencer to lead an effort that evening to fire Eckert, which Resendiz said he would oppose.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez also said he would oppose any effort to renege on the council’s Oct. 21 unanimous endorsement of a job offer to Eckert.
Richman had proposed the surprise interim appointment of Eckert Nov. 4 “pending the study of additional documentation by the city council.”
Richman declined to discuss what might occur at the Nov. 13 meeting, except to say the council was “going to look at some more documentation” of Eckert’s work history. He declined to be more specific, except to say “there are no restrictions on what we look at.”
Eckert could not be reached for comment.
City Clerk Christine Black said she expected Eckert to attend the executive session.
Eckert signed a 90-day contract as interim city manager on Nov. 6. The mayor signed it on Nov. 8. The contract includes no provision for severance pay.
“It automatically expires when we don’t renew it,” Richman told the Free Lance. Richman stressed that it was an “at-will” contract, which meant that the city could fire Eckert at any time.
Eckert had resigned as city administrator of Gridley, Calif, in late October after being told that the Hollister City Council had reached a consensus at an Oct. 21 closed-door executive session to offer him the job of city manager.
Eckert drove three hours south to attend the Nov. 4 council meeting in Hollister, where he expected to be welcomed in public session, only to be surprised by hearing after another closed-door council session that he would only be hired as an interim manager.
Velazquez said Nov. 8 that he continued to be stunned and disappointed by the council’s last-minute change of heart on hiring Eckert. He and Resendiz said it appeared that a majority of the council—Richman, Spencer and Carole Lenoir—was moving to reject a search consultant’s recommendations and hire a Hollister candidate a city manager. No local candidates were among the six finalists interviewed by the council Oct. 1.
Richman’s interim plan followed a stormy public reaction on social media to Nov. 1 revelations by the Free Lance of a $300,000 settlement, plus $1 million in legal fees, of a federal retaliation lawsuit against Eckert when he was city manager of Sioux City, Iowa.
Hollister city elections are a year away, but mayoral electoral politics—more than Eckert’s lawsuit legacy—may be behind this latest council dispute, according to some council members.
Spencer, who has announced her candidacy to run against Velazquez im 2020, cast the only negative vote on the Nov. 4 offer of an interim city manager position to Eckert.
Spencer ignored repeated requests by the Free Lance to explain why she had changed her position. Her council colleagues said on Oct. 21 she had supported making the job offer to Eckert, then apparently changed her mind after some of Eckert’s lawsuit details became public.
One of the leaders of the anti-Eckert social media torrent, who also spoke against him at the Nov. 4 council meeting, was Elia Salinas, a member of the Hollister Airport Commission and a strong Spender ally.
Velazquez said the council had complete background information from its recruiting consultant and had discussed in private session Eckert’s work history, including the multiple sexual harassment complaints in 2004 in Sioux City that led to the federal retaliation lawsuit and settlement in 2015.
The mayor said last week he had no idea what additional information RIchman and Spencer might be looking for, and that Eckert’s background had been thoroughly discussed by all council members.
Velazquez did say before the Nov. 4 vote that Eckert had not been asked about the sexual harassment complaints or the retaliation lawsuit during his job interview with the council.
The mayor said he took additional steps after the Nov. 4 decision to speak with officials in Sioux City and in Gridley about Eckert, and heard nothing but positive things about their former top administrator. “There’s nothing there,” he said.