Hollister City Council votes 3-2 to pay Eckert up to $25k to avoid a lawsuit

The Hollister City Council is starting over in its search for a new city manager. After a month of rare consensus, the council is now more divided than ever.

Ending two turbulent weeks, the council returned to its familiar 3-2 voting pattern on Monday, Nov. 18, approving a $25,000 payment to its former top choice as city manager, in hopes of avoiding a possible lawsuit for reneging on an employment offer.

The split vote came after more protests from a few citizens and extraordinary individual public apologies from the council majority. One frustrated councilmember dropped an F-bomb picked up by an open microphone.

The contents of a resignation letter that Paul Eckert submitted Nov. 15—nine days after he had signed on for a 90-day stint as interim city manager—were not read at the meeting.

In the letter to city attorney Jason Epperson released to the Free Lance Nov. 19, Eckert said: “It’s both regretful and tremendously disappointing that the city manager selection process resulted in incredible professional damage.”

“My strong professional reputation has been destroyed due to political infighting,” he wrote. “It’s abundantly clear to a wide array of Hollister City employees and residents that the real cause of the shocking outcome was the deep-seated conflict among Council members.  Unfortunately, staff can also attest that the events of the past few weeks will further damage the Hollister reputation with professionals in local government.”

During a 30-minute council debate, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Councilmember Rolan Resendiz restated their support for hiring Eckert, despite a $300,000 settlement by Sioux City, Iowa, of an employee lawsuit claiming retaliation over sexual harassment complaints against Eckert.

The mayor and Resendiz, typically in the council minority, then voted against what Resendiz called a “payoff” to Eckert.

The council majority of Vice Mayor Marty Richman and Councilmembers Honor Spencer and Carol Leonoir, whose reversal of support for Eckert one month after agreeing to offer him a “permanent” appointment had sealed his fate, voted in favor of paying Eckert “up to $25,000” in a “General Release and Severance Agreement.”

Typically, severance agreements come into play for involuntary termination, not resignations. The contract that had been signed by Eckert Nov. 6 and by the mayor on Nov. 8 specifically did not include any provision for severance payments.

Brett Miller, Hollister’s assistant city manager and manager of administrative services, began serving as acting city manager last Friday, Nov. 15. He was named acting city manager in one of Bill Avera’s last acts, on his final day as city manager.

Three speakers Monday night repeated criticism of the council’s decision to even consider Eckert for the city’s top administrative position, and criticized the $25,000 payment. A public furor on social media had exploded in response to Free Lance revelations on sanbenito.com Nov. 1 of the controversial lawsuit settlement in connection with the sexual harassment claims against Eckert.

Cheryl Vaughn Booth told the council Monday: “I am interested in maintainng an environment of zero tolerance, of no sexual harassment.” She objected to paying “$25,000 to somebody who didn’t really do anything but bring his baggage here.”

Elia Salinas, a member of the city airport commission, said “It’s sad you guys don’t do your homework. Now you want to reward him?” Her political ally on the council, mayoral candidate Spencer, then voted in favor of the $25,000 payment.

The council had a 10-minute recess after the vote, but not before Spencer could be heard clearly saying, “I can’t believe that I have to be around a bunch of f****** whiny frickin…” before the microphones were disconnected. The statement occurred at the 3-hour, 31-minute, 50-second point of the meeting video, http://hollisterca.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx

Velazquez said he hoped that CPS HR Consulting of Sacramento would continue its work for the city and take a fresh look at candidates, as most council members indicated support for new, more careful hiring process for a new city manager.

Also on Nov. 18, the Gridley, Calif. City Council voted to rehire Eckert as its city administrator, returning him to the position he had quit Oct. 8 to take the Hollister city manager post, Gridley Mayor Bruce Johnson told the Free Lance.

When Eckert arrived at Hollister City Hall Nov. 4, his last official day as Gridley administrator, he expected to be named Hollister city manager, based on an early October job offer from a unanimous council. But after a weekend of social media posts, the council reneged on its offer, and instead offered him an interim position, contingent on a new review of his background.

Eckert met behind closed doors with the council on Nov. 13 and resigned Nov. 15, barely nine days into a 90-day interim contract.

In his Nov. 15 resignation letter, Eckert wrote that “there was never any inappropriate conduct on my part” in Sioux City, Iowa.

Council members continued to decline to discuss the reasons for Eckert’s departure.

Spencer, in response to questions from the Free Lance, said she dropped her support for Eckert “after learning the facts.” At the meeting, Spencer said, “I do apologize to this community. I did not do my homework, and should have done it. I will do a complete background check. I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.”

She and Richman had complained in email responses to Free Lance questions that they had not initially received sufficient background information about Eckert.

“The night Mr. Eckert was offered the job, the same night we interviewed him [Oct. 1] I had no knowledge of the lawsuit [against him] and/or any settlement,” Spencer wrote in an email to the Free Lance. “I did not learn of this until we were in a closed session.”

At Monday’s meeting, Richman said, “I made a mistake. I kind of got ahead of myself. I thought we made a good decision.”

Velazquez and Resendiz said in separate interviews last weekend that the entire council had received extensive background information about Eckert and the lawsuit settlement in October, and had discussed it thoroughly before unanimously agreeing to offer him the $180,000-a-year position.

“Everybody on the council knew exactly what was going on and what was there,” Velazquez said in a Nov. 17 interview.

He said Richman, Spencer and Lenoir were reacting to unfounded allegations about Eckert raised in public meetings by the mayor’s political opponents. Lenoir declined to answer Free Lance questions, but told Monday’s audience, “I do humbly apologize to the community for being inexperienced in hiring a city manager. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”

“You can’t just change your minds because someone is throwing a grenade into the conversation that misleads the public,” the mayor told the Free Lance.

Velazquez said opposition to Eckert is based more on mayoral politics than a candidate’s qualifications.

He told the Free Lance that the council majority “is going to go against whatever I want to do.”

“Had I been against this person, he would be the city manager right now,” Velazquez said in an interview.

In his resignation letter, Eckert warned of future legal actions.

“The political witch-hunt of the last two weeks has everything to do with the city council’s ‘win at all costs’ attitude and total disregard of the damage to innocent bystanders,” he wrote.

“While I will respect our understanding, I will likely take legal action against uninformed persons who slandered me and who are not official members of the City of Hollister.  Similarly, I will follow up with any City of Hollister organizational member who slanders me or breaches our understanding at any time after November 14. The damage to my professional career is very significant.”

Miller, a 10-year city employee, was promoted to administrative services director in 2014. In that role, he has been responsible for all accounting and financial reporting functions including general ledger maintenance, enterprise fund accounting, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, business licensing, cost accounting and capital assets.

He was in charge of the $43 million city budget process including revenue and expenditure forecasting, development, presentations to City Council and citizen groups, and ultimate management and monitoring, according to his LinkedIn post.

It was not revealed whether Miller had been one of the more than two dozen applicants for the city manager position. He was not one of the six finalists interviewed by the council in October, according to council members.

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