Thursday, October 22, 2009
For the past several months, Seaside’s top managers have been taking a verbal beating over their handling of a personnel mash-up at the police department – and a new question has arisen over the hiring of an interim officer.
Now the city’s firefighters are jumping in with a new set of complaints.
Seaside Firefighters Association President Brian Lepai says poor management has left an already minimal department facing layoffs. “We refuse to be placed on the chopping block when there is a clear perception of fiscal mismanagement at City Hall,” he told the City Council Oct. 15, backed by about a dozen firefighters.
“IT’S THE ECONOMY, IT’S THE ECONOMY, IT’S THE ECONOMY.”
But City Manager Ray Corpuz says in the midst of a $2.1 million deficit, pink slips for firefighters and others may be inevitable. The city has already made salary cuts, implemented furloughs and offered early retirements. “We haven’t seen any growth here,” he says. “If we need to, we will have to move to layoffs.”
In February 2008, Seaside voters approved Measure R, a 1-percent sales tax hike that officials had characterized as a public safety measure. The city hired three firefighters shortly after the measure passed, but back-burnered plans to hire nine more and build a new fire station on the former Fort Ord.
“Unfortunately no one’s delivering on any promise because of the recession,” Corpuz says. “We’d be laying off people right now if it weren’t for Measure R.”
Deputy City Manager Daphne Hodgson says the roughly $2 million per year from Measure R goes into the city’s already-tight general fund. She plans to present the first-quarter fiscal report at the Nov. 5 council meeting. “I don’t think it’s going to be a very pretty picture,” she says. “Once you’ve cut all the paper clips and travel to meetings, there isn’t anywhere to go but personnel.”
But Dave Nava, the firefighter association’s vice president, says firefighters have already done everything asked of them: deferred raises, foregone cost-of-living adjustments and changed their overtime structure while expanding their service area. “The leadership at the top should be accountable for some of the reasons we’re in a fiscal deficit, and not point at the fire department,” he says.
Corpuz responds: “I don’t think there’s any mismanagement at City Hall. You can look at our books and see it’s the economy, it’s the economy, it’s the economy. To point fingers is really inappropriate.”
Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around personnel drama at the city’s other public safety branch.
Shortly after placing Police Chief Steve Cercone on paid administrative leave in August, Corpuz hired Steve Willis, a retired Sausalito police chief, to fill in as interim chief. Willis brought in long-time colleague Don MacQuarrie, also of Sausalito, to serve in a position he then characterized as “interim deputy chief.” (MacQuarrie’s business cards listed his title as “deputy chief.”)
As the Weekly first reported Aug. 27, the city may have violated state Peace Officer Standards and Training rules by allowing Willis to assume chief duties before passing a requisite background check. Now, as the Weekly broke online Oct. 19, questions are arising about MacQuarrie.
Last spring, MacQuarrie filed an industrial disability retirement claim on the grounds that work-related injuries left him unable to perform his duties as police captain. Under California Public Employees Retirement System rules, any job taken after disability retirement “must be in a position significantly different from the job in which you were found to be disabled.”
But former SSPD chief Tony Sollecito says he doesn’t see a difference between MacQuarrie’s former position and his current one. “If he is serving as a deputy police chief, that’s a police captain’s job,” he says. “Same duties, same pay.”
MacQuarrie is officially classified as an “interim deputy executive director,” according to city Personnel Services Manager Roberta Greathouse: “He’s what we’re considering to be a nonsworn middle manager doing administrative-type work.”
Willis says he doesn’t have access to MacQuarrie’s retirement information, and MacQuarrie could not be reached for comment.
The questions about MacQuarrie’s disability payments come in the larger context of the SSPD shake-up. Officials are keeping mum on the circumstances that put Cercone and three officers on time-out. The city has retained one outside law firm to provide counsel about the personnel issue, another to investigate Cercone’s conduct, and a third to look into Cercone’s grievance against Corpuz.
At the Oct. 15 council meeting, Carmel resident Albérte Estrada made a reference to an organized movement in support of the ousted chief. “Remove this city manager before he drags you all down with his own complicity,” he said. “Reinstate Chief Cercone without further delay.”
Mayor Ralph Rubio responded to both complaints. To the firefighters he said: “We’re not gonna get out of this without any more layoffs, and that’s becoming more and more evident.”
He then delivered a sharp reprimand to Cercone’s supporters, telling them to wait until the investigations yield facts. “You’re working on rumor, you’re working on half-truths, and you’re working on media hype,” he said. “I’m sorry for being a little irate, but enough is enough.”