Cudahy Hires Ex-Penney's Employee for Top Job

Times Staff Writer

A divided City Council has hired as city manager a former department store controller with one month's experience in public administration, a move that has sparked criticism that the man is unqualified for the job.

The council voted 3 to 1 last week to appoint John Porter, an employee of the J.C. Penney Co. for the past 25 years, as the city's top administrator.

Porter, 42, went to work with the city as finance director last month. He will step up to the city manager post when Gerald Caton, Cudahy's chief administrator since 1982, leaves Sept. 1.

Caton resigned earlier this month after the council voted 3 to 1, with Councilman Joseph Graffio opposed, to buy out the remaining 10 months on his contract for $78,000 in salary and benefits. Caton was paid $60,000 a year to run the mile-square city, which has a population of about 19,000.

According to Caton, the resignation came because he differed on several policy questions with Mayor Faye Dunlap and Councilmen Gabe Zippi and Lynwood Evans.

Caton said he was troubled when the three council members decided to hire Porter and allow the new finance director to act independently of the city manager. In addition, Caton has consistently differed with the trio over their support for a card club planned for the city.

Although Graffio insisted that Caton had been "forced out," Dunlap disagreed and said the council had "no hard feelings for Jerry." Dunlap added, however, that she had been troubled by "a lack of communication" between Caton and the council.

When hired as finance director, Porter was given a five-year contract at $55,000 a year in wages plus a $6,000 annual car allowance and health benefits. Porter will not get a raise when he assumes the role of city manager, Dunlap said.

In comparison, city managers in similar-sized cities in the Southeast area have salaries ranging from $48,000 a year in Maywood to $65,000 in Bell. Most, however, do not have long-term contracts. Instead, they generally have clauses in their employment agreements calling for three to six months severance pay.

Porter was first brought to the council's attention by Zippi. The councilman said his son, Wayne, introduced him to Porter. The new city manager lives near Wayne Zippi in Walnut, a small community in eastern Los Angeles County.

Graffio called the council's decision to hire Porter "a crying shame," maintaining that the new chief administrator does not have enough experience running a city.

"He's probably handled employees at J.C. Penney just fine," Graffio said. "But that has nothing to do with the operation of a city. This is a whole different story. What does he know about getting grants and things like that? Nothing."

In addition, Graffio charged that the hiring of Porter was part of an effort by Dunlap, Zippi and Evans to put a hammerlock on the day-to-day operation of City Hall.

Graffio and Councilman John Robertson, who was on vacation when Porter was hired as city manager last week, have regularly butted heads with their three council colleagues in recent years, particularly over the trio's support of the card club. Robertson could not be reached for comment.

'It Stinks'

Graffio said Porter's five-year contract was too generous for a new employee with no track record in public administration.

"I think it stinks," he said. "Who ever gives a city employee a five-year contract that can't be broken? That's ridiculous. That's never done, never done."

Dunlap dismissed Graffio's allegations, saying she feels Porter will in time prove himself fully capable.

"I think he's going to work out all right," Dunlap said. "He's going to try his best for the city."

Dunlap acknowledged Porter would probably need "a little time" to learn the ropes but said the new city manager's background in private business was only a plus.

"He's not a bureaucrat," Dunlap said. "Maybe we need something like that."

Wider Search Rejected

She said the council considered undertaking a wider search for job candidates but decided against it because it would take three or four months.

Porter, meanwhile, said he was "shocked" by his quick ascent, but feels he can get the job done.

"As far as the specific skills of running a city, I'm not experienced," he said. "But I am experienced in management, in handling personnel and in handling a large operation."

Porter, noting that Cudahy has a smaller budget and fewer employees than several J.C. Penney stores he ran, said many of the skills he learned in private business can be transferred to his new job. Cudahy has an annual budget of more than $4 million.

"I don't think I've ever disappointed anyone I worked for--and I don't think I'll disappoint anyone here," he said.

A native of Puyallup, Wash., Porter attended the University of Washington, receiving a bachelor's degree in political science. He began working with J.C. Penney in high school, starting in sales and working his way up. During more than two decades with the firm, Porter held positions in personnel, operations and financing.

Sought 5-Year Contract

Porter said he asked for a five-year contract because he "needed something to hold onto" before he would give up his job with J.C. Penney.

"I realized the volatile possibilities that exist when dealing with elected officials," he said.

Graffio questioned whether the hiring of Porter was the start of a widespread purge of City Hall employees deemed faithful to Caton, the departing city manager.

Porter said he has no plans to fire anyone. Instead, Porter said he will work to make city employees "feel like they're an important part of the organization."

In addition, Porter said he is eager to work with all five members of the council.

"They're all five paying my salary and I owe all five of them my allegiance," he said.

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