City Manager Nicholas Romaniello has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations that he tried to obtain confidential police reports about a candidate in next Tuesday’s City Council election.
After two days of lengthy closed sessions, the council voted 3 to 2 on Tuesday to suspend Romaniello. Assistant City Manager Fred Weiner was named acting city manager.
At the urging of City Atty. Leland Dolley, council members declined to comment on Romaniello’s suspension except to read a statement that said: “The city manager is hereby suspended from his city duties with pay until further action of the council.”
In an internal memo made available to The Times, however, acting Police Chief Ray Lewis charges that Romaniello made several inquiries to police about obtaining what the manager called a “child abuse investigation” report on council candidate Alan West, and that Romaniello had instructed other city employees to do the same, including City Clerk Ron Hart and Fire Chief Larry Sheldon.
West is one of two council candidates who have pledged to seek Romaniello’s firing.
Romaniello declined to comment, as did Hart and Sheldon.
As of Wednesday, no disciplinary action had been taken against Hart or Sheldon who, according to the memo, asked officers about the police report under orders from the city manager.
The memo states that Lewis met with Romaniello to discuss the request for the police files, and that the city manager “confirmed that he was trying to get the information from police files because Alan West was spreading rumors against him.”
“Mr. Romaniello also cautioned me not to blow this thing out of proportion,” Lewis said in the memo.
“At best, the city manager’s conduct was highly unethical in that he compromised his own office and that of the fire chief’s, the city clerk’s, the city attorney’s and also attempted to compromise the Police Department. At worst the city manager’s efforts were an attempt to solicit a commission of a misdemeanor,” the memo said.
Under California law, it is a misdemeanor to release police records of an investigation if no charges are filed. It is also a misdemeanor to release police records pertaining to juveniles.
Lewis’ memo is not specific about the nature of the department’s files on West, but states that there is “nothing pertaining to any illegality or improper conduct on the part of Mr. West.”
Romaniello, who was ordered to leave his office Tuesday afternoon without taking any files or keys, was not available for comment, but in an interview last week said he feared he was “going to be the unfortunate victim of a smear campaign.”
“It’s all about power,” Romaniello said. “The opposition is not concerned with the good things I have done for this city. They just want to get elected and they don’t care how they do it.
“They are going to say all kinds of things about me,” he said, referring to candidates West and Harry Robert Anderson.
Romaniello’s suspension was announced with just one week left in a bitter campaign in which candidates West and Anderson have vowed to join current council members Jack Siadek and Keith Schuldt in firing the city manager. They are challenging incumbents Charles (Chip) Armstrong and Le Synadinos, who support the manager and voted against the suspension.
At the regular council meeting Tuesday night, several hours after the closed special session, Siadek moved to fire Romaniello, but Armstrong, Synadinos, and Carl Jacobson abstained from voting until the matter could be discussed further in an unscheduled private session later in the week.
At a council meeting two weeks ago, Siadek and Schuldt had moved for a vote of no confidence in the city manager, which also failed.
Until Jacobson switched sides and voted for the suspension, the 50-year-old Romaniello, who has been city manager since last May, had had the unflagging support of a council majority that praised his controlled-growth philosophy.
Siadek, Schuldt and the so-called pro-business candidates, however, say his growth-control recommendations, subsequently adopted by the council, have made it difficult to build or operate a profitable business in El Segundo.
A fifth candidate, Robert Stull, has remained neutral regarding the city manager.
After Romaniello’s suspension, Chief Lewis would not make any comment. “It is an extremely sensitive situation and I just can’t say a thing,” Lewis said.
West denied that he has ever been involved in a child abuse investigation. In an interview, he said Romaniello was “trying to get his hands on a stack of reports the police kept when my daughter ran away from home a few times . . . to drag my name through the mud and keep me from being elected.
“There have never been any criminal charges. The whole thing is absurd, and to think he could have ruined my life and my daughter’s if someone had not spoken up.”
Though Romaniello did not appear at Tuesday’s council meeting, his 25-year-old daughter, Sirri Larssen, read a statement defending him against what she called “a slick advertising campaign against my father.”
She said people are spreading false rumors about her father and challenged the audience to “step forward and interrupt me if you can prove any wrongdoings my father has committed.”
Hearing no one, Larssen continued: “There is no response because these claims are lies and you, the citizens of El Segundo, are being manipulated by a bunch of crooked politicians.”
Her comments brought both boos and cheers from the standing-room-only crowd. Though Mayor Armstrong said he would not allow the meeting “to become a political forum,” almost all of the nearly 20 residents who spoke at the meeting endorsed one group of candidates while criticizing the other.
According to one city official, the investigation into Romaniello’s actions will be conducted by the the council, the city attorney and the Police Department.