Pomona Is as Torn as Its Council Over Wilson Ouster

Times Staff Writer

They came in unprecedented numbers. An hour before Monday night's City Council meeting, all 138 seats in the council chambers were filled. An estimated 600 more residents stood outside, listening to the meeting via loudspeakers.

The crowd had come to give the council an earful of community sentiment on its decision last week to fire City Administrator A. J. Wilson. But after more than five hours of praise, criticism, accusations and personal attacks, the only thing clear was that residents were as sharply divided on the issue as their elected officials.

A new council majority, created when Councilman Tomas Ursua took office April 24, voted last week in closed session to oust Wilson after 13 months on the job. Mayor Donna Smith voted against the firing and Councilman Mark Nymeyer walked out of the meeting in protest.

The new council majority justified its decision to fire Wilson by citing his $125,000 salary, his failure to follow council direction and his alleged violations of city hiring policies. Essentially, the three council members said, Pomona needed a new administrator to reflect a new philosophy in city government.

The action instantly polarized the community. Residents formed a group called Citizens for a Positive Pomona to call for Wilson's reinstatement and, failing that, to seek the recall of council members who voted to fire him. The loss of Wilson, they said, would sound the death knell to the troubled city's efforts at revitalization.

"Pomona will cry from within for the loss of (Wilson's) leadership," Rod Tapp, a member of the citizens group, told the council Monday. "The city will be hard-pressed to find an equal."

Called Necessary Step

Other residents, however, contended that Wilson's firing was a necessary step in the city's political evolution. The election of Ursua, they argued, signaled a shift of power in the city from a small clique of influential business interests to a broader constituency that includes minorities and low-income residents threatened by gentrification.

"This is a giant step for Pomona," resident Frank Estrada said. "We're going to stand behind these three people we elected. . . . My vote is worth as much as (that of) anybody with money."

The council's discussion on Monday of Wilson's firing culminated in a motion by Nymeyer to reinstate the administrator. Smith supported him, but council members Ursua, C. L. (Clay) Bryant and Nell Soto reaffirmed their votes to terminate Wilson.

"I don't know that we even have to defend ourselves," Soto said. "We had the right and prerogative to do that. . . . It is clear that the balance of power has shifted on this council. We three think and feel that we are representing the majority of this city. . . . Mr. Wilson was not the Messiah."

Smith countered that the firing of Wilson was unwarranted and unfair.

"He was only here a little over a year," she said. "I hardly think that a year qualifies as a report card for anyone. . . . He wasn't God. Well, no one member of the council up here is God either, though they act like it sometimes."

Supporters of Wilson said they believed that he was the victim of a "power play" by Bryant and other members of the new majority to install a city administration they can control.

"Clearly, members of this council intend to manipulate this city's government and its day-to-day operations," said Detective Raul Camargo, president of the Pomona Police Officers Assn. "The residents of this community, as well as our association, will no longer tolerate your antics and quests for power. . . . This insanity must cease as of now."

After the meeting, members of Citizens for a Positive Pomona said they would mount a drive to recall council members who voted to fire Wilson. Under the state Elections Code, a recall effort may not begin against an elected official within the first 90 days of a term. Ursua joined the council and Bryant was sworn in for his fourth council term on April 24.

First Target

Because of this, members of the citizens group said Soto, who is in the middle of her first four-year term, would be their first target. Soto, in an interview this week, said she believes that the council majority has the support of most Pomona voters and that she is not worried about being recalled.

"I'm not so concerned that I'm going to lose sleep over it," she said.

Residents who sided with the council majority denounced Smith and the would-be recall proponents as "poor losers" for opposing the preference expressed by voters in the March election. Ursua accused Smith of orchestrating community opposition to Wilson's ouster.

'Lack of Respect'

"What you have here is a lack of respect for the democratic process," he said. "I think the (termination) vote was a legitimate vote and I really don't understand why people are not willing to live by it."

Opponents of the council's decision to fire Wilson hailed the administrator's vision of Pomona's future and the confidence and charisma that enabled him to persuade residents, local business people and developers to share his faith in the city's potential.

"I felt so very, very positively about the things we could do here," resident Jean Todd said, adding that the community's enthusiasm died abruptly with Wilson's firing. "I've never see anything disintegrate so fast."

Other residents disagreed.

"I don't think one man is the future of Pomona," Roberto Curiel said. "A. J. Wilson is gone, but he didn't take the future with him."

Wilson's supporters included attorney Christopher Brancart of Pomona Legal Services, who filed suit last year against the city, claiming racial discrimination in the Fire Department's hiring and promotion practices. Brancart lauded Wilson's response to the suit.

'Lost an Ally'

"In two weeks, we were able to reach an agreement that would have taken two years of federal litigation," Brancart said. "The result (was) the most sweeping and progressive affirmative action program of any fire department in Los Angeles County. As a civil rights attorney, I have lost an ally. Mr. Wilson will be missed."

In contrast, Bryant portrayed Wilson as an official who showed flagrant disregard for the law. The councilman has accused Wilson of violating the City Code by hiring Hector Godinez--a former colleague of Wilson's in Santa Ana city government--as his executive assistant in January without the approval of the city's Merit System Commission.

"Wilson has never cared about the law and it finally caused his firing," Bryant said. "He should have been fired 20 times over."

Bryant placed an item on Monday's agenda calling for the council to fire Godinez and file suit against Wilson to reclaim the wages paid to the executive assistant. But when the matter came up early Tuesday morning, the council voted 3-2 against waiving procedural rules that prohibit considering an agenda item after 11 p.m.

Council Pledge

The acrimony that has enveloped city politics since Wilson's firing followed close on the heels of an April 24 pledge by council members to bury their personal differences and work for the common good. Smith noted that relations on the council are so strained that the three majority council members never tell her of their intentions.

"All I know is what I read in the papers," Smith told Bryant, Soto and Ursua at this week's meeting. "I don't know what you're thinking. I can't read your minds. We have to talk. We're not communicating, and it's the people who are losing out."

Although Soto has blamed Smith for fomenting much of the divisiveness in the community, she joined the mayor in calling for unity on the council.

"Unity is the key to progress," Soto said. "Negative attitudes and petty personality clashes have no place in our city government."

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