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Officials Fear Ill Effects of Public Firing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of a bruising and bitter battle that resulted in the firing of City Manager Tom Frutchey, Oxnard’s top officials and the city’s employees wonder if they will be able to quickly find a replacement and move forward with city business.

The City Council, which voted 3 to 2 Tuesday not to renew Frutchey’s contract, has given him until March 6 to leave his office.

Councilmen John Zaragoza, Bedford Pinkard and Mayor Manuel Lopez voted to fire Frutchey; Councilmen Tom Holden and Dean Maulhardt supported the city manager.

Though Lopez, Pinkard and Zaragoza say the Frutchey affair is water under the bridge, Holden and Maulhardt say it could be hard to leave behind.

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“The question is, where are we headed to?” said Holden, who Wednesday angrily denounced the decision to terminate Frutchey’s contract. “Can we accomplish what’s best for the residents of Oxnard? At this point, I can’t answer that question.”

In addition, city officials must now find a way to mend the wounds created among city staff--some supported Frutchey and others opposed him.

Tuesday night’s session, which included speeches by nearly two dozen city employees, was the first time the Oxnard City Council had given a public review of an employee’s job performance.

“I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of this had to be so public,” said Kyle Stewart, special projects manager for the city. “Right now, we really need to focus on healing. I think it’s going to be very, very hard.”

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Frutchey, 47, requested that all the council’s criticism about his performance be aired publicly, resulting in some brutal remarks by his critics, applause from his supporters and cheering by his opponents when the council voted to fire him.

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The outgoing city manager will receive up to six months paid leave, health benefits, vacation and sick leave, which could total at least $60,000. Frutchey will also receive more than $24,000 in deferred compensation that he has accumulated over the past three years.

Frutchey, who is married and has two daughters, is a graduate of Dartmouth College and received a master’s degree in public policy from UC Berkeley.

He has been criticized by council members, city workers and residents for implementing a restructuring of the work force that replaced departments with programs and department heads with team leaders. That system, critics say, results in a lack of accountability. His supporters maintain it made the bureaucracy more efficient and customer friendly.

Before coming to Oxnard, Frutchey tried to implement new ways of governing and streamlining government services in Northern California that resulted in some controversy.

In 1991, Frutchey worked as city manager of Campbell for 11 months and then was asked to resign, recalled former Campbell Councilman John Ashworth.

“I felt that Tom was a very competent city manager,” said Ashworth, who supported Frutchey. "[But], a council majority had become uncomfortable with his aggressive approach and felt they were not in the loop on some of the policymaking.”

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Frutchey’s apparent decline in popularity among certain Campbell council members began with a proposal he made to consolidate the city’s Fire Department with a larger central fire district, said Ashworth. Although the city approved the proposal after Frutchey had left, at the time it angered some council members and created a public outcry, Ashworth said.

A similar furor was created in Oxnard two years ago when Frutchey proposed that firefighters join the police in patrolling city streets in an attempt to consolidate services. The plan was devised without asking for input from the firefighters, said Bill Gallaher, president of the Oxnard Firefighters Assn.

“It was outrageous,” Gallaher said. “We first found out about it at a meeting where we were told it was going before the council . . . and it was a done deal.” Due to the public outcry and the mayor’s strong opposition, the plan was defeated.

Frutchey’s management style and his bold ideas for reorganizing city government did not sit well with either Lopez or Zaragoza. In explaining why he did not support Frutchey, Lopez said Tuesday night that he had been kept in the dark by the city manager.

“He withholds things from you,” Lopez said. “It seems to me he follows the same philosophy of ‘pay for performance’ with the council members that he wants to do with employees--rewarding those who follow his recommendations but not those who do not.”

For instance, in October Frutchey was criticized by Lopez for signing an agreement with a minor league baseball team without informing the entire council.

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But Holden said that Frutchey made it clear to the council what he was doing and that no significant decision he implemented “was done in a vacuum.”

Holden has been particularly critical of the way Frutchey’s entire job evaluation process was handled, saying that it harks back to 1989 when City Manager David Mora resigned under pressure from the council.

Holden said the way Frutchey was fired, without a formal evaluation and in a highly politicized atmosphere, could set a dangerous precedent.

“Any time there is controversy, are we going to handle it the way we did?” Holden asked. “It doesn’t belong in the political arena, it belongs in the evaluation arena.”

But it was Frutchey who specifically requested that his evaluation be done publicly. The end result was nothing but an ugly, unproductive scene for everyone involved, said former Councilwoman Dorothy Maron, who attended the session.

“It was a very bad thing for him and very bad for the city,” Maron said. “Those are the kinds of things that you say behind closed doors. The worst part about it was that it didn’t have to happen.”

But Frutchey supporter Sherri Paniagua, who works for the city’s code enforcement program, said it was an opportunity to have his side of the story heard.

“It was his last best chance,” said Paniagua, adding that she is apprehensive about the future of the city. “I’m definitely disillusioned. Now I wonder what the repercussions of all of this will be.”


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