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Peacemaker First, Pioneer Second

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though she is making history as the city’s first Latina city manager, Prisilla Hernandez is trying to keep a low profile.

Before she can relish the role of pioneer, she must find a way to smooth the road for a city struggling in the wake of a bitter battle that resulted in the firing of her boss, Tom Frutchey.

In her role as interim city manager, Hernandez said she must heal the wounds Frutchey’s firing caused among employees and help City Council members find a clear direction they can all agree upon.

Hernandez assumed her new duties on Wednesday, one week after Frutchey was fired on a 3-2 vote after serving about three years as city manager. Councilmen John Zaragoza and Bedford Pinkard and Mayor Manuel Lopez voted to oust Frutchey while Councilmen Tom Holden and Dean Maulhardt strongly opposed his firing.

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Frutchey has been placed on leave of absence, with full pay and benefits, from March 7 through Sept. 6, or until he finds a new job. Frutchey, who earns $110,000 annually, will also receive more than $24,000 in deferred pay.

Hernandez, 46, the soft-spoken daughter of a mill worker, said she has not decided if she will lobby for the permanent position. The council should conduct a wide search for the best-qualified manager, she said.

Taking charge after months of turmoil and debate may be difficult, but Hernandez has strong support from the council, city employees and some residents.

“She is not viewed as someone who would institute major changes unless she is told to do so by the council,” said Mayor Lopez, who complained that Frutchey made decisions without informing the entire council. “She will be someone who will smooth out the rough edges.”

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She says she has not thought about her role as a trailblazer but has received calls from women congratulating her on her new position.

Hernandez, the mother of three, said she hopes to inspire young women to get into public service. “I know that it means a lot to other people” to see a woman city manager, she said. “It’s nice to be a role model.”

Born and raised in Arizona, Hernandez originally planned to be a speech therapist. But on the advice of a friend, she looked into a fellowship in public administration.

Once accepted in the Hispanic Field Fellowship program, she enrolled at Arizona State University and received a master’s degree in public administration in 1985.

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She had never considered public service as a career, Hernandez said, but was soon convinced that it was her calling.

“We have the ability to impact the community in a very real way by improving the quality of life and knowing that you are working with others to really make a difference,” Hernandez said.

After graduation, she worked in several administrative positions in small Arizona cities before becoming manager of the 5,000-resident community of Superior, Ariz., about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix.

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Two years later, the city of Oxnard contacted Hernandez about an opening for assistant city manager. She first rejected the offer, but then decided to give Oxnard a try because some of the city’s innovative programs impressed her.

Those innovations included a new process--spearheaded by Frutchey--that replaced departments with programs and department heads with team leaders. Oxnard’s bureaucracy shrank from 16 departments to nine, and city employees were cut by about 30%.

Hernandez said leaving Arizona was difficult, but she felt that Oxnard could offer her new challenges and a chance to test the new system.

“They really were doing some of the things that other cities had been talking about,” she said.

But now she will have to alter some of Frutchey’s changes that were strongly criticized by some council members.

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For example, Hernandez said department heads may be reinstated because Zaragoza and Lopez have complained that without department heads there is a gap in accountability. The city manager said she will consult carefully with council members on some of the changes they request.

“We need to make sure that we are not getting ahead of the community without letting the community know,” she said. “I really want to hear from the council. I have some ideas of my own, but I think right now is a time to listen and go from there.”

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She will also need to make city employees feel at ease in an environment that has been rife with tension.

“It is a difficult time, but we’re trying to make the transition as smooth as possible,” Hernandez said. She has been in frequent communication with city employees, she said, asking them what they would like to see happen with city government.

She added that the council sent out a letter Thursday to all city employees, saying that regardless of their positions on the Frutchey firing, it was time to move on.

That letter helped boost morale a bit and ease some of the tensions, Hernandez said.

Longtime city employee Ruben Mesa said Hernandez has the backing of most city employees and will do a good job bringing the city together.

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“I would say that Prisilla is very people-oriented,” said Mesa, head of the Solid Waste Division. “During these difficult times, I see her as a big plus in bringing the organization together. Hopefully, she has an opportunity to show what she can do and apply for [the full-time] position. I think she is very capable.”

In the meantime, council members say Hernandez’s main task is to help them clarify city goals so the permanent manager will have a road map to follow.

“I think the focus should be on how is the council going to come together and provide that direction and set policy for the future,” Holden said.


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