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Throwing Bad Money After Bad

For the privilege of getting rid of its longtime city manager, the city of Yorba Linda gets to dig deep. According to the interim city manager, Dan Miller, the city has nothing in the regular budget to cover the cost of severance for his fired predecessor, Arthur C. Simonian. So, says the city, it is going to its reserves.

To buy out Simonian, it will pay an estimated $322,000 in severance, which includes $162,400 for 60 weeks of accumulated sick time. That’s almost 2% of its annual $17-million city budget. It’s a good thing one-time items like this do not come along that often. It’s like a storm that blew out the budget for cleaning up the branches and downed tree limbs.

This is a storm that might have been avoided. A bare City Council majority got rid of its longtime official following the finding of a special investigator that Simonian had awarded himself at least $300,000 in unauthorized bonuses and other perks since 1984. This, despite the assertion of the ousted manager that the City Council had approved his compensation and that terms were spelled out in his employment contracts.

The dispute has led to a flurry of lawsuits, the city seeking to recoup the money it says was taken and Simonian suing for wrongful termination.

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It ought to count for something that the district attorney’s office has reviewed the allegations and declined to prosecute Simonian. It says that benefits could be allowable under very broad terms of contracts.

This would seem to suggest that some honest differences of interpretation concerning the contract were possible. If there had been clear wrongdoing, it would have made sense for the district attorney to prosecute. It seems much more likely that this is a case of overly broad language and loopholes, which the city itself signed off on. If that was the case, the proper remedy would have been to tighten things up the next time with Simonian, and be sure that the city was protected in any pending negotiations with city officials.

The way it is now, it is going to cost the city more than he was accused of taking to get rid of him. This is expensive damage control.

Then there is the matter of the audiotapes of a closed-door council meeting on Sept 7. It turns out that the tapes are critical to Simonian’s case, but there are gaps in them. According to the city’s special counsel for the investigation, there were mechanical problems with the recorder. That leaves gaps in the record of the time when council members were briefed on an audit. Clearly, the city needs to get a grip.

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