L.A. awards fired transit chief $95,000
Los Angeles’ recently ousted transportation chief was quietly awarded $95,000 by two members of the city’s claims board on Monday after contending that she was wrongfully fired by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Gloria Jeff was terminated from her $208,000-a-year job on Sept. 28. At the time, Villaraigosa said that he wanted to take the department in a “new direction.”
But it was well-known in City Hall that the mayor, several City Council members and some transportation department employees had been unhappy with her performance.
Represented by noted civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, Jeff filed her wrongful termination claim against the city five days ago, a required prelude for anyone threatening to proceed with a lawsuit. Several days before, Jeff had also asked the City Council to exercise its authority to reinstate her.
News of the settlement left some on the council fuming.
Because the amount falls below $100,000, it cannot be withdrawn or revised by the 15-member council. And it nullifies Jeff’s council appeal, an action that had been expected to be publicly debated this week.
“This is outrageous,” said Councilman Dennis Zine, who identified himself as being one of several council members to complain about Jeff to the mayor. “It makes us look like fools,” he said.
Zine was particularly incensed because city officials have recently been telling the public that the city is in a financial crisis. He believes the settlement undercuts such statements and weakens the mayor’s right to hire and fire his executive staff.
Jeff is African American, and her dismissal was criticized by some in the black community who became upset over the way it was handled -- she was told to resign the next day or be fired. Some were concerned that five other general managers who were black had left the city since the mayor took office in mid-2005.
Four of them subsequently received consulting contracts with the city, including the former head of the animal services department, whom Villaraigosa fired in late 2005.
A Villaraigosa spokesman countered that the mayor has also hired six blacks to prominent positions during his time in office. That includes Jeff’s replacement, Rita Robinson.
“The mayor stands behind his decision to make a leadership change in the Department of Transportation,” said mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo. “Ms. Jeff’s claim is totally without merit.”
The city claims board consists of Chief Assistant City Atty. Gary Geuss, Thomas Saenz, the mayor’s top legal counsel, and Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who said last month that Jeff, hired in March 2006, had “done miracles” on transportation issues in his district. The vote was 2-0, with Saenz not in attendance.
Not all City Hall reaction was critical of the agreement.
“It avoids a potential costly lawsuit and it allows the city to move forward and focus on transportation issues that impact every Los Angeles neighborhood,” said Julie Wong, spokeswoman for Council President Eric Garcetti.
Councilwoman Jan Perry, who also had been critical of the way Jeff’s firing was handled, said only that “She has excellent credentials and I have no doubt that she will do well in whatever she chooses to do next.”
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, was also concerned about the settlement.
“The city needs a clear formula based on length of service and quality of performance, to determine what, if anything, people should be paid upon leaving the City,” she said. “As we face budget shortfalls, we need to be thrifty in how we use taxpayer’s dollars.”
Jeff’s sparsely worded three-page claim said she was seeking more than $100,000 for damage to her reputation and “emotions.” Two paragraphs alleged that Jeff was fired because of her advocacy “against certain wasteful expenditures of public funds” but did not elaborate further.
Jeff’s attorneys also filed a four-page letter as part of her appeal to be reinstated by the council.
Allred declined comment on the settlement, only saying that it resolved Jeff’s legal issues with the city. Jeff also declined to comment, only saying, “I am looking for gainful employment.”