Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi accused of improper email search, sexual harassment

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi speaks to members of the City Council on Oct. 19.
Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi speaks to members of the City Council during their meeting on Oct. 19.
(Screenshot by Matt Szabo)

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi has been accused of asking City Chief Information Officer Behzad Zamanian to conduct an improper email search, the latest controversy at Surf City’s City Hall as Election Day fast approaches.

Chi was also accused of sexual harassment earlier this year by a former secretary who claimed that he improperly hugged her, though she took a settlement before an investigation was completed.

A Sept. 29 letter from Zamanian’s attorney, Daniel Rashtian, to Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates alleged that Chi ordered Zamanian to conduct a search of Gates’ emails on or about Sept. 11.

“The search ordered by Mr. Chi was an extremely invasive search that would require Mr. Zamanian to open up all of your emails,” the letter to Gates read. “Mr. Zamanian refused to perform such a search without your approval.”

Chi said Tuesday that neither he nor the city did anything wrong. He said he was asked by City Councilman Mike Posey to look into the situation.

“It’s accurate that I asked [Zamanian] to look for the emails,” Chi said. “He told me he did the search and there was nothing … and I consistently told him to only do it if he was comfortable. He told me he was fine with it.”

Chi said the city had public records requests to release any emails Gates might have sent, which were referring to a conflict Gates was having with the Huntington Beach City School District. There was a concern that Gates might have been inappropriately using city letterhead in his correspondence with the district, though he denied those charges Tuesday.

“After many searches and requests performed six months ago, neither my office nor the school district were able to locate any such letter,” Gates said. “That charge was proven untrue. The city attorney office emails are highly privileged and confidential, private attorney communications and work product that belong to the client city, and out of the reach of individual council members on political errands.”

Chi reiterated that there was nothing improper in asking Zamanian to look into possible emails, but the situation quickly escalated. The letter alleges that Chi and Assistant City Manager Travis Hopkins attempted to force Zamanian to resign during a group meeting on Sept. 22. He was then asked to sign a separation agreement and voluntarily resign on Oct. 30, the letter alleges.

Zamanian, who was put on administrative leave, is also alleging age discrimination and that Chi attempted to force him to take an early retirement incentive plan when he wasn’t interested in doing so.

“There are several complaints that Mr. Zamanian and his attorney have raised, as part of an ongoing dialogue regarding his employment status with the city,” Chi said. “Any individual can allege what they would like to allege. As we continue to work through the issue, given that it’s an ongoing personnel manner and we’re in discussions with Mr. Zamanian and his attorney, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Chi’s former secretary, whose name is being withheld, alleged that Chi created a hostile work environment due to his constant hugs. She ended up recanting her accusation in exchange for six months paid leave from her job before resigning in August.

Chi denied any inappropriate actions and said the city was going to investigate before the secretary asked for the settlement.

“We started the investigation, but the very next day after she filed the complaint, her union reps called us and said she wants to negotiate a settlement to leave,” Chi said.

He added that the secretary was the subject of two investigations for improper conduct prior to her allegations against him.

Gates said his conflict with the school district was over a gate that he installed behind his home so his children could enter the campus of Seacliff Elementary School. He installed the gate by removing a portion of chain-link fence, which he said had been erected to keep the homeless population off school property.

Gates said he eventually took the gate out and put the fence back in.

“People still access it today by climbing the chain-link fence, but the gate has been out for months now,” he said. “We dealt with this over six months ago, and it’s all put back to status quo, what it was before.”

The allegations against Chi surfaced just days after interim Police Chief Kelly Rodriguez resigned, citing political divisiveness within the city and the police department. Earlier this month, the Huntington Beach Police Managers Assn. endorsed a political mailer that was highly critical of three Democratic candidates for City Council — Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Oscar Rodriguez.

Kelly Rodriguez, who was appointed after Robert Handy’s retirement, cites political division as a reason for stepping down as the Huntington Beach Police Department’s interim police chief.

“Shortly after Chief Rodriguez took charge, the PMA, independently, and without consultation with Chief Rodriguez, chose to enter the political arena to help preserve law and order in Huntington Beach,” PMA President David Deresynski wrote in a letter to Chi and City Council members on Monday. “We considered many factors, including public safety concerns, then made the tough decision to endorse a mailer which opposes three City Council candidates who we believed did not share our organizational values or support department or community interests.”

In the letter, Deresynski said sources have indicated to him that City Council members with differing views conspired to coerce Chief Rodriguez to publicly denounce the PMA, and she was told that if she refused, she would be forced out of her interim position. Deresynski wrote that those actions “have significantly destabilized the police department.”

Councilwoman Kim Carr, named in similar allegations on social media last week that she had collaborated with Chi to get Rodriguez replaced, denied them on Friday.

“Absolutely not true,” Carr said. “I never said anything like that to Oliver, and I never would. That would be completely inappropriate. Quite honestly, City Council doesn’t have that kind of power.”

Carr said the last she had heard was that Rodriguez was going to be interim chief until a replacement was found.

“Her decision not to get in the middle of an internal political fight is totally her call,” Carr said. “I haven’t talked to her about it ... For people on Facebook who want to paint a different picture, that’s not uncommon. I’m used to getting attacked on Facebook because I’m a Democrat.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said Tuesday that she believes the current situation reflects the increased power that public safety unions play in the workings of government, both locally and statewide, and that decreasing their role in elections would benefit everyone.

“Election season is usually fraught with politically charged rhetoric,” said Semeta, who is not running for a second term on City Council. “With the frustrations of COVID this year, the situation seems even more heightened. Despite all the allegations being made, the important priorities are being handled at City Hall.

“It would have been my strong preference to have Kelly Rodriguez continue as the interim police chief because she is eminently qualified for that position. But I trust her when she tells me that the police management team who will remain is absolutely qualified to keep our city safe, whatever comes our way.”

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