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Commerce Public Works Chief : Official's New Status Sparks Election Issue

January 30, 1986|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

COMMERCE — Manuel (Manny) Jimenez was just too valuable to lose, according to city officials. So, by the time Jimenez officially retired last week as Commerce's 17-year director of public works, the City Council had devised an unusual way to keep him around at least a little longer.

In a series of moves destined to become an issue in the April 8 municipal election, the council unanimously voted to create a new post of "part-time" public works director, install Jimenez in the job and pay him $35,000 annually although he will work only 90 days a year. That way he will still be eligible to collect all of his retirement income.

Now, the "retired" Jimenez will receive more money for each day of city labor than he did when he was a full-time employee and drawing an annual salary of $50,470 plus between $30,000 and $35,000 in benefits. As a part-time employee, his daily pay will be $389--not including his $17,160-a-year retirement pay; as a full-time employee he made roughly $327 in salary and benefits.

City officials contend that the arrangement will nevertheless save Commerce taxpayers perhaps millions of dollars. And they insist Jimenez's new two-year contract isn't the kind of "golden parachute" that private business sometimes uses to soften the landing of favored employees headed into retirement or simply out the door.

Fortunate to Have Him

"Some people get paid for doing something and some people get paid for what they know," Mayor James B. Dimas Sr. said this week. Jimenez is "getting paid for what he knows and the contacts (he has). We're very fortunate that we have him aboard. If we just let him go, all (of the city's current public works) projects could be dropped."

Councilman Arturo Marquez agreed: "I think he's a very valuable asset to the city and to our community. He is working on a lot of projects with the county, getting us funding for the street and highway programs that are needed . . . I personally didn't want to see him retire."

But Marquez acknowledged that Jimenez's sizable salary and limited work schedule have already raised a few eyebrows in this "working-class community," where the average household income is roughly half of what the part-time public works director will receive.

"I'm amazed that (other media) and you guys didn't get hold of it sooner," Marquez told a Times reporter.

One of 2 Incumbents

Indeed, Dimas said: "This is a political year and I'm (one of two incumbents) up for reelection. (The other incumbent is Councilman Lawrence R. Maese.) Naturally, the opposition has gotten hold of this and made a mountain out of a molehill."

Council candidate Ruben C. Batres said he and challenger Ruth R. Aldaco believe that it is important to raise the Jimenez rehiring to voters. "For the amount of money that they're paying him," Batres said, "the city should hire someone on a full-time basis."

"I think it's a misuse of public funds," Aldaco said. She said that while she has nothing against Jimenez personally, she also objects to the way the council paid him for unused sick leave. When another city official retired last fall, she said, the employee was only granted sick leave pay after agreeing to serve the city as an unpaid consultant.

The 60-year-old Jimenez, in the meantime, said in an interview that he never meant to become a focal point of controversy. "It's too bad all this had to happen in an election year."

Jimenez said he had sought to retire "with the intention of taking a rest and, in two years from now, run for council." But when he disclosed last fall that he planned to step down, council members "were flabbergasted," he recounted. "They said, 'What are we going to do with all these projects? . . . What would it take?' " to keep him on the job.

Job Offered in November

So, in November, the council voted 5 to 0 to offer the part-time job, which Jimenez agreed to accept.

Even though Commerce pays Los Angeles County to take care of most of its 60 miles of streets, Jimenez's department has a staff of about 40 employees and is also responsible for maintaining the city water system.

"In our city right now, I would rank (the department) No. 1" in importance, Dimas said.

About 28 road projects, valued at up to $23 million, are in progress or "on the drawing board," Jimenez said.

Of the $37 million in work he has guided during his tenure, he said, "In at least 50% of all those projects, I brought money into the city . . . I have the ability to put out applications (for state and federal road-building grants) and bring money in.

"First you find out where the funding is and then present it (in a way that interests) the neighboring agencies," Jimenez explained.

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