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Mayor Tries to Oust Police Chief, Resigns

February 15, 1987|RALPH CIPRIANO | Times Staff Writer

HUNTINGTON PARK — Mayor Herbert A. Hennes Jr. asked the City Council Thursday to fire Police Chief Geano Contessotto, but when no council member would back him, Hennes announced he was resigning his ceremonial position as mayor.

Hennes said that for months he has had to publicly defend Contessotto and the Police Department, which is the target of a district attorney's investigation and the subject of a number of lawsuits alleging brutality. Hennes said he no longer wants to serve as the city's official spokesman but will remain on the council.

"At this time I would prefer that someone else be a spokesman for what I consider inadequate performance," Hennes said, reading from a statement while other council members sat in stunned silence.

Long Personnel Session

Hennes read his remarks to the council at approximately 1:15 a.m. Thursday, after it emerged from a closed-door session that began at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and lasted more than 5 1/2 hours.

The special council meeting was called to discuss "consideration of possible employment, discipline or discharge of city personnel," according to a meeting notice.

Charges Held to Be Unfounded

Later Thursday, the other four City Council members released a statement saying they had thoroughly investigated charges made by Hennes against Contessotto. The majority of the charges were found to be unsubstantiated, it said.

The statement was written by Mayor Pro Tem Thomas E. Jackson, who said in an interview that he wrote the statement on behalf of himself and council members Jim Roberts, William Cunningham and Jack W. Parks.

None of the council members would publicly discuss the allegations against Contessotto, and Contessotto declined comment.

Jackson said in his statement that the police chief was called in to answer Hennes' charges during the closed session. "The chief's responses were forthright, and in most instances were backed up with substantial evidence," the statement said. "The bottom line is that the other four members of the council honestly believed that there was not sufficient justification for backing Mayor Hennes' motion" to fire Contessotto.

The council dispute was the first indication of any wavering of support for Contessotto, who in the past has been publicly defended by all five council members.

Hennes, however, said Thursday that he felt compelled to "come out of the closet" and state publicly his objections to Contessotto's performance as chief, even though no other council member would support him.

"I do not believe that he (Contessotto) is in command of the department or knowledgeable of events within the department in a timely manner," Hennes said in his statement.

Four Reasons Given

Hennes listed four other reasons why Contessotto should be fired. He said Contessotto is incapable of "communicating in a positive manner" with city administrators or residents; is unable to use all the abilities of his department's officers, and is not capable of "maintaining a proper liaison with other police agencies."

Finally, Hennes charged that the department's officers were being undermined by a lack of leadership.

"Those dedicated professionals with unblemished records and substantial tenure within our Police Department are being hampered in the performance of duty by ridicule and public derision brought on by circumstances beyond their control and a loss of leadership," Hennes said in his statement.

Jackson, in an interview, said Hennes' remarks to the council had left him stunned. "We're like blood brothers," Jackson said of himself and Hennes. "I have no way of explaining what moved him to go as far with the situation as he did."

Against Him From Beginning

Hennes was the only member of the council who voted against hiring Contessotto in 1983. On Thursday, Hennes said that he wanted the city to hold open competitive exams for the position, which was not done when Contessotto was hired.

Contessotto has been in the public spotlight since December, when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner charged two former department officers with torturing a juvenile with a stun gun. Based on evidence in that case, Reiner said he would investigate the practices of the entire Police Department, which he said was "embarrassing to all of law enforcement."

The department, according to a Times survey last July, had the highest frequency of brutality claims in the Southeast Los Angeles County and Long Beach areas during 1984 and 1985.

Hennes' resignation will be considered by the council at its Tuesday meeting, City Clerk Marilyn A. Boyette said. The council could not accept Hennes' resignation Thursday because the meeting was called solely to discuss personnel matters, Boyette said.

The mayor of Huntington Park is appointed by fellow council members and is paid the same $500 a month that other council members receive. However, while council members receive $150 a month for expenses, the mayor receives an extra $25 a month, Boyette said.

Hennes has been on the council since 1970, and has been chosen mayor five times. He was due to step down in April when his year-long term was to expire. The mayor's major duties are to chair council meetings and represent the city at official events, Boyette said.

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