COMMERCE — The City Council has voted to spend more than $28,000 to buy out the contract of part-time Public Works Director Manuel (Manny) Jimenez, who triggered a controversy when he retired in 1986 and was rehired at a higher daily salary.
City Administrator Louis Shepard said the council decided to buy out Jimenez to free the position and hire a full-time public works director with a civil engineering degree who can also double as city engineer. Currently, Commerce contracts with the county for engineering tasks, Shepard said.
"It's a little confusing to have an individual under contract while you're recruiting for the position," Shepard said.
The action was taken in closed session April 6 and announced publicly at Monday night's City Council meeting. The city paid Jimenez $28,400 for the remainder of his two-year contract, which was to expire Jan. 19, 1988, Finance Director John Mitsuuchi said.
The City Council voted 4 to 1 to buy out Jimenez, with Councilman Robert J. Cornejo casting the dissenting vote.
Full-Time Engineer Needed
Councilwoman Ruth R. Aldaco said: "I felt very strongly that the city really needs a full-time engineer, more so now with all the redevelopment going on." Adding that she was unhappy with Jimenez's part-time status, she said: "He's only here one day a week, and that's very ineffective."
While Cornejo supported the idea of hiring a full-time public works director/city engineer, he lashed out at the council for what he called a "gross misuse of public funds."
"Certainly $28,000 is nothing to sneeze at," Cornejo said. "There was no need to terminate the man immediately."
Although the need to hire a full-time civil engineer was the official reason given for buying him out, Jimenez said in an interview that the City Council had contemplated firing him last month on the grounds that some public works projects had not proceeded as quickly as planned.
But Jimenez said he presented a report indicating that his department had completed $1.45-million worth of projects from the time he was hired part-time through March 20, 1987. Jimenez also said he was instrumental in securing a county-administered $1.4-million storm drain project for the city.
"I told them, try to terminate on incompetency and I'm going to sue the city," Jimenez said. "I've proven through my report I saved the city money and got a lot of projects done." Jimenez said he was willing to continue working for Commerce under the terms of his contract and could have assisted the engineer the city plans to hire. He called the buyout a "misuse of public funds," and suggested it could become an election issue next year when the terms of council members Cornejo, Arturo Marquez and Michael V. Guerra expire.
Jimenez said he plans to run for City Council and he charged that Aldaco and James B. Dimas had spearheaded the effort to remove him to weaken his chances of being elected.
"They have others within their camp that they want to bring in," Jimenez said. "Their political machine is on the move."
Dimas could not be reached for comment, but Aldaco said the only reason she voted to buy out Jimenez was because the city would benefit from having a public works director who also is a civil engineer. "Anybody has a right to run for election," she said.
Jimenez, 61, had been the city's director of public works for 17 years when he startled council members in the fall of 1985 by disclosing that he wanted to retire.
The City Council put together a plan to keep the knowledgeable Jimenez around as long as possible by extending a two-year contract that paid him more money per workday than he earned as a full-time employee.
Under the contract, Jimenez earned $35,000 for 90 days of work a year. He was still eligible to collect all of his retirement income under the plan. As a part-time employee, Jimenez's daily pay was $389, not including his $17,160-a-year retirement pay.
When Jimenez was working full time for Commerce, he earned $50,470 plus between $30,000 and $35,000 in benefits--roughly $327 in salary and benefits per day.
The City Council, which then was composed of Councilmen Dimas, Cornejo, Guerra, Marquez and former Councilman Lawrence R. Maese, unanimously approved hiring Jimenez.
Big Savings Cited
At the time, the City Council justified the action, saying Jimenez would secure county, state and federal funding for public works projects and save city taxpayers perhaps millions of dollars. About 28 public works projects valued at up to $23 million were in progress and the council members said they feared some of those would come to a halt if Jimenez were to leave the city.
The contract became an election issue as Dimas and Maese sought reelection last year. Dimas won reelection but Maese was defeated by Aldaco, who attacked the action as a misuse of public funds. Aldaco said the city should have hired a full-time employee.
Marquez also had expressed concern about the amount Jimenez would be paid. Both he and Guerra voted to rehire Jimenez but objected to the two-year contract. Marquez predicted in 1986 that a new City Council would have to buy out Jimenez if his services were no longer desired.
"Mr. Jimenez was doing a lot for the city at the time," Marquez said this week. "I believed he was doing a good job but he should have been (hired) at an hourly rate. As I said back then, this agreement was . . . just something out of this world."