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New Carson Administrator Caught Up in Controversy Before He Even Got the Job

May 17, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Even before Richard Gunnarson's appointment as Carson's new city administrator had been made official, he was the subject of council infighting.

On Monday, council members Sylvia Muise and Tom Mills walked out in protest of the closed session where Gunnarson, who retired as community development director in 1983, was selected for the city's top job.

Afterward, in open session, Muise said she had not been fully informed about all the candidates, blasted the selection process as "disgusting" and said "there is some question in my mind as to the reasons that Mr. Gunnarson left the city of Carson" four years ago.

Mills said the three council members backing Gunnarson--Mayor Kay Calas, Mayor Pro Tem Vera Robles DeWitt and Michael Mitoma--had operated in a "clandestine fashion" that was "a travesty to all decency and a mockery of any type of fair play." He characterized council chambers as a "kangaroo court."

No 'Time to Hop'

"I'm sorry. I didn't have time to hop a few times," retorted Calas, who in turn accused Muise and Mills of operating the same way in the past.

In contentious Carson--where the first letter of the city's name often seems to stand for controversy and where the council ousted City Administrator John Dangleis last week--the alacrity with which political combat developed over Gunnarson appears to have set some sort of record, in his mind at least.

"Dangleis at least had a honeymoon," Gunnarson said wryly.

In the city's 19-year history, four council members have been convicted of charges ranging from soliciting bribes to mail fraud and extortion and two other council members have been recalled. All four men who served as city administrator left their jobs involuntarily.

Council Divided

The current council is divided into two bitterly opposed factions, with Calas, DeWitt and Mitoma in one group and Muise and Mills in the other.

The intensity of Carson's political warfare comes as no surprise to Gunnarson, 61, a native of Torrance, who is no stranger to Carson.

Reportedly a victim in the most celebrated case of Carson corruption--a trial linking former Councilman Walter J. (Jake) Egan to a spreading statewide political scandal--Gunnarson said he regards his return to Carson city government as vindication.

"I have a lot of blood and sweat invested in the city," said Gunnarson, who will be paid $84,000 on a one-year contract.

Forced out of city government in 1983 after 15 years of service, reportedly because he opposed a proposal that led to Egan's indictment, Gunnarson goes back to the very beginning of the city.

He was the second employee to go on the payroll when the city incorporated in 1968. Hired by E. Frederick Bien, the first city administrator, Gunnarson became the city's first community development director.

He said in an interview that he recalled the early days when council meetings lasted until 3 and 4 a.m. and staff did not receive any time off in compensation.

During the next 15 years, Gunnarson helped write the city's general plan and began redevelopment projects in blighted areas. In addition, he was involved in planning the privately owned Carson Mall, the Sheriff's Department station, the City Hall and the Community Center.

Pride in Progress

"I take great pride in the progress that was made," he said.

In October, 1981, after a post-election council realignment, the council insisted that Bien retire for reasons that have never been fully explained and Bien's misfortune became Gunnarson's opportunity--at least in the short run.

Gunnarson was named city administrator on an interim basis and sought the job permanently. But he lasted only eight months before he was replaced by Ray Meador in 1982.

Meador's selection figured prominently last summer in the political corruption trial of Egan, who was convicted on mail fraud and extortion charges and is serving a one-year prison sentence on Terminal Island.

Ties to Moriarty

The trial, which dwarfed the earlier, purely local Carson scandals, grew out of a widespread federal and state investigation into the activities of convicted political corrupter W. Patrick Moriarty. Moriarty, a fireworks and development businessman who pleaded guilty to seven counts of mail fraud, is serving a seven-year sentence. He is assisting investigators in what has been called the worst political scandal in California in 30 years.

Gunnarson was a prosecution witness in the Egan trial. When asked last week about Muise's reference to questions about the reasons he left city government in 1983, Gunnarson said, "My reference (for integrity) will be the U. S. Attorney's Office."

He asserted in an interview last week that he was pushed out of Carson government because he opposed Moriarty's plans to build a mobile home park on a prime location on top of a former landfill.

Gunnarson testified in the Egan trial that he had opposed the plans.

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