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Scandals and Departures in Fontana Feed Staff Turmoil

June 24, 1987|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

FONTANA, Calif. — When Betty Stark arrives at City Hall each day for work, one of the first things she does is count noses.

There have been so many abrupt departures and forced resignations--ranging from the city manager to the treasurer--that the remaining city workers don't know which job they will have to assume next.

"The authority figures have left, leaving more of a burden on us," said Stark, an assistant finance director who has had to temporarily assume the duties of treasurer and finance director. "Without any leaders . . . there is a lot of confusion here."

Cloud Over Their Heads

Five Fontana city officials have stepped down in the last six months amid scandals and squabbles that have made police detectives and auditors almost as common a sight in City Hall as file clerks. Meanwhile, three city councilmen are facing a recall campaign and Mayor Nathan Simon is under investigation for buying property that was slated for redevelopment.

"It's embarrassing," said Gil Meachum, the city's director of general services. "It's a cloud we have over our heads."

The problems began in December when the finance director resigned and police began investigating an alleged scheme to embezzle $140,000 in public funds and sell city-owned vehicles to friends and relatives.

Since then, this Inland Empire community of 59,000 people has lost its city manager, treasurer, development agency director, redevelopment agency director and motor pool supervisor. This has coincided with a wave of residential and commercial development in the city.

The City Council has hired an outside accounting firm, Arthur Young & Co., to audit city government. Results of the audit are due next week.

Officials say the problems have made it hard to steer a responsible course at a time when Fontana is experiencing furious growth in low- and moderate-income housing.

Fueled by the abundance of affordable housing in Fontana, once a smog-ridden community with an economy tied to the Kaiser Steel Corp. mill that closed in 1983, the population has more than doubled in the last seven years and city planners project that 100,000 people will live here by the year 2000. To keep up with the pace, the number of city employees has swelled from 156 people in 1980 to 298.

Now, the city badly wants local jobs for its thousands of new residents, many of whom commute to work in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

While many new industries have come to town in recent years, there is a growing fear that the troubles at City Hall will present such an unflattering image of it as an unstable community that large employers seeking to locate in the Inland Empire might avoid Fontana.

"In spite of everything, we are still getting calls from companies wanting to expand here, although some developers have taken a wait-and-see attitude," said Jennifer Vaughn Blakely, Fontana's acting development agency director. "But if we do not get our act together pretty soon, people will begin to look elsewhere."

Fears Staff Will Quit

Blakely fears that some city staff members may decide to jump ship as well.

"I just hope it doesn't get to the point where people feel there is no hope and say, 'I can't take any more of this; I'm getting out,' " she said.

Some city officials had no choice but to leave.

Finance Director Edwin Leukemeyer's problems began last fall when a city employee who had quit his job told police investigators that officials were selling city-owned vehicles to friends and relatives.

"The investigation started with a minor theft and grew," said Fontana Police Chief Ben Abernathy. "It was like going through a woodpile--every time we picked up a board we found new bugs."

Leukemeyer and motor pool supervisor Gene Maynard both resigned in December. The police investigation is still under way, but Abernathy said his investigators are looking into reports of embezzlement involving more than $140,000 in public funds and several city vehicles. Leukemeyer, Maynard and their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Two weeks ago, the City Council, upset with the situation, forced the resignation of City Manager Jack Ratelle. Ratelle could not be reached for comment.

The retired city manager of La Verne, George Caswell, was hired as interim city manager, or, as one city official put it, "sort of Mr. Fix-it."

Separately, Fontana City Treasurer Ron Hibble was suspended without pay in March after he was charged with perjury and election fraud for listing a garage he owned in Fontana as his legal residence when he filed to run for office. County prosecutors contend that he actually lived in the City of Grand Terrace. That case is scheduled for trial in San Bernardino County Superior Court in August.

Development Agency Director Neil Stone resigned in February for unspecified personal reasons unrelated to any allegations of criminal wrongdoing, city officials said. Similarly, five planning directors have left their posts since 1982 for a variety of reasons, officials said.

Mayor Simon, a retired hardware store owner, has come under investigation by the district attorney's office for purchasing a half-interest in an office building in 1979 that was within a redevelopment area. County prosecutors have not yet determined what action they will take in the matter.

"I did not know it was illegal for us to buy property in a redevelopment area," Simon said. "I have been trying to sell it."

Meanwhile, Simon, along with Councilmen William Kragness and Donald Day, who have been criticized by local residents for, among other things, not exerting enough leadership or control on residential growth, are facing a recall effort.

Michael Collins, 39, a salesman who initiated the recall effort, said he needs at least 3,800 authorized signatures by the third week of August in order to force a recall election. So far, he and a small group of followers have managed to collect about half that number.

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