HUNTINGTON PARK — City Councilmen say it wasn't a single incident that led them to fire Police Chief Geano Contessotto but rather a series of events that divided and embarrassed the small police department.
"The animosities and bickering in the Police Department, and the negative image brought to the community at large, had reached such gigantic proportions," Mayor Thomas E. Jackson said Tuesday morning, that "the council felt that only replacement of the department head could return the city to its prior stability."
After a 1 1/2-hour closed session Monday, the council voted 5-0 to suspend Contessotto immediately, pending dismissal July 24. Four votes were required to remove the police chief.
No official reason was given for the firing, but individual council members said later that Contessotto had ceased to be an effective department head and that he no longer presided over a unified police department.
"A good chief can make a department operate a lot smoother than our department was operating," Councilman Jack W. Parks said. "I'm not saying he wasn't a good chief, but he was having problems."
Contessotto did not return telephone calls Tuesday or Wednesday.
Contessotto and the 48-member department have been under intense public scrutiny since December, when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner charged two former officers with using a stun gun to torture a juvenile they had arrested and were questioning. At the time, Reiner called the department "embarrassing to all of law enforcement" and said his office would look into numerous allegations against the city's police force.
The Police Department also is the subject of several lawsuits alleging brutality.
None of the councilmen could identify a single event that led them to fire Contessotto. They also said they did not fault him for the actions of the two officers who have been charged in the alleged torture. During the closed session Monday, Contessotto argued to keep his job, council members said.
"It all keeps coming up in differing ways, until you say OK, the bucket's full," Councilman Jim Roberts said, referring to problems with the department.
Contessotto will receive two months' pay after his dismissal in July, said Donald L. Jeffers, Huntington Park chief administrative officer. Contessotto, who became police chief in June, 1983, is paid $4,949 per month.
Capt. Charles Plum will act as interim police chief until a replacement for Contessotto is found.
Matters Came to Head
Despite recent charges and accusations, the council had publicly stood behind Contessotto, 40, who grew up in Huntington Park and joined the Police Department as an officer at 22. In private, however, his support waned.
A host of incidents came to a head this week. The driving force behind that effort was Councilman Herbert A. Hennes, who was the first council member to publicly criticize Contessotto.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Feb. 12, Hennes resigned his ceremonial post of mayor, saying he had tired of publicly defending Contessotto and the Police Department, and that he could no longer be a spokesman for "inadequate performance."
During a closed council meeting that lasted more than 5 1/2 hours, Hennes argued that Contessotto was incompetent and should be fired. But the other four councilmen supported the police chief.
"I thought he was incompetent, and I thought he was performing in an inadequate manner," Hennes said Tuesday, calling Contessotto a "poor administrator."
Tension between Hennes and Contessotto surfaced again earlier this month, when Hennes called for a city investigation into his allegations that Contessotto was trying to discredit him. Contessotto has declined to comment on the allegation.
A decision to investigate Hennes' accusations was to be decided at the Monday meeting. The council chose, instead, to fire Contessotto.
Hennes, who said the investigation "will probably go by the boards now," alleged that Contessotto in April told four officers at the police station that he would welcome anything "that would discredit" Hennes.
Although other councilmen said the call for an investigation did not figure into their decision to fire Contessotto, Hennes' allegations combined with various other incidents that presaged the police chief's ouster.
Contessotto suspended Officer Mark Betor for a month without pay in 1985 after an internal investigation by Capt. Martin Simonoff. The report concluded that Betor may have been aware of and participated in an unsuccessful attempt to cash a forged $5,000 check at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens in February, 1985.