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Bradley Decides to Ask Council to Fire Cunliffe

October 28, 1987|TED VOLLMER and RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writers

Ending months of speculation, Mayor Tom Bradley on Tuesday said he will ask the City Council to immediately fire Sylvia Cunliffe, the embattled head of the city's General Services Department.

If dismissed, Cunliffe--who has been accused of mismanagement, favoritism and other wrongdoings--would become the highest-ranking official ever fired under current City Charter provisions. She has been on paid leave from her $90,243-a-year job since June.

Bradley told a press conference that he decided to seek Cunliffe's firing after "carefully reviewing" allegations against her contained in a report by the city attorney's office. The mayor said he also studied a 54-page rebuttal and 20 other documents submitted by attorney Godfrey Isaac, who until Monday represented Cunliffe. Isaac could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Defends Vagueness

Refusing to be more specific about the allegations, Bradley said, "I've concluded that the only responsible action that can be taken in light of those allegations and her response is for me to discharge her." Defending his vagueness on grounds that the proposed firing is a personnel matter, Bradley added that until the council considers the issue, "it is confidential and must remain so."

A majority of the 15-member council would need to back Bradley's decision to fire Cunliffe, whom he appointed to the post in 1979. Numerous council members predicted Tuesday that Bradley's request will be granted, but they also said that the issue could erupt into a major political battle.

"I see the possibility of a major fight on the City Council floor, depending on whether she has some major advocates who are willing to stand up for her," said Councilwoman Joy Picus.

Councilmen Joel Wachs and Gilbert Lindsay, both identified in the past as strong Cunliffe backers, said, however, that they have not yet decided how they will vote.

Could Lead to Lawsuit

Because a firing could lead to a lawsuit, council members also predicted that most of the discussions will be conducted behind closed doors. The actual vote must be conducted in open session.

Bradley's action comes more than a month after he said he would seek Cunliffe's dismissal unless the city attorney's accusations were refuted. The mayor, at the same time, invited Cunliffe to defend herself, which she did in the written rebuttal submitted last week.

Cunliffe, 54, was notified by letter of Bradley's recommendation. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Cunliffe has denied any impropriety and has decried the moves against her.

Although specifics were unavailable, a key accusation against Cunliffe appeared to involve her reprisals against Robert O'Neill, a real estate officer in Cunliffe's department. O'Neill made several anonymous telephone calls on a city hot line in which he accused Cunliffe of improprieties, including her renting of a city-owned house to an employee of Street Scene, a downtown festival.

Forwards Charges

Cunliffe discovered that O'Neill had made the calls, and sent memos to Bradley and the council charging that O'Neill had an arrest record and was an alcoholic. O'Neill said the arrests occurred when he was a teen-ager and that he has been in an alcoholic recovery program for 20 years. He said city officials were aware of his past.

City and state laws prohibit officials from taking action against so-called "whistle-blowers" who expose government abuses.

Cunliffe, who has held her post since 1979, has also been accused of mismanagement and favoring friends and relatives in the awarding of city contracts.

In addition to the city disciplinary actions, Cunliffe faces criminal penalties. Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Sowders said Tuesday that an investigation is continuing and that a decision on whether to prosecute Cunliffe will be made independently of any actions taken by the city.

Bradley's move sets in motion a potentially complex and largely untested set of procedures.

Council's Options

Under the city Charter, Bradley must forward his recommendations to the council and attach all documentation he used in reaching his decision. Deputy City Atty. Arthur Walsh said the council may either agree to fire Cunliffe or reinstate her; it cannot modify the recommended penalty.

But Walsh told reporters the charter is unclear on whether the council and Bradley could work out a compromise short of actual firing that could avert a lengthy court battle. It also is unclear whether Bradley could simply suspend Cunliffe a second time if the council overrides his recommendation to fire her.

Although council members did not appear to relish the task of deciding Cunliffe's fate, most of those interviewed Tuesday predicted that she ultimately will be fired.

"Mrs. Cunliffe has her supporters, and I imagine they'll still be supporting her. . . . I haven't done a head count," said Councilman Mike Woo, who favors Cunliffe's removal. "But I think there is probably majority support for the mayor's action."

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