The Los Angeles City Council, expressing concern about the prospect of expensive litigation as well as the strength of the charges against her, gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a buyout of embattled General Services Department head Sylvia Cunliffe.
The buyout plan, approved by a 10-5 vote, could unravel if Cunliffe does not agree to a companion action cutting off the paid leave of absence she has been on since June 25. Negotiators for the city and Cunliffe are expected to discuss the amended proposal and report back to the council today.
The council's action followed a stormy two-hour debate in which Cunliffe opponents unsuccessfully argued that she be fired as recommended by Mayor Tom Bradley. In a 20-count bill of particulars, Bradley charged Cunliffe with nepotism in the hiring of her relatives, favoritism in the granting of contracts, and improper use of arrest records to discredit an employee-critic.
The buyout package would require Cunliffe to remain on unpaid leave of absence until her 55th birthday on March 4. She then would be required to resign and drop several legal actions now pending against the city. In total, she would receive about $17,600 in unused sick-leave benefits and $10,600 in vacation pay. If the council fired her, she would be ineligible for her sick-leave pay.
The March 4 date would also be the first day Cunliffe could begin drawing her full pension, about 65% of her current $90,243 annual salary.
Council members favoring the buyout pointed out that the city could settle the dispute for less than $30,000, a bargain considering what it might cost if Cunliffe fought her dismissal before the Civil Service Commission and later in the courts.
Councilwoman Joy Picus said the city risked spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay, attorneys' fees and court costs if Cunliffe pursued the case. And expressing doubts that the city would prevail in court, Picus added, "I think even considering (exposing the city to lengthy litigation) is a rotten deal for the City of Los Angeles.
"I think the mayor would have had a helluva time defending some of his 'non-approvals' (of some of Cunliffe's actions)," Picus said, adding that Bradley was Cunliffe's immediate supervisor. "I come down on the side of, 'Let's get rid of it, that the cost is cheap and that what I'm out to protect is the financial integrity of the City of Los Angeles.' "
Others, such as Councilmen Nate Holden and John Ferraro, expressed sympathy for Cunliffe.
Holden said that Cunliffe had been the victim of a "hatchet job."
Opposing any buyout were several council members who said a settlement would expose the council to charges of favoritism because Cunliffe has been with the city more than 30 years. Councilwoman Gloria Molina accused her colleagues of being intimidated by the possible costs of firing her.
"If you can't fire this employee, who are you going to fire?" said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "If she was so sure that she could go into court and get a couple of hundred thousand dollars, then she wouldn't settle for $17,000 in sick time. She'd be a nut to do it.
"I don't think she is going to sue," Yaroslavsky said. "I'm not at all concerned about that at all. I'm saying let the chips fall where they may."
Yaroslavsky voted to oppose the settlement and was joined by Ernani Bernardi, Marvin Braude, Molina and Mike Woo. All five urged the council to fire Cunliffe, although on Nov. 13 Braude and Woo had voted with the majority to explore the possibility of a settlement with Cunliffe.
Specifically, the council-approved settlement called for the following:
- Payment of $10,600 in unused vacation pay, representing about six weeks' pay in all.
- A cash pay-out of $17,600, representing about 50% of her accrued unused sick-leave benefits over the years.
- A dismissal of Cunliffe's worker's compensation claim filed several months ago against the city.
- A dismissal of Cunliffe's lawsuit that seeks to disqualify the city attorney from representing the city in the matter. Cunliffe has argued that a conflict of interest exists because she had been advised several times by the city attorney as a general manager.
- An agreement by Cunliffe not to sue the city or any officials, including the mayor, who may have been involved in investigating her actions.
- The council will return to Bradley, with no action taken, his official letter urging that she be fired. This presumably would bar the mayor from blocking any settlement, although the city attorney has not determined if the mayor's concurrence in an agreement is required.
- That two notebooks containing more than 125 documents about the various charges against Cunliffe be returned by the council to Bradley and then sealed from public inspection.
Bradley has said he will not comment on any aspect of the Cunliffe case until the council acts on his dismissal recommendation.
After consulting with Cunliffe and city negotiators Tuesday night, Cunliffe's lawyers issued a statement saying: "Mrs. Cunliffe insists she is innocent of all accusations against her, but she is continuing to negotiate in good faith."