Ending a rancorous controversy, in which mayoral politics and harassment of a whistle-blower became key ingredients, Sylvia Cunliffe agreed Wednesday to retire as general manager of Los Angeles' General Services Department.
Cunliffe's retirement agreement followed a half-hour debate by the City Council, which then voted 8 to 4 in favor of a 10-point settlement hammered out between her attorneys and city negotiators. The arrangement spared Cunliffe from possibly being fired.
Expressing some bitterness, Cunliffe emerged from Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores' office, where she had been monitoring the debate, and told reporters, "I look forward to a new life." She added, "I don't think I did anything that would justify firing."
"This is a political game that's been played," Cunliffe said. "(The controversy) has been a fraud perpetrated on the public and upon myself and, unfortunately, I got in the middle."
They were Cunliffe's first public comments in months over the issue that has deeply divided City Hall.
Eligible for Pension
Essentially, the settlement calls for Cunliffe, 54, to retire on March 4, her birthday, at which time she will become eligible for full pension benefits, about $58,000 a year. Between next Monday and March 4, she will be on an unpaid leave of absence from her $90,243-a-year job. Since June 25, she was on a forced paid leave pending an inquiry by Mayor Tom Bradley into a series of charges against her that included mismanagement, favoritism to some employees and improper prying into the backgrounds of others.
The Cunliffe/City Council pact also requires her to dismiss all legal actions against the city and for the council to return, without acting on it, Bradley's Oct. 27 letter urging her dismissal.
Hours after the council action, Bradley issued a memo to City Atty. James K. Hahn, agreeing to the settlement.
"I wish to emphasize . . . that I believe the charges against Ms. Cunliffe warrant her dismissal," Bradley said. "Regrettably, the City Council did not assent to my decision. Reluctantly, but with the intent to put this matter behind us, I will concur. . . ."
Under terms of the agreement, the mayor's approval was required on only two points: the sealing from public view of two notebooks of "evidence" against Cunliffe and that she be removed from the city payroll.
Bradley submitted the two notebooks to back up his decision to fire her on 20 separate charges. Bradley had urged her ouster because she had hired her mother and other relatives; she favored friends in the granting of contracts and the renting of city-owned property and had invaded the privacy of Robert O'Neill, an employee who was critical of her and had exposed some of her actions.
The allegations involving O'Neill were the most controversial. After O'Neill "blew the whistle" on Cunliffe's practices, she circulated a memo to Bradley and council members that tried to discredit O'Neill. Attached to the memo was a police rap sheet showing that more than 20 years ago O'Neill had been convicted of several misdemeanors.
O'Neill has filed suit against the city and Cunliffe over the disclosures. In Bradley's letter to the council, the mayor concluded that Cunliffe had invaded O'Neill's privacy and was also improperly in possession of the arrest records.
When the council finally acted Wednesday after hours of debate stretching over three weeks, the merits of Bradley's various allegations had barely been addressed. Cunliffe, who has maintained that she had not acted improperly, also never specifically rebutted the charges before the council on advice of her lawyers. One reason for her silence is a pending district attorney probe into the allegations surrounding her use of the arrest records.
Although they did not discuss many of the allegations, council members have made it clear that they believed many of the charges were sufficiently substantiated to warrant her dismissal. Even strong supporters of a settlement with Cunliffe noted that no one had proposed that she be reinstated. At the same time, they figured that firing her was not the answer, that reaching a settlement was an effective way for the city to escape an expensive and protracted legal fight.
Wednesday's 8-4 vote to settle with Cunliffe followed a spirited debate pitting pro-firing forces against those favoring a quick end to the lengthy dispute.
"We are taking the wimpy way out," said Councilwoman Gloria Molina, who wanted to fire Cunliffe. "What we're doing here more than anything else is that we're almost sanctioning corruption in this city."
Councilwoman Joy Picus disagreed sharply with Molina, saying that the city's general managers are not going to suddenly become corrupt simply because the council stopped short of firing Cunliffe.
"The truth of the matter is, we are behind the eight-ball and this is the best way of handling it," Picus said. "I don't think we're giving her anything. I think we're getting ourselves off the hook."