POMONA — During his 13-month tenure as city administrator, A. J. Wilson was billed as either a managerial messiah or a marauder. Supporters and detractors now agree he was the victim of that split opinion.
In an unexpected move, one of the first actions taken by a newly reconstituted City Council Monday was to fire Wilson in closed session. He had lost favor with a new council majority led by C. L. (Clay) Bryant. Bryant had made previous attempts to oust Wilson but lacked the required votes until this week.
Bryant was joined by colleagues Nell Soto and Tomas Ursua--who was sworn into office last week--in voting to fire Wilson. Mayor Donna Smith supported Wilson, while Councilman Mark Nymeyer walked out of the council's executive session in protest.
'Not a Messiah'
In making the motion to fire Wilson, Bryant said it became clear in recent months that Wilson could not fulfill expectations. "You could tell he was just a bureaucrat, not a messiah," Bryant said.
But Smith and Nymeyer said the high-powered administrator had lived up to the hype that surrounded his hiring in April, 1988.
"I think that Mr. Wilson was one of the best things that happened to this city," Smith said. "I feel Pomona's future is in serious jeopardy.
"Anyone with any brains is not going to apply for the manager's job in Pomona," she said.
Nymeyer concurred, saying: "Mr. Wilson had a vision for what this town could become."
Wilson, 47, whose personal residence is in Fallbrook, could not be reached for comment. As part of a buyout clause in his contract, Wilson will receive five months of his annual salary and benefits for a total of about $125,000. City Atty. Patrick J. Sampson was named as interim city administrator.
Before coming to Pomona, Wilson had been out of city government for three years, working as a management consultant for corporations. Wilson's reputation was that of a forceful leader who found novel solutions for longstanding problems of urban decay and economic stagnation.
It may have been this same forceful personality and drive--which supporters say are among Wilson's greatest attributes--that set him on a collision course with the new council majority.
Wilson had spent 20 years in government, including largely successful stints overseeing Santa Ana, Portland, Me., and his hometown of St. Louis. But Wilson's last city manager's job ended in controversy in 1984, when he resigned under pressure in Kansas City, Mo., after 14 troubled months.
Some of the same criticisms leveled at Wilson in Kansas City--that he usurped elected officials' authority and prestige--were cited as reasons for his firing in Pomona.
"He had the same problems in St. Louis, Santa Ana and Kansas City," Bryant said. "I'd hate to feel that the council is working for him, instead of vice versa."
Bryant and Soto accused Wilson of being largely unaccountable to the council.
Meetings were cancelled and times changed without notifying council members and often official requests were answered with empty promises for action, Bryant said.
"It's a hell of a way to do business," Bryant said, citing an instance when the council directed Wilson to seek assistance from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to deal with gangs in the city. "He was told to make an immediate request for assistance; he asked for a study instead," Bryant said.
On another occasion, Bryant charged, Wilson filled a city position with an acquaintance instead of advertising the post as dictated by council policy.
Smith and Nymeyer, however, denied that Wilson was implementing his own agenda.
"The Pomona City Council sat down with Mr. Wilson and we set the goals," Smith said. "Every program or project that was carried out was in line with those goals."
Smith said Bryant was jealous of Wilson and seeking to show his new political muscle.
"Mr. Bryant has stated on more than one occasion that he is jealous of the power the city administrator has," she said. "He wants a city administrator that only he alone can control. This was more for personal reasons; Mr. Bryant could not control Mr. Wilson and that's why he got rid of him."
Ursua, although admittedly a novice on the council, said he was qualified to vote for Wilson's ouster because he knew Pomona under the old political guard--the same group that hired Wilson.
First to Go
Likening the new council majority to a corporate takeover, Ursua noted that the old chief executive officer is always the first to go.
"The rest of the administration has to know who's in charge now, and that's the best way to get it across," Ursua said. "You get rid of the CEO."
Ursua said he objected to Wilson wanting to push Pomona into more commercial development even though the city has a critical need for affordable housing.