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Manager of Oxnard Fired Over Fiscal Crisis : Resignation: David Mora was ousted after charges of mismanagement, but two supporters call him a scapegoat for the City Council.

December 07, 1989|CAROL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blamed for Oxnard's financial crisis, City Manager David Mora was ousted this week by a slim majority of the bitterly divided City Council.

Mora submitted his resignation Tuesday after grim-faced council members emerged from behind closed doors, where a 3-2 vote signaled the end for the long-embattled city leader.

In a letter he subsequently read to the council, Mora said he would leave with "significant regret."

"My resignation is submitted at this time in recognition that there are a number of issues of concern to the City Council and the community that focus on the current management of the city," he said.

Council members Dorothy Maron, Ann Johs and Geraldine Furr voted against Mora. They hold him responsible for a loss of $9 million, or 75% of the city's emergency reserve funds, during a four-year period and the resulting need to make more than $1 million in politically unpopular cutbacks this year.

"David's responsibilities were to oversee operations," Johs said. "We just felt we couldn't continue this way."

Despite those sentiments, Johs said she was shocked when Maron, a former Mora supporter, backed a call for his resignation.

Maron said she began researching some of the city's financial records last month.

"How could it happen that a city that has grown so much could have less money than we did in the past?" she said. "I'm not blaming this on Mora, but he is the guy in charge, and he should be held accountable."

But Mayor Nao Takasugi and council member Manuel Lopez maintain that Mora is taking the rap for poor City Council decisions.

"If there's an ounce of integrity in ourselves, a sense of fair play and a sense of responsibility and accountability, we would not be taking this step," Takasugi said.

Takasugi and Lopez said the council was to blame for eliminating a utility tax in 1987, two years before it was set to end. That alone cost the city between $4.5 million and $5 million.

They also mentioned a bad development deal with the Radisson Suite Hotel, which costs the city about $1 million per year.

Lopez said the council should at least have waited for the findings from an audit of city management practices, which the council authorized this week.

"Here what we're doing is hanging somebody, then holding a trial to see if they're guilty," Lopez said.

The first phase of the management audit will address specific problems and is to be completed by Feb. 27, the deadline for putting a tax measure on the June ballot. The second phase will include a more exhaustive review of city management practices.

Mora will stay until April 1, supervising more than 1,000 employees throughout the audit, which he believes will vindicate him.

"No one is perfect, including myself," he said. "However, I believe that a number of the concerns that are currently being voiced will be shown to be without merit upon completion of the management audit."

Mora said he was surprised by the push for his resignation that began last Friday, but it has not soured him on city government.

"I fully intend to be a city manager somewhere," he said. "I can't imagine a better living."

He said he has been approached by other cities and has talked with them about job possibilities.

The graying 44-year-old manager is no stranger to divisive city politics. He took his first job as town manager in Los Gatos after the city manager, police chief and city attorney had resigned, two council members were being recalled and angry citizens were mounting a referendum over a low-income housing project. He did some of his first municipal work in Santa Barbara's government when the city was debating intensive growth limits.

The Oxnard he inherited in July, 1985, was no calmer. The council was split into two factions. The city manager had been ousted, two council members were being recalled over the unpopular utility tax, and residents were angered by a failed attempt at computerizing city records.

He cleaned up the computer system, and by all accounts put in long, rigorous hours at the office.

During Mora's first two years with the city, the hours he worked were "staggering" and his "professionalism went beyond the call of duty," Johs said.

But along the way, ill will grew.

More than a year ago, Mora came under fire for choreographing a controversial staff retreat that would have excluded the city clerk.

Critics, such as Johs and former Councilman Michael Plisky, have blamed him for low morale among city employees. Plisky has labeled him "a master of deceit and deception" who incorrectly advised council members about city finances.

It was the budget crisis that finally toppled him.

Mora disclosed this fall that estimates of revenue for the 1988-89 fiscal year were about $2 million too high and that the city had spent $850,000 more than its budget allowed.

The council was subsequently forced to reduce department budgets and eliminate more than 15 city positions, including several key managers, in order to cut $1 million from this year's budget and save $1.5 million annually.

The decreases followed the $1.9 million in cutbacks that the council instituted in June--resulting in fewer police patrols and occasionally forcing the closing of fire stations on a rotating basis.

Just last week, Mora announced a $1.4-million windfall, in the form of an unexpected state refund, to boost the city's sagging reserves. Even then, though, there was confusion about whether Mora should have known about the refund earlier in the year--in time to prevent the cutbacks.

Now, however, Mora said he is concentrating on the future. Oxnard should do the same, he said.

"The real significant thing the city has to do is go forward," Mora said. "One of the troubling things I've seen in Oxnard is the constant focusing on the past."

"David Mora," he said, "is now part of the past."

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