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Council Assumes Authority for Hiring Decisions : Government: The city administrator's power is diluted by 3-2 vote. Critics say the action could lead to a return of political appointments and purges.

April 29, 1993|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COMMERCE — The City Council has created a wave of unrest at Commerce City Hall by taking control over hiring and firing of the city's top managers.

The council voted 3 to 2 last week to strip City Administrator Louis Shepard of such authority over the city's 12 department heads and assistant heads. The staff members signed a letter before the council's action, warning that future personnel decisions would be based on political considerations rather than individual merit.

"People are afraid of what can happen," said Bob Sepulveda, director of the Public Services Department. "The City Council can hire people based on (who they) know rather than on their qualifications. Politics should stay out of hiring procedures."

Critics also said the council's action signals a return to the practices of nearly a decade ago when some personnel decisions had political overtones.

Mayor Ruth R. Aldaco and Councilman Robert J. Cornejo voted against the measure. Aldaco said she did so to protect employees against wanton firings. Aldaco said she was forced from her job as city clerk in 1985 during a City Council purge of employees who had served under three council members convicted of bribery charges in a Commerce Casino scandal.

"I am afraid that the purges are going to start again," Aldaco said.

Council members Ruben C. Batres, Artemio E. Navarro and James B. Dimas Sr. voted for the new policy, saying they wanted to ensure that employees are treated fairly. They said their action was prompted by the recent resignation of a longtime city employee who was facing dismissal.

Thomas Sykes, former assistant director of the Human Resources Department, resigned in early March after being notified that he would be fired. Although Sykes said no specific reason was given for his dismissal, City Hall sources said it was related to messages he sent over the city's computer system to Sepulveda's secretary, Lleanne Herrera, advising her how to proceed with allegations that funds in the Public Services Department had been misused. Herrera is Councilman Dimas' wife.

Sykes said he was only informing Herrera about the proper channels for filing a grievance, as he customarily does when employees raise personnel questions. Other sources said that Sykes was dismissed because he provided the advice and failed to notify his superiors about her allegations.

Shepard called Sykes "disloyal" but would not comment on the departure, other than to say that Sykes left his job voluntarily. Shepard said outside investigators looked into Herrera's charges and found no wrongdoing.

Batres, Navarro and Dimas said they were angered to find out about the resignation from residents before they were notified by Shepard. They said they will vote to rehire Sykes, an 18-year city employee, when the new ordinance takes effect in 30 days.

"I just want a fair shake for all our employees," Batres said. "It really bothered me that (Sykes) was let go. He didn't have a chance to defend himself. It is a bad precedent at this time."

Sykes, a Walnut city councilman, said he would return to his former job if asked. "I seem to be well liked by the community and by employees," he said. "The fact that I had 18 years with a blemish-free record says something."

Shepard said the council's desire to rehire Sykes is the kind of meddling that could arise out of its decision to take control of hiring and firing top managers.

"Is the council going to go back to the kind of political manipulation of personnel they had in the past?" Shepard asked. "We've had too many people who were appointed for political reasons who are incompetent and unqualified." Shepard also questioned whether the council can rehire Sykes. The ordinance only gives the council authority to approve hirings and firings recommended by the administrator, Shepard said. He said that "under no conditions" will he recommend that Sykes be rehired.

But council members said the measure gives them the authority, through a majority vote, to overrule the administrator's advice or fire someone without his recommendation.

Shepard said he has been discouraged by the council's decision and might not remain in his job if Sykes returns.

"If they don't have confidence in me, that's a very strong reason that they ought to make a change," Shepard said. "If they think (Sykes) is more important than I am and they want to bring him back, there is nothing to stop them from doing that. They have the authority to terminate me at any time without cause."

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