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Issue of City Manager Dominates Norwalk Election : Council: Most challengers want to fire Powers or curtail his authority. But two incumbents support him.

March 31, 1994|JILL GOTTESMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A record 16 candidates are vying for three seats on the Norwalk City Council, but the name discussed most often by office seekers isn't even on the ballot.

Embattled City Manager Richard Powers has become a focal point in the April 12 election.

Most of the 13 challengers--as well as a council member who is seeking reelection--favor a shakeup in the city's administration, which they say is top-heavy and overpaid. Several challengers contend that the city manager is responsible for the city's financial woes, which resulted in an unpopular utility users tax two years ago, and has made questionable development decisions.

Several challengers said they would attempt to dismiss the city manager if they are elected. Others said they would strip Powers of some of his authority and force him to take a pay cut. Powers earns $113,000 a year, which he said is comparable to salaries for his position in similar cities. "I am in the middle, not at the top," he said.

Two incumbents on the ballot--Robert J. Arthur and Luigi A. Vernola--staunchly defend Powers and his staff, and promise to retain the city manager if reelected.

They said Powers is a capable manager who will help the city, which has a population of 94,000, become one of the region's key transportation and commercial hubs. Vernola said Powers' critics don't understand the city manager's job.

"I'd like to have these people sit down and write down on paper what they would do to improve things," he said. "I think they would find that Powers is doing an excellent job once they really looked into it."

The three candidates who get the most votes will win seats on the five-member City Council.

Vernola, who owns an automotive repair shop and towing service, is seeking a third term and Arthur, who owns a small production studio, is running for his second term.

The other incumbent on the ballot, Gordon A. Stefenhagen, a property manager, is seeking election for the first time. Stefenhagen was appointed to the council two years ago when Grace F. Napolitano was elected to the state Assembly. He favors reducing the city manager's authority and cutting his salary.

Among the challengers who favor firing Powers is Jesse M. Luera, who was dismissed by Powers last year as the city's director of social services after being accused of sexual harassment. Luera, president of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified school board, has denied the allegations, but a city personnel board last month upheld his dismissal.

Jim Sweet, a former city planning commissioner who was removed by the council after clashes with Arthur over development issues, said he would vote to fire Powers.

"I don't like his management style and I don't like the money that he makes," said Sweet, a real estate broker. "If (Powers) was the CEO of a business, he would have been removed a long time ago."

Other challengers who say they would vote to fire the city manager are Mary Jane McIntosh, an advertising representative; Santos Hernandez, a factory worker; Ruperto Juarez, a retired factory worker, and Paul Britton, a real estate broker.

Three challengers have criticized the city manager, but said they would prefer to reduce his authority and salary rather than fire him. "Right now I feel all the power is in (Powers') hands, and I don't like that," said Eleanor Zimmerman, a travel agent whose late husband, John, served on the council in the 1980s. "I would revert back to the city administrator form of government. There is a big land swell among all the challengers that something has got to change."

Dale Thurber, a general contractor, and E. Charles Janikowski, an X-ray technician, also favor converting the city manager's position to city administrator, a position with less authority and lower salary.

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Powers said some of the criticism may stem from changes that he made shortly after arriving in Norwalk six years ago. He said the city at the time was running up an annual deficit of $3 million, and various departments were being run by maverick administrators who paid no attention to budget constraints.

Powers said he cut management by 25% and took a 5% reduction in salary in 1989. "We started holding people accountable, and terminated people who were not competent and we made the place efficient," he said. "Maybe that has made me unpopular."

The city now has an assistant city manager and three deputies, but there are no department heads.

The city's reserves rose to $16 million in 1989, but have since dropped to $2.8 million. Powers said the city has dipped into its reserves to offset state budget cuts and to buy land. The city spent $5 million, for example, to acquire the site for a 24-screen theater complex, restaurants and shops, he said.

The dispute over the city manager has overshadowed a controversy over Luera's candidacy.

Two city employees who say Luera sexually harassed them when they worked in his department have picketed school board meetings, City Council sessions and candidates' forums, urging voters not to vote for Luera.

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