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Ex-Official Says Coontz Abused Office

November 06, 1996|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — A former city manager has alleged in a Superior Court document that Mayor Joanne Coontz abused her powers of office during a bitter election campaign in 1990.

In a sworn declaration related to an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city, Ronald Lewis Thompson, who was city manager from 1989 until he resigned in 1993, also accused other council members of corrupt acts but said that "none was as bad as [then]-Councilwoman Coontz."

Thompson, who has not yet been deposed by attorneys for the city, said that Coontz subverted his authority, undercut the city's civil service system and retaliated against city employees who would not help her defeat council candidate Donald D. Greek in the 1990 campaign.

"In my personal experience with Coontz, if employees of the Orange . . . staff, including myself, did not follow her personal orders or directives, Coontz targeted such persons as political enemies," Thompson said in the court declaration.

His remarks were submitted to the court late last month as part of a wrongful termination case filed against the city last year by a high-level economic development official. The employee, Ellen Angele Bonneville, contends she was fired in 1993 in part because she was an older woman and not of the same religious faith as the city manager, but also as retaliation for refusing to cooperate with Coontz in what she considered to be unethical political activities.

Bonneville's attorney, James G. Harker, said he submitted the declarations of Thompson and Bonneville to oppose the city's motion for dismissal of the case. Judge Thomas N. Thrasher is scheduled to hear the city's motion Dec. 5.

Coontz said she could not comment on the substance of the case, which is set for trial April 7. But she did say the suit was frivolous and that Thompson has a grudge against her because she did not support his proposed utility tax in 1993.

"It's just an attack," she said. "For what purpose, I don't know. . . . I'm a natural target as mayor."

Harker said Bonneville is seeking lost wages and benefits as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Bonneville's suit also contends that former City Manager David Dixon, who was hired after Thompson's resignation, arranged to have her job cut during a restructuring of the Economic Development Department because she was a woman and not a Mormon, which was Dixon's faith. Dixon died of cancer last year, just weeks after stepping down from office.

Deputy City Atty. David De Berry said Bonneville's suit lacks merit because department heads in the city are "at-will" employees and not subject to civil service protections.

"We have not found anything to substantiate her claims," De Berry said.

Bonneville maintained that she first came under fire when she "blew the whistle" on what she believed were illegal distributions of redevelopment funds to political cronies of council members. Coontz then tried to force her to help defeat Greek, who was a planning commissioner, by trying to build a case that he had a conflict of interest between his public position and his private engineering firm, she said.

The city did successfully pursue a case against Greek in Superior Court, but that decision was overturned last year on appeal.

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