By Marian Nichols and Mark Gutglueck
Mystery and controversy are attending the abruptly announced but simultaneously extended leave-taking of Bill Manis as Upland City Manager.
Last December, Manis was widely hailed as an excellent fit for 77,000-population Upland, when the city council moved to hire him after going 15 months without having officially filled the city manager void created when a 3-to-2 majority of the council in July 2016 handed Rod Butler his walking papers. In the interim, Marty Thouvenell, who had been the city’s police chief throughout most of the 1990s and the first five years of the Third Millennium until he was essentially forced into retirement from that position by later-disgraced, indicted and convicted Mayor John Pomierski in 2005, had functioned as acting city manager. Thouvenell’s tenure in the post was intended to be a short one that was to last only until a successor for Butler could be chosen. But that search dragged on beyond the three months it was originally anticipated it would take to attract a fair number of candidates from which a suitable manager might be selected. The recruitment drive eclipsed the six-month mark, then nine months and then a year, with speculation echoing that the council might simply confer the city manager’s post upon Thouvenell, who repeatedly insisted he did not want the job. The city at last settled upon filling the position with Manis, who was then the city manager in Rosemead. Previously he had been the deputy city manager in San Bernardino overseeing that city’s economic development, community development, public works and housing departments, had been the City of Banning’s economic development director and public information officer prior to that and he had held a series of progressively more responsible administrative positions with the cities of Cypress, Corona, Santa Ana, and Cerritos earlier in his career. The decision to hire Manis was represented as a carefully rendered one that had allowed the city to examine the full range of options. The depth of Manis’s experienced was emphasized by Thouvenell and the members of the council at the time his selection was announced, and it was strongly implied that all parties were looking toward Upland being the last stop in Manis’s career, where he would remain until his eventual retirement. Given that he was 57 at the time of his hiring, the suggestion was that he would serve as Upland’s city manager at least until 2021, at which point he would be 60, and that he might potentially remain in place until he eclipsed 65, such that he might not leave until late 2024 or early 2025. Such stability and capable leadership was what Upland had been lacking for some time, and it was hoped that Manis might provided the direction and continuity city officials and city residents were seeking.
There were a few complicating issues, not the least of which was that prior to Manis’s hiring, in 2017 following an initial inquiry made by the city in late 2016, Upland had proceeded with shuttering its more than a century-existant municipal fire department, annexing the entirety of the city limits and the adjacent unincorporated county area of San Antonio Heights into a county fire service district and having the county fire department assume the responsibility of providing the Upland and San Antonio communities firefighting and emergency medical service. That annexation was effectuated without a vote of the residents and in essence upon the action of both Thouvenell and the city council and a final ratification of the changeover by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which serves as a final regional authority with regard to jurisdictional issues. The annexation into the fire service district carried with it the imposition of $157 per year assessments on all land parcels within the city and San Antonio Heights. There was massive resident and business owner discomfiture with the city’s action, which many interpreted as a violation of the electorate’s right to approve beforehand any newly enacted tax. Ultimately a group of San Antonio Heights residents functioning under the aegis of the San Antonio Heights Homeowners Association, which was supported and encouraged by a cross section of Upland residents and business owners, filed a lawsuit contesting the legality of the procedural propriety of the annexation. That lawsuit is yet progressing toward trial in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge David Cohn. Lingering animosity toward city officials is yet smoldering among Upland residents over the matter, and Manis has had to function in an atmosphere wherein the public’s hostility toward his political masters has made for some testy moments during public meetings. Nevertheless, to all appearances, Manis had been able to function with professional aplomb week in and week out over the more than eight months he had been with the city, with only the rarest of exceptions, most of which involved differences between the four-member council majority that found itself at odds with that panel’s lone dissident, Janice Elliott, who last year parted company with her colleagues primarily over her efforts to indulge resident protest of the fire service district annexation. In May, the council majority voted to censure Elliott, and the preparation of the resolutions to do so were in large measure coordinated and processed by Manis, which did not endear him to Elliott. Otherwise, however, Manis enjoyed a positive and professionally cordial working relationship with four-fifths of the council.
Earlier this month, Manis attended, on behalf of the City of Upland, the 2018 Annual Conference & Expo of the League of California Cities in Long Beach, which spanned three days from September 12 to September 14. Manis was there to take in as many of the seminars and expositions as time and the crush and conflict of the schedule would permit, which included updates with regard to a number of issues current in municipal governance, new legislation and both developments and programs pertaining to employing what are considered “best practices” in running a city. That Manis was in attendance at the conference at the expense of the city and on its behalf was an indication that his status with the city was intact and both he and the council anticipated his continuing and ongoing fulfillment of his role as city manager. Manis was back at Upland City Hall the following Monday, September 17. In Upland, the municipal work week runs Monday through Thursday. By 6 p.m. on Thursday September 20, the agenda for the September 24 city council meeting was posted. On that agenda was a single item scheduled for discussion during the closed hearing of the council that was to take place at 6 p.m. outside the earshot and sight of the public, an hour before the standard business portion of the meeting open to the public was to commence at 7 p.m. That item, according to the agenda, was to consist of “Consideration of public employee appointment pursuant to California Government Code Section 54957. Title: Acting City Manager.”
The language of the agenda, by implication, indicated that the position held by Manis was no longer, or would no longer be, occupied, necessitating the city’s hiring of a replacement.
On September 24, after the public portion of the meeting was underway, Mayor Debbie Stone designated Deputy City Attorney Steven Flower to disclose the reportable action that took place in closed session. Flower said, “The council considered [a] public employee appointment. The council on [a] motion by Councilman [Sid] Robinson and seconded by Councilman [Carol] Timm voted unanimously to confirm Jeannette Vagnozzi as the acting city manager as of November 2 of this year. And they also agreed to schedule a future closed session to discuss the process of appointing a permanent replacement for city manager. I believe the city manager would like to add something here at this point.”
Thereupon, Manis said, “After long thought and talking with my family, last Tuesday I sent the mayor and city council a memorandum announcing I would be retiring, effective my last day of regular business hours… November 1. That was my decision to step down, and pursue additional opportunities in my professional life. So, I just wanted to share that with the community and thank the mayor and the council for the opportunity to have served here, and that concludes my comments.”
No further explanation of the reason for Manis’s departure was given.
During the oral communications portion of the meeting, former City Councilman Glenn Bozar came to the podium. He arranged to have projected on the council chambers’ overhead viewing screen the first page of an information sheet relating to the pension stipend that Manis would have received upon retiring with an immediately effective departure date. “Mr. Manis, thank you very much for your service,” Bozar began. “It seems like yesterday I read in the paper of a yearlong search trying to find somebody like you to help us out. Interim City Manager Thouvenell said out of 40 or 50 applications you were the guy that was going to help us out and Mayor Stone, you [said] were looking forward to working with him and moving on the city. But, obviously, there’s greener pastures, and I wish you luck in your endeavors. One of the things that comes up when people retire out of government service that people need to know is their pension. According to what I read in the paper, you had 32 years of service [and] your estimated pension from the California Public Employee Retirement System would be approximately $190,800 per year.”
The projected image on the screen broke this down, showing the formula for deriving that $190,800 per year pension as 80 percent times Manis’s current $238,500 annual salary, as the pension formula used by the California Public Employees Retirement System entitles him to draw 2.5 percent of his top salary for every year he is employed by a public agency.
Bozar then had the second page of the information sheet relating to the pension stipend that Manis is to receive upon retiring with an effective departure date of November 1 projected. That image, viewable to all in the council chambers, showed a formula deriving a $196,763 annual pension based upon the same $238,5000 annual salary multiplied by 82.5 percent.
“If your anniversary date is prior to this November 1, then your estimated California Public Employees Retirement System pension is $196,763,” Bozar said. “Now that doesn’t count the $9,000 I think you have in some kind of deferred compensation. At any rate, I wish you the best in your future endeavors, whether you come back as a consultant for the City of Upland or for any other city. You’ve got 32 years experience you’ve gone through with different cities including this one, including San Bernardino I wish you luck in your retirement and enjoy life. It’s short, and enjoy it.”
Bozar’s comments, which were confined to the three minute limit the council insists members of the public must adhere to, had double implication.
In the main, Bozar highlighted that the current council was assisting Manis, whose tenure with the city was less than a year and shorter than Thouvenell’s interim term as well as the 23 months Butler remained in place as city manager, to pad his pension by remaining in the official capacity of city manager roughly six weeks after his departure was settled upon. In practical terms, this favor to Manis will cost current and future Upland taxpayers $5,963 per year going forward for the rest of Manis’s life. If Manis predeceases his wife, she will continue to draw half that amount annually, $2,981.50 per year for the rest of her life. This is of some moment in Upland, as city officials have over the last several years made recurrent reference to the degree to which dwindling revenues are resulting in the city’s need to reduce basic municipal services so the city’s budgets can be balanced. The primary drain on city resources, those officials note, are the increasing pension costs the city is sustaining as more and more employees reach retirement age. Thus, artificially inflating Manis’s pension will contribute to future budgetary difficulties for the city.
Secondarily, Bozar made a reference to Manis potentially coming back to work for Upland as a consultant. Thouvenell, upon Manis’s hiring, discontinued drawing a salary as city manager but was still kept on the city’s payroll as a management consultant at a rate of $9,000 per month or $108,000 per year. With Jeannette Vagnozzi being elevated from her deputy city manager’s position to that of acting city manager officially in November and unofficially assuming the de facto city manager’s role immediately and with Manis for all intents and purposes now making his exit while yet being paid, the city finds itself at present essentially employing three city managers at once – Manis, Vagnozzi and Thouvenell, a redundancy that Bozar and others have said is unnecessary and a squandering of the city’s precious financial resources.
On Monday night, at the close of the council meeting, the Sentinel sought to engage with Manis and get from him a more substantive explanation for the reasons leading to his departure and what had precipitated it. He was unwilling to engage in any discussions relating to his leaving.