In a logical but somewhat delayed denouement to an act of political revenge by Upland’s lame duck city council last November, City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi was handed her walking papers this week.
Vagnozzi began working with Upland in the capacity of deputy city manager in 2015, when she was brought in to assist Rod Butler, who had been hired as Upland city manager in 2014. Butler convinced the council to fund the deputy city manager position and hired Vagnozzi, who after 26 years with the City of La Verne, had risen from the post of intern to that of assistant to Bob Russi, La Verne’s city manager. Vagnozzi’s deputy city manager duties in Upland included serving as city clerk, administrative services director, human resources manager and risk management director. In 2016, three members of the city council – Mayor Ray Musser, then-Councilwoman Debbie Stone and Councilman Gino Filippi – grew disenchanted with Butler and terminated him without citing cause, giving him a severance package equal to nine months salary and benefits as he headed out the door.
The council had Vagnozzi fill in for Butler as acting city manager for less than a week, and brought in the Upland’s former police chief, Marty Thouvenell, to serve as interim city manager and simultaneously head up a recruitment drive to find a replacement for Butler. What was originally intended to be no more than a three-month stint for Thouvenell as interim city manager prolonged itself into an 18-month assignment, as efforts to replace Butler stalled.
Among those contemplated as Butler’s replacement were Vagnozzi, with her experience as Butler’s understudy and right hand woman, and two other department heads, Community Development Director Jeff Zwack, whose strength consisted of his overall command of the character of the city, and Finance Manager Scott Williams, who possessed a firm grip on the city’s bleak financial outlook, which was illustrated by a previous auditor’s opinion from the certified public accounting firm Mayer Hoffman and McCann stating that there were such serious questions with regard to the city’s solvency to the point that it was on a trajectory toward being “unable to continue as a going concern.”
At that point, neither Williams nor Zwack nor Vagnozzi impressed Thouvenell enough for him to recommend that the council elevate any of them into the city manager’s role. Rather, for nearly 17 months, Thouvenell remained in place as the city’s acting city manager while an effort to recruit Butler’s replacement dragged on. In that time frame, Musser chose not to seek reelection as mayor in the 2016 election, and Stone successfully vied against then-City Councilman Glenn Bozar to replace Musser. Also elected to the council in 2016 was newcomer Janice Elliott. Following the November 2016 election and the installment of Stone as mayor and Elliott as councilwoman, the council chose to fill the vacancy within its ranks that resulted from Stone’s advancement into the mayoralty and her resignation from the council to do so by selecting Sid Robinson, who had finished in second place in the council race behind Elliott, to serve out the final two years of Stone’s council term.
Over the course of the year that followed, the four-member council majority of Stone, Robinson, Councilwoman Carol Timm and Councilman Gino Filippi went along with Thouvenell’s cost cutting and revenue generating plan to close out the city’s 110-year-old municipal fire department and annex the entirety of the city limits and neighboring San Antonio Heights into a county fire service assessment zone. This entailed the imposition of a $153 per parcel per year property tax addition and steering that newly created revenue stream and a share of the city’s pre-existing property tax to the county to have the county fire department take over the provision of fire and emergency medical service in the city. The council majority simultaneously moved to devote whatever savings the city made by shuttering its fire department to plugging its other municipal funding gaps. Only Councilwoman Elliott opposed that move.
The municipal fire department closure and the creation of the assessment zone, which was imposed upon the city’s residents, business owners and property owners without a vote, proved highly unpopular. Elliott’s opposition to the closure of the city’s fire department and the imposition of the assessments antagonized the mayor and her three council colleagues, leading to their removing Elliott from all of her municipal committee assignments and adjunct governmental joint power authority board positions, which did not dissuade her from opposing the city’s course on dissolving the fire department.
At that time and within what was then the ongoing political context, siding with what was a majority of four against Elliott, who was a minority of one, appeared safe. While it indeed had no immediate negative repercussions for Vagnozzi, in reality Elliott’s isolation on the council belied the sentiment among a significant portion of the City of Upland’s populace, who saw Elliott as their sole champion on a city council going against their wishes with regard to shuttering the fire department and imposing on them an assessment that was not of their own choosing. While there would be a delay in those chickens returning home to roost, those birds would indeed one day return, and they did not forget the role Vagnozzi had played in the effort to isolate and politically neuter Elliott.
Meanwhile, the search for Butler’s replacement continued. Vagnozzi applied for the post. Ultimately, the council, advised by Thouvenell, overlooked her application and in December 2017 settled upon hiring Bill Manis, who was then the city manager in Rosemead, making his hiring effective as of January 1, 2018. Simultaneously, Vagnozzi was promoted from deputy city manager to assistant city manager, which entailed an $8,000 per year salary enhancement.
Manis was hailed all around as the perfect fit for Upland, he seemed to be pleasing his political masters as 2018, an election year, progressed. Indeed, that spring, Manis and Vagnozzi, together with City Attorney Jim Markman, complied with the council majority’s request to draw up articles of censure against Elliott. On May 29, 2018, the council voted 4-to-1, with Elliott dissenting, to censure her, effectively rebuking her for what they considered to be her contrarian attitude. The council majority believed that with such an official blemish on her public record, Elliott’s future political viability would be curtailed.
But with the November election, the first in the city’s history to involve by-district contests in three newly established intracity wards, approaching, the degree to which a large segment of the city’s electorate was unwilling to forgive the council majority for the municipal fire department shuttering and saddling city residents with assessments to pay for something they didn’t want was becoming more and more apparent. Reading the writing on the wall, Robinson opted out of seeking reelection. Timm and Filippi intrepidly pushed on, hoping the power of incumbency might somehow offset and overcome the cloud of resentment that was threatening their reelectoral viability. Elliott, whose at-large election in 2016 entitled her to stay in the council position she held until 2020, nevertheless astutely recognized that given her residency in the city’s newly drawn Second District she would need to vie in 2018 or surrender until 2022 her ability to run for city council again, declared her council candidacy. To head her off, the city’s then-existing political establishment – Stone, Timm, Robinson and Filippi – backed Elliott’s rival in the race, Planning Commissioner Yvette Walker.
The battle for the heart and soul of Upland – at least for the next two years – was on. When Manis refused to accede to further pressure being put on him to use the machinery of city government to keep the political establishment as it was then composed in place by subtly adjusting things to support the candidacies of Timm, Filippi and Walker, he fell from favor. In September, with the election season intensifying, Manis’s departure from Upland was arranged, with the city “officially” allowing him to retain the position of city manager until November 1, 2018, at which point his number of years as a public employee would move from 32 to 33, raising the annual pension he would thereafter be eligible to receive from $190,800 [80 percent times Manis’s then-current $238,500 annual salary based upon the pension formula used by the California Public Employees Retirement System that entitled him to draw 2.5 percent of his top salary for every year he is employed by a public agency] to a $196,763 annual pension [based upon the same $238,5000 annual salary multiplied by 82.5 percent]. This purchased Manis’s silence about what was going on within the backrooms at City Hall.
On Monday September 24, 2018, Manis reported to work as normal. That evening, he was on hand for the regularly scheduled council meeting. On the agenda for that meeting 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 pm. 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.
At 7 pm, after the public portion of the meeting was underway, Mayor 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 Councilwoman 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.”
While Manis remained officially on the payroll, he effectively left City Hall that evening, never to return.
Vagnozzi, though at that point yet designated officially as the assistant city manager, was in fact acting in the capacity of Upland’s city manager.
Between the end of September and election day on November 6, 2018, City Hall saw its authority bent to efforts toward preserving the electoral viability of Upland’s then-existing political establishment. Despite those efforts, all three establishment candidates – Timm, Filippi and Walker – went down to defeat.
Thereafter, at the November 26, 2018 city council meeting, in its last hurrah as an intact entity prior to the December 10 meeting at which Timm, Filippi and Robinson would last assume their places on the dais to convene the meeting at which the victors in the November 6 contest – Rudy Zuniga, Ricky Felix and Janice Elliott – were to be sworn in, the council took up a proposal to elevate Vagnozzi to the position of city manager for a period of slightly more than three years. The contract under consideration was one that under no circumstances could be terminated any earlier than March 2019 and conferred upon her a conditional severance guarantee of roughly $155,500 if any future council elected to terminate her before the contract expires as of January 1, 2022.
Before the council voted on the matter, 21 members of the public, 18 of them Upland residents in addition to three current or former La Verne public officials, weighed in on the wisdom of the outgoing council imposing Vagnozzi as the city’s top staff member on the yet-to-be-installed council. While seven of those speaking, including all three from La Verne, hailed Vagnozzi as a skilled civic administrator who was more than capable of taking on the assignment, 14 others expressed opposition to the move, suggesting that the lame duck city council was improperly seeking to impose Vagnozzi upon the successor council. Some said the city should carry out a recruitment effort and a competition among those willing to apply for the position, including Vagnozzi, to find the best candidate possible. Several decried what they said was an illegitimate and vindictive application of the outgoing council’s authority that was intended to punish and hamstring their successors. Others reminded the council that they and Thouvenell had evaluated the multitude of applications for the city manager position that had come in during 2016 and 2017, which included Vagnozzi’s, and had come to the conclusion a year before that Vagnozzi had not been deemed qualified enough to preclude the council from instead hiring Manis. Some accurately predicted what has now come to pass, Vagnozzi’s firing, suggesting that saddling the incoming city council with Vagnozzi was an irresponsible move that might very well entail a squandering of taxpayer dollars to either buy Vagnozzi out of her contract or pay her the severance the contract specified if and when the new council decided her services were no longer needed or appropriate.
Then-Councilman-elect Felix asked the council to defer a decision on Vagnozzi’s hiring to those who would need to work with her over the next several years. “I have nothing against her,” Felix said. “She has always been very kind with me, very respectful toward me, but I do feel it would be a disservice to Upland if we didn’t postpone this vote until after December 10, where we could actually do more, the new council can do research to make sure she is the best person for the job. As of right now, she’s shown she is qualified, obviously. We’ve seen her qualifications. She’s done a great job, but I feel we need to do our due diligence to make sure we have the best person on here.”
Bob Russi, LaVerne’s city manager, said he had worked with Vagnozzi for the nearly five years between the time he started with the city in 2010 and her departure to Upland in 2015. “She served La Verne very well during that time and having her make the decision to come here to Upland was a very emotional and difficult decision, but I think she came here for all the right reasons, for her and for this community,” he said. “I think she came here to do what’s right and serve this community well, and give it the leadership in whatever capacity to help move Upland forward. Putting her into a full-time position is the right decision for this community. I will happily take her back if she is no longer wanted by the City of Upland. La Verne would love to have her come back and work for us.”
Then-Councilwoman Carol Timm, who was not at the meeting, sent from North Carolina, where she was celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with her parents, a letter to the city in which she said she endorsed Vagnozzi’s hiring. It was read into the record.
In an effort at forging a compromise, Elliott sought to amend the contract so that the restriction on firing Vagnozzi during the first 90 days after the new council was sworn in would be removed and that the element of the contract which confers upon her six months’ salary and benefits as a severance in the event she were terminated be changed so that if she were to be terminated during the first four months of her tenure under the contract, she would only be due a severance equal to one month’s pay for each month she had served in the city manager’s role.
“My concern is not about the city manager but the timing and also the selection process,” Elliott said. She said the city could keep Vagnozzi on as the acting city manager and that the selection should “take time. Haste makes waste.” She decried the hiring proposal as a “disservice” and “disturbing,” entailing what she said was “a lack of respect shown by this council to ramrod our last meetings with these appointments. They are unprecedented. Some cities have lame duck ordinances that wisely prevent irresponsible actions like these. The request to appoint the new city manager is irresponsible, since three of you will not have any accountability after tonight’s action. This action is irresponsible because it ties the hands of the new city council for more than 90 days to make the most important decision that city councils have to make to affect the daily operations of our city. This action is fiscally irresponsible because it will cost us at least $150,000 extra to terminate this contract once ratified if the new city council chooses to do so. Waiting until after the new city council is sworn in reduces significantly this risk.”
Elliott’s requests made no inroads on her colleagues, however.
Robinson said. “While some of you might not agree, this proposal makes a lot of sense to me. It’s about trying to bring stability to our city. It obviously hasn’t been the case in a number of years. The last search for a city manager started in mid-2016 and took eighteen months before Upland found someone who was qualified and checked all the boxes. When Upland finally did pick a city manager, Jeannette was also a finalist for the position. She’s been vetted and is one of the top finalists after a very long and tiresome and thorough process. We’ve been through this process already and it was very recent.”
Robinson then suggested that the incoming council would not be up to the task of properly selecting a new city manager, and that it was therefore incumbent upon him and his colleagues before they left office to do so for them. “Let me assure you, it’s an awful lot to ask a new council with at least two and maybe three new members who have never served in any municipal capacity to take this on, especially when the work has already been done,” Robinson said. “It’s a matter of providing them with the type of stability in office I believe they will need. She brings decades of experience as a city administrator along with a wealth of knowledge about how to run a city.”
Robinson said there would be “difficulty in finding a new city manager. We went 18 months. You need somebody who wants to be here. Outside of our world here in Upland, qualified city managers don’t really want to come here as we saw in that last search process. If they do, they are going to ask for a lot more money than is being proposed here. Upland does not exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to city managers. We’ve seen seven over the past ten years. Do you really think we’re going to find someone who is both qualified and affordable? I believe this action is a gift to the next council. And you may not think that way, but I think it is in the best interest of Upland. It may seem counter-intuitive to you but it makes perfect sense both in practical terms and financially. She’s proven her worth and value and I don’t think Upland can afford to lose her.”
Mayor Stone, like Robinson, made a veiled reference to Thouvenell’s recommendation against hiring Vagnozzi, which she indicated the council had blindly followed. “I’ll be the first one to admit we missed the boat the first time around,” Stone said. “Jeannette has done so much for this city. We are overlooking the fact that we have experience, we have knowledge, we have a person who cares about the City of Upland, we have the qualifications, we have compassion and we have a person who is dedicated to this city.”
And, like Robinson, Stone suggested the incoming council would not have the skill and sophistication to make the right hiring decision, so it was up to the current council to do so.
“This has nothing to do with disrespect to the new council, but they need her leadership,” Stone said. “There is hardly anyone left here to lead here and that’s what they need.”
Filippi, after acknowledging “Some of the choices with city managers have been wrong,” said, “Upland needs a responsible and experienced person in that seat. In my view, Jeannette will continue to serve with dedication. She is very proficient. There is far more going on in this city than most people might be aware, and she knows what to do here. The new council will understand that, but it will take time, and if they’re not satisfied with that, they can cut her loose.”
After Elliott’s motion for a compromise by giving the incoming council the option of terminating Vagnozzi prior to March 2019 and reducing her guaranteed severance of $155,500 during that period died for lack of a second, the contract as proposed was approved 3-to-1, with Elliott dissenting.
As of December 10, 2018 Robinson, Timm and Filippi were gone and the new council, down to four-fifths strength because of Elliott’s departure from the at-large position she had captured in 2016 to assume the Second District district post she had just been elected to in 2018, consisted of Stone, Elliott, Zuniga and Felix. From that point onward, Vagnozzi was in a severely compromised position, as Elliott and Zuniga, representing two of the three votes necessary to terminate her, were in place on the council. Should she displease just one of the council’s remaining members – one of which was at that point yet to be identified since Elliott’s replacement on the council had yet to be chosen – she would instantaneously be in danger of being fired.
Complicating the circumstance was that within City Hall among a cross section of city employees there was growing consternation and dissatisfaction over what they felt was insufficient pay. While this discontent was not directed at Vagnozzi, per se, as the new city manager she was at once thrown into being the point person with regard to the issue. The mounting negative sentiment among the city’s rank and file virtually overnight was vectored at her. More to the point, Vagnozzi’s tenuous relationship with the council gave the union’s negotiators leverage they otherwise would not have had, and that leverage involved making a full frontal attack on the city manager.
For several years, Upland city management has been engaged in collective bargaining sessions with the city’s employee unions, all of which were given extremely generous contracts in 2008, based largely upon deals the union’s representatives were able to cut by promising to ensure their members’ silence about the depredations then-Mayor John Pomierski was engaged in, which included graft involving payoffs and kickbacks paid to him for providing business interests doing business with the city with preferential treatment. Pomierski’s activity subjected the city to a round of unwanted negative publicity, which included an FBI and IRS raid on City Hall in June 2010, Pomierski’s federal indictment in 2011 and his conviction in 2012, as well as the filing of three felony counts consisting of misappropriation of public funds, perjury and personally benefiting from a public contract against Pomierski’s hand-picked city manager, Robb Quincey. In the more than five years from 2005 until 2011 that Quincey served as city manager in Upland, he was given eight salary enhancements, which zoomed his total annual compensation package from $269,000 per year to $429,000 annually. Several of those enhancements played out against the backdrop of his being made eligible to receive whatever increases the city’s police officers received as a result of the collective bargaining process. The Pomierski-led council then designated Quincey to carry out the city’s collective bargaining with the police union. In the aftermath of the Pomierski scandal that rocked Upland, city officials considered it unwise to provide Upland’s municipal employees with any further salary or benefit enhancements. Upland’s city manager, the city manager’s office and the human resources manager have been involved in contract negotiations that have remained stalled for more than four years. As deputy city manager and human resources manager and later assistant city manager and city manager, Vagnozzi was involved at least tangentially and in other respects as a principal in those negotiations. Over the last year, as their members have transitioned from ten years to eleven years without any pay increases, the city’s employees unions have stepped up their efforts to pressure the city into providing substantial raises, seeking ten percent enhancements. Given the city’s current financial circumstance which renders raises of that magnitude out of the question, negotiations have approached an impasse.
In January, sensing the discontent on the council and in the community toward Vagnozzi and smelling blood in the water, both the Upland City Employees Association and the Upland Police Officers Association cast overwhelming votes of no confidence in her. By joining forces with Elliott, Zuniga and the increasingly vocal group of residents gunning for Vagnozzi’s removal, the union’s strategists hoped to convince as little as one more member of the city council to come across and fire Vagnozzi. Thereafter, in dealing with Vagnozzi’s successor, the unions would be in a position to point out that no Upland city manager could hope to keep his or her position if he or she did not placate the unions.
By March of this year, the Sentinel has learned, Vagnozzi, the most powerful personage at City Hall, the top staff member to whom all city employees were, or theoretically were, answerable, was purposefully avoiding many of those employees, winding her way, in some cases, in an indirect route as she walked through City Hall so she would not have to come face to face with or have eye contact or any other interaction with certain employees.
Still, Vagnozzi’s tenure as city manager continued, her continuing status intact and held in place by means of delicate political threads. The once-perceived displacement of the ruling coalition of which Mayor Stone had been an intrinsic part when the other three members – Timm, Robinson and Filippi – left the council, remarkably, had not been fully effectuated. Councilman Felix had not joined with Elliott and Zuniga to create a new ruling dynamic on the council. After Elliott in January, in an effort toward bridge-building and compromise, provided a crucial third vote to go along with installing Planning Commissioner Bill Velto, who was Felix and Stone’s choice, to fill the gap on the council, Velto gravitated toward an alliance with Stone and Felix. The third vote Elliott and Zuniga needed to actually terminate Vagnozzi remained elusive. That did not prevent Elliott and Zuniga from requesting and obtaining permission to discuss in closed session the quality of Vagnozzi’s service.
At a specially called meeting on March 4 the council had a closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. Likewise, at a specially called meeting on March 17 the council had a closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. Given that Vagnozzi’s contract specified that her termination could not come until 90 days after a city council member had been sworn into office, the council could not have voted at either of those junctures to fire the city manager, given that Velto had taken his place on the council on January 28. The council scheduled yet another specially called meeting on April 29, the first day upon which Vagnozzi could be terminated under the terms of her contract, for yet another closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. Given the limitations of the description of what was to be discussed, the council at that point had not given itself the option of firing her. There was no action reported to the public after the April 29 meeting, meaning Vagnozzi was yet in place. There was no sign at that point that either Velto or Felix were willing to join with Elliott and Zuniga in handing the city manager a pink slip.
At that point, however, Vagnozzi appears to have made a crucial error in judgment. Panicked or otherwise unnerved at the constant evaluations and their import, she retained a lawyer, Woodland Hills-based Terry Goldberg. Focusing on those recurrent evaluations, Goldberg sought to fire a shot across the city council’s bow to convince its members that the city would run the risk of a wrongful termination suit if it did in fact let Vagnozzi go. Goldberg’s methodology for doing so entailed a comedy of errors which ultimately had the precisely exact opposite effect than what was intended.
Through his firm, Goldberg & Gage, Goldberg filed with the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing a discrimination complaint on Vagnozzi’s behalf on May 2. In a rapid turnaround, the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing on the same day returned to Vagnozzi, in care of the Goldberg & Gage firm, a document known as a notice of case closure and right to sue. That letter stated that because Vagnozzi, through Goldberg, had requested an immediate right to sue, the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing would not itself pursue an investigation of the alleged discrimination but rather had cleared Vagnozzi to pursue a lawsuit against the city in a California court of competent jurisdiction on her own. The letter stated that Vagnozzi had one year from the May 2 date to file such a civil action. It further stated that if Vagnozzi intended to pursue a case against the city for discrimination in federal court, she must seek a federal right to sue letter within 30 days of receiving the May 2 letter or within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act, whichever is earlier.
On May 6, Goldberg’s assistant, Christina Lara, sent Upland City Clerk Keri Johnson a letter from Goldberg informing Johnson and the City of Upland that Vagnozzi had obtained a right to sue letter from the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Upon receiving the letter, Johnson made general distribution of it, which included members of the city council. The upshot of Goldberg’s communication – that Vagnozzi was contemplating suing the city – was startling in and of itself. Exacerbating the situation, the complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing was included as an attachment to Goldberg’s letter. In the complaint Goldberg stated that Vagnozzi had “suffered discrimination, retaliation, and harassment based on her protected characteristics/activities.” Those characteristics consisted of, Goldberg stated, her “religious creed, dress and grooming practices, sex/gender, medical condition (cancer or genetic characteristic), age (40 and over), marital status,” and other issues associated with her being a “member of a protected class.”
Furthermore, the letter stated that Vagnozzi “was terminated, asked impermissible non-job-related questions” and “denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation.”
Based on the tortured language in the complaint, word spread throughout City Hall that the unmarried Vagnozzi was gay and suffering from cancer, had been outed as a lesbian, and had been fired. In short order reports to the same effect had reached a substantial number of Upland residents, most particularly within those circles which had been at odds with her and City Hall for more than two years over the fire department shuttering and the fire service assessments.
Of crucial import to Vagnozzi was the impact of all of this upon the three members of the city council who until that point had not been sold on the wisdom of dispensing with her services – Stone, Felix and Velto. All three were rocked by the recognition that the city manager was on the verge of suing the city. Troubling as well was the consideration that her lawyer had moved to the conclusion, before the fact, that Vagnozzi had been fired.
Of the greatest significance was the inference that Felix drew from the tangle of circumstance. A devout and practicing member of the Upland congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with three young and impressionable daughters and whose public persona is shot through with references to his religiosity, Felix was overwhelmed by the entire circumstance, unable to process Vagnozzi’s attorney’s accusation that he and his colleagues had engaged in a show of prejudice against the city manager, particularly given that he had no previous inkling about her sexual orientation one way or the other. Seriously taken aback, he went along by the close of the business day on May 8, with Elliott, Zuniga and Velto in scheduling for the May 13 regular council meeting a closed session discussion that was to include a “performance evaluation and consideration of public employee dismissal” relating to the city manager.
Somewhat belatedly, Vagnozzi appeared to recognize that events were moving beyond her span of control. In response to the Sentinel’s inquiry on Thursday, May 9, she offered a terse and guarded statement, acknowledging that she had retained legal counsel, but downplaying the resultant legal threat to the city. “I have a right to representation, and I have retained a lawyer to make sure I am represented,” she said.
She then moved to dispel the widespread misimpressions and misinterpretations engendered by the language Goldberg had used in his letter to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
The inference that some drew to the effect that she is claiming she is being ostracized because of her sexual orientation, her manner of dress or the church she attends, she said, “is incorrect information. Perhaps he [Goldberg] confused me with another client. I am not homosexual and do not actively have any sign of cancer though do receive treatment from an oncologist. I attend a Catholic church. I have not been terminated at this time but have had numerous closed session ‘evaluations.’”
She said she had only recently retained Goldberg and said there might have been some “miscommunication.”
Whatever damage control her statements to the Sentinel represented along with any other efforts she might have made to ameliorate the members of the city council were insufficient to stave off the shellacking she took when the council met early on Monday evening.
Despite the best efforts of Mayor Stone, who in November was one of the key votes to install Vagnozzi as city manager at least through December 31, 2021, to convince Velto and Felix to stay the course with Vagnozzi, upon coming out of Monday night’s closed session, City Attorney Jim Markman reported the council voted 4-1 to dismiss Vagnozzi, officially as of June 13, just one month shy of the four-year anniversary of her July 2015 hiring by Upland. Vagnozzi would not be permitted to remain at City Hall for the next month, however, and was placed on leave, as her departure from City Hall was considered to be immediate, in accordance with what is routinely done in such partings. She was locked out of her office at once, and her access codes to the city’s information system were disabled.
A reliable source reported to the Sentinel that when it became clear to Stone that Velto was not willing to keep the coalition in support of Vagnozzi together, the mayor had a few choice words for the appointed councilman.
Acutely conscious of the issues raised in Vagnozzi’s complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the council elevated Public Works Director/City Engineer Rosemary Hoerning, a woman over the age of 40, to the post of interim city manager to take over from Vagnozzi.
Yesterday, May 16, Hoerning told the Sentinel, she could not offer any insight on the events that led to Vagnozzi’s departure. “I was not privy to what went on during the closed session,” she said.
As to the possible legal challenge Vagnozzi’s forced departure might subject the city to, Hoerning said, “I think the council was very careful in the action it took. Her evaluation had been ongoing for a while.”
Vagnozzi’s personal circumstance may not be as dire as is normally the case for someone who has just been terminated. The Sentinel contacted La Verne City Manager Robert Russi, who in November indicated his support for Vagnozzi’s hiring as Upland city manager, and who said at that time he would welcome her back to La Verne if Upland elected not to make use of her talent.
“I have been in contact with Jeannette,” Russi told the Sentinel. “While that position is currently filled, in the event that or another similar position becomes available I will be reaching out to her.”
To the Sentinel’s requests for her reaction to the council’s action, Vagnozzi offered no comment.
In a logical but somewhat delayed denouement to an act of political revenge by Upland’s lame duck city council last November, City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi was handed her walking papers this week.