29 Palms City Council Publicly Reenacts Closed Door Guzzetta Hiring

(May 17) TWENTYNINE PALMS — The Twentynine Palms city council this week sought to undo a tangle of procedural errors and alleged violations of the California Government Code that took place when it made hasty arrangements to cashier former city manager Richard Warne and hire in his place Joe Guzzetta, the general manager for Joshua Basin Water District. While it laid to a somewhat fitful rest the  issues with regard to Guzzetta’s hiring, it did not resolve the questions pertaining to Warne’s firing.
Without being specific as to its precise motivation, the city council during a closed session on April 9 delivered Warne with an ultimatum: voluntarily retire or be fired. Warne departed City Hall that evening, never to return. City officials remained mum about the development for nearly a week, and then announced his leaving on April 15. It was asserted at that point that Warne, who had been in place as city manager just two weeks shy of two years, had retired and that the council had conferred upon him a severance package of $203,435, equal to his combined $174,947 annual salary and $28,488 of accrued benefits.
Of issue to some in the community was that Warne’s contract did not provide for a severance payout in the event that he voluntarily retired. The city issued a subsequent statement that Warne had chosen to retire when faced with an imperative that he do so or otherwise be terminated.
Subsequently, on April 30, the council made a closed door decision to hire Guzzetta after winnowing the field of Warne’s possible replacements to three candidates. During that same closed session, the council discussed and arrived at a decision to provide Guzzetta with a $184,000 salary and a $6,000 per year contribution to his retirement fund.
In short order, former city councilman Steve Spear made public note of what he considered to be violations of protocol and state law in the hiring procedure for Guzzetta, which included his writing a letter to the district attorney’s office seeking prosecutorial review of the matter. This prompted a mild rebuke from city attorney A. Patrick Munoz, who suggested Spear had a less than perfect understanding of the law and hiring procedure.
Spear, however, persisted and he was soon joined by several other residents who were critical of the city council’s closed door decision-making and failure to hold a public hearing related to Guzzetta’s selection.
Specifically, Spear put forth that the council had bypassed entirely provisions of AB1344, a recently codified portion of the state’s Government Code relating to the need of the council, as the city’s governing body, to discuss Guzzetta’s salary, benefits and all other forms of compensation in public. In something of a reversal, Munoz relented and instructed the city clerk “out of an abundance of caution” to agendize for the council’s May 14 meeting an open session discussion of Guzzetta’s employment. In that process, Munoz had the council rescind its April 30 hiring of Guzzetta and make it so that the official hiring took place as of May 14.
At that meeting, Munoz used some rather tortured language in delivering what was essentially an apology to Spear for having claimed he did not know what he was talking about when he questioned the hiring process for Guzzetta.  Munoz said he and the council would not “even try to advance any argument that there’s some way to get around complying with the actual letter of the law,” essentially an acknowledgement that the council had done just that.
After voiding Guzzetta’s original contract, on Tuesday, May 14, the council reenacted in public the private decision to hire Guzzetta.
A bevy of residents weighed in on the matter, criticizing the decision to hire Guzzetta as too hasty, ill considered and overly generous.
Spear told the council it was not under the gun to act at once and could take time to consider all of its options and consider further candidates before making a decision.
Another former Twentynine Palms councilman and mayor, Jim Bagley, called Guzzetta’s $184,000 salary “irresponsible” and excessive “for a city the size of Twentynine Palms.”
Bagley said the city was taking on further, hidden and unfunded liabilities with regard to Guzzetta’s involvement in the state’s Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Steve Urban reiterated Bagley’s comments, saying that the total compensation package  Guzzetta would get annually would be at or above $200,000, which he said was inappropriate in a city of 28,000 population where the median income is $30,000.
But any members of the public who expected the council to rescind the hiring were disappointed. While the council expressed regret at how they had done so, none were apologetic for what they had done. They voted 4-0, with councilman Jay Corbin absent, to hire Guzzetta at the $184,000 annual salary price tag.
They did so after Guzzetta had come to the podium to defend himself, telling the council and the crowd that he was leaving the security of his current position with the water district and coming into a job under a contract that did not provide him with a severance pay guarantee during his first three months and then only a three-month severance guarantee after that. He said his contract did not provide him or his family with health coverage, a vehicle or a vehicle allowance.
In making his pitch, Guzzetta asked the council to give him a chance to work with the city to prove what he can accomplish as city manager. The council took him up on that request.
Mayor Joel Klink said Guzzetta was clearly “the best out of the three candidates we interviewed.”
The council did not address the issue of Warne’s termination or answer questions about the discrepancy between his contract, which had no provision for a severance payout in the event of his retirement, and the severance he was provided in the aftermath of his “voluntary” departure.

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