Yucca Valley Sidesteps $750,000 Nuaimi Contract Buyout With $126,666 Severance

Mark Nuaimi will receive $126,666 in severance pay, pursuant to his termination as city manager, which was concluded by a unanimous vote of the town council this week.
Nuaimi, whose dismissal as the chief staff member of 20,700-population Yucca Valley this month represents one of the most rapid demises of a top city official in county history, will not be provided with the entirety of the $750,000 he was due to receive under the terms of his contract, which was renewed for three years last February.
It was the extension of that contract which ironically led to Nuaimi’s forced exodus this week, one unanimously approved by all five council members, including the four town council members who approved the contract six months ago.
That contract extension, which kept his $190,000 per year salary in place while increasing his benefits to over $100,000 annually with yearly enhancements that would see his total compensation exceed $300,000 by February 2015, created a firestorm of controversy in Yucca Valley, where the mean annual household income is $34,000.
Adding injury to that insult, Nuaimi further angered the town’s citizenry when in March he undertook the eradication of the town’s $400,000 budget deficit by effecting a  17 percent reduction in the town’s workforce, from 41 to 34 full time employees, including the layoffs of the town’s associate planner and Yucca Valley’s two recreation coordinators, what appeared to be the forced or incentivized retirement of town clerk Jamie Anderson and community services director Jim Schooler and museum supervisor Lynn Richardson, along with a museum assistant, an animal shelter administrative assistant and a code compliance technician. In addition, Nuaimi announced that the town would do away with or severely curtail four popular municipal programs – the operation of the town’s pool during summer months, the Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, the town museum and Yucca Valley’s Concerts in the Park.
The council in February was composed of four members – Mayor Merle Abel and council members Dawn Rowe, Robert Lombardo and George Huntington – as Isaac Hagerman had resigned in 2012 and had yet to be replaced. So intense was the anger with Nuaimi’s contract and the diversion into his pocket of money that would have paid for the maintenance of the cancelled recreation and cultural programs that community members began to openly discuss a recall attempt targeting Abel, Rowe, Lombardo and Huntington. In time, recall proponents, led by Ron Cohen, elected to focus on Lombardo and Huntington, who had been reelected to the council without opposition in 2012, and seek to remove Abel and Rowe next year when they are due to stand for reelection.
Lombardo and Huntington’s supporters, as well as those of  Rowe and Abel, have denounced the recall attempt as misguided, saying Lombardo and Huntington had done nothing meriting the attempt to remove them and had merely taken prudent steps to ensure the town’s solvency.  Nevertheless, outrage in the community festered and, according to the recall campaign’s sponsors, more than half of the signatures needed to force a referendum on Huntington and Lombardo’s continued tenure on the council had been  gathered by the end of July.
Nuaimi yet appeared to be riding high and maintaining the confidence of the full council.
But with the recall effort progressing, on August 10 Lombardo and Huntington,  Republicans both, took the extraordinary step of appearing before the Morongo Basin Democratic Club, hoping to use that forum to present their side with regard to the effort to recall them from office and offer those assembled justification of their records and action in office to persuade at least some of that group that removing them from office is not warranted.
Before the crowd, Lombardo and Huntington sought to explain how it was that the council was reliant upon Nuami’s guidance with regard to governance and management in Yucca Valley. But it was the club’s members, instead, who made the more compelling case as one after another provided unremittingly negative assessments of Nuaimi’s performance and people-handling skills. So overwhelming were those impassioned remarks that before the meeting concluded Huntington said he previously had no idea of the communitiy’s depth of discontent with the city manager. At last devoid of grounds upon which to make a defense of Nuaimi, Lombardo said he would give consideration to cashiering the city manager. Huntington seconded that sentiment. Four days later, the entire city council met in a specially-called meeting and placed Nuami on administrative leave.
In the ensuing days, the council directed city attorney Lona Laymon to work out some accommodation with Nuaimi by which he would make a permanent exodus with minimal repercussions to the council. Laymon and Nuaimi thereafter negotiated a separation agreement that neutralized the possibility that Nuaimi would stake a claim to the $750,000 he could assert he was due to collect under the terms of February’s contract extension, given that it covers a term through February 2016. Such a possibility was tenuous, since the contract extension maintained language from Nuaimi’s original contract that characterized him as an “at-will” employee of the town.
Language in the severance agreement provides a window on the delicate position the town and the council are in, as well as efforts that Nuaimi apparently went to in order to maintain his professional viability hereon out by avoiding the council citing a cause for terminating him. The agreement states, “The town and employee mutually agree that employee shall be dismissed without cause, with an effective non-cause dismissal date of August 20, 2013. Employee and the town agree that because the town initiated his dismissal from employment with the town, under Contract Section 4.1(c), employee is entitled to severance pay in accordance with the terms of the contract. Specifically, the town shall provide employee with eight (8) months’ salary (salary payment) and continuation of employee’s health benefits as of the employee’s severance date, for twelve (12) months or until employee finds other employment, whichever comes first. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the employee has become the focal point
of a political divide in the community. There exists a bona fide dispute of fact as to whether the town has any basis to claim that employee ever conducted himself within the defined parameters set forth in Section 3.4 of his contract (the “Dispute”). However, town and employee agree that the employee’s immediate dismissal without cause is in the best interest of the town in that all employee’s waivers of claims herein are made in consideration for town’s agreement to dismiss employee without cause and waive any claims it may have in dispute with employee. Such not-for-cause dismissal will allow the town to immediately replace employee so that the town can focus on the many challenges presently facing the community, and will secure the town valuable protections from any and all legal claims that might be asserted by employee.”
In response to the town council’s action, Cohen and the other proponents of the recall reiterated their intention to seek to have Huntington and Lombard removed from office.
“The recall is not about the performance of town manager Mark Nuaimi but about the decisions of council members Huntington and Lombardo,” Cohen said. “The recall proponents, in their initial notice, provided a list of charges against both council members Huntington and Lombardo. These charges have not been satisfactorily addressed. Mr. Nuaimi engaged in ‘willful misconduct’ deserving of immediate termination. Based on the details of the posted severance agreement between the town and Mr. Nuaimi, the council has, in fact, grounds for Mr. Nuaimi’s dismissal with cause, but chooses not to pursue this path.”
The approval of the severance package, Cohen charged, rendered the council “guilty of yet another poor fiscal decision—one that requires the taxpayers of Yucca Valley to pay for the failures of the council.” He said that the vote to provide Nuaimi with the $126,666 in severance pay merely provided the residents of Yucca Valley with “more reason to recall council members Huntington and Lombardo.” He said the council should have “terminated Mr. Nuaimi with cause and without severance.”

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