Suchil Emerges As Key Vote On Compton’s Continuing Tenure In Colton

(August 14)  It appears Colton Sixth District Councilman Isaac Suchil represents the crucial swing vote with regard to whether suspended Colton City Manager Stephen Compton will be reinstated as the blue collar city’s top administrator or whether he will be fired.
Compton, a former finance director and assistant city manager in Ridgecrest and the one-time finance director for Omnitrans, had 32 years in various municipal government assignments before he was lured in March 2013 from his then-position as the accounting manager for the city of Fountain Valley to serve as Colton city manager.
He appeared to have the confidence of the full city council – six council members and mayor Sarah Zamora – until he began a close examination of the operations in the city’s public works and utilities departments.
While Colton, with a population of 52,154 ranks 14th among San Bernardino County’s 24 cities population-wise, it has one of the most energetic and extensive governmental service operations in the county, boasting its own police and fire departments, cemetery operation and utility division, including water and electricity, the later being unique among the county’s municipalities.
Because the city is such a wide-ranging entity employing a large number of workers, political patronage has long been a reality in the city, with cronies of elected officials as well as their family members being provided with jobs oftentimes without having to compete in a hiring process that entails testing with regard to ability or qualifications. Moreover, capital improvement and other municipal projects in Colton have on occasion been carried out to benefit elected officials or the neighborhoods in which they live rather than the city as a whole.
Sometime after coming to Colton, Compton, whose expertise in municipal government lies principally in the realm of finance, became aware of how the city’s management and hiring policies had been compromised by cronyism and nepotism. Additionally, because of his financial bottom-line orientation and scrutiny of city department books, he learned that  nearly $2.8 million had been diverted from the city’s general fund to pay for  capital projects without the funding shift having been voted upon by the city council and that the city had neglected to collect approaching $3 million in water service charges, also known as fireflow charges, from commercial businesses in the city between 2009 and 2012.
Using his authority as city manager to make expenditures of up to $25,000 without council approval, Compton retained the services of  Imperial Beach-based Government Staffing Services, which employed a forensic auditor, Benjamin Miller, to perform what was termed “a long term financial modeling project.” That modeling project was intended to get a firm fix on how money was being spent in the public works and utility divisions.
One item Compton’s expanding inquiry stumbled upon was the installation of speed humps on Canary Street, where councilman Frank Gonzales resides. That project had not been officially approved by the city council, but was given go-ahead by the public works department without a work order, without a traffic engineering study, without an invoice for material used, without time sheets for city employees recording the time spent on the project and without any billing of the affected residents for their share of the cost of the project, which is required for speed humps to be installed.
Compton’s inquiry into “off-the-books” projects in the public works department also brought him close to uncovering details of how public works director Amer Jakher had used his authority to have city electrical division workers, who were engaged in July 2013 with a properly ordered and documented removal of an abandoned city of Colton utility pole in the 800 block of Edgehill drive, were detailed to do work on a nearby block wall behind councilwoman Susan Oliva’s home.
In the same time frame, some council members were pushing Compton to examine the city’s contract with the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger, which employs city attorney Christine Talley, and potentially put the contract for city legal services out to bid.
With Compton’s audit coming so close to the questionable use of city personnel, equipment, resources and funds to benefit council members, and a move to perhaps bring in new legal counsel, the city council at its April 1, May 23 and June 3 regularly scheduled meetings adjourned into closed sessions to engage in, according to those meetings’ published agendas, “public employee performance evaluation[s] pursuant to Government Code Section 54957 Title:  City Manager.” After closed door discussions from which the public was excluded at each of those three council sessions, the mayor and council returned without giving any indication of reportable action. Two days after the June 3 meeting, however, toward the end of the business day, Compton was informed that he was being placed on administrative leave. He was then abruptly and ignominiously walked out of City Hall by a plain clothes police officer.
The council gave only the vaguest of explanations as the rationale for its action, with councilman Gonzales serving as its public mouthpiece. Compton had been suspended, Gonzales elliptically intimated, because he had made questionable expenditures, particularly with regard to the public works division that were beyond his $25,000 authority.
An investigation was launched, utilizing the services of Kathy M. Gandara, an Ontario-based labor law attorney.  On August 4, Gandara gave the city council an oral briefing of her findings, which showed that Compton had expended some $23,000 more than his $25,000 independent expenditure limit, and that he had made temporary employee hirings that were outside the city’s protocol.
Gandara’s report was not provided in writing, however, and at its regularly scheduled August 5 meeting, the city council did not move to terminate Compton, as some in the community had anticipated.
The Sentinel has learned that  Mayor Sarah Zamora, and council members Gonzales and Susan Oliva  are leaning in favor of sacking Compton. Council members Frank Navarro, David Toro and Deirdre Bennett are either opposed to his firing or skeptical about the reason and justification their colleagues have put forth in that regard.
In this way, councilman Isaac Suchil, whose vote was critical in the decision to suspend Compton, has emerged as the swing vote in any decision with regard to Compton’s fate.
Ironically, Suchil was seen as among those leading the charge against Compton more than two months ago. The Sentinel has obtained a series of email communications between Suchil and Compton from prior to Compton’s suspension. In those, Suchil expressed concern about the contracts the city manager had entered into on his own authority.
At 3:41 p.m. on May 8, Suchil emailed Compton. “Well Steve, I have reason to believe that this PO [purchase order] went over your authorized amount, and it should have come back to the council for the overage. Should we meet?” Suchil wrote.
This prompted a response from Compton. “I cannot let a department head continue to spend funds that impact the city general fund balance which only come to light when the auditor presents his conclusions in January of each year,” Compton wrote. “I can detail this more for you. It is similar to the $730,000 rollover concern brought up at midyear. So far I have discovered the fireflow issue of unbilled funds for $2.8 million. (impacts water department) overspending on capital improvements projects of $4.8 million and wasted information spending $265,000 (lost employee time) a year for fourteen years to care and feed three computer systems that do not and are manually maintained.”
While Suchil did join with Zamora, Gonzales and Oliva in suspending Compton in June, he does not now appear convinced that the grounds for terminating Compton are solid. Suchil is close personally to Jakher and was previously prevailed upon to push Compton – and push him hard – with regard to his spending in making the financial audit of the public works department. Suchil also brought up publicly the consideration that Compton had hired an investigator to probe the public works division, going beyond making a financial audit of operations therein. Suchil also suggested at one point that Compton had withheld information from the city council after it was requested from him but was subsequently given information to show Compton had made that information available.
For nearly two months after his suspension, Compton remained silent, seemingly twisting in the wind as the council prolonged the suspension. But late last month a group of Colton residents began pushing back, cataloging on its own certain off-the-books expenditures in the public works department. Those residents, including Steve Cade, John Anaya, Donna Lawrence, Ron Lawrence, Gary Grossich and Linda Tripp, questioned why the council had suspended Compton on the basis of $23,000 in unauthorized spending while ignoring the $4.8 million in overspending in the public works division that Compton was looking into. They suggested that Jakher should have been suspended along with Compton if the city council was indeed collectively intent on considering the overspending issue.
Then, police chief Steve Ward, who had been appointed temporary city manager during Compton’s absence, resigned from his newly designated post to return to running the police department. In his letter of resignation, Ward told the council he had initiated through the city attorney’s office an investigation into the citizens’ complaint regarding the off-the-books projects and overspending in the public works division. Pointedly, Ward told the council, “there are directors, managers and council members that do not belong in our organization. I am not used to the childish, selfish, lie to my face drama and games I’ve witnessed… and it never stops!”
Another signal that there was something amiss came when Best, Best & Krieger assigned Marco Martinez, who is city attorney Christine Talley’s supervisor at the firm, to deal with Colton.
Suchil, a law enforcement officer who is employed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, appears to have been seriously impacted by Ward’s letter of resignation. Whether his friendship with Jakher and the pressure from Zamora, Gonzales and Oliva to join with them in jettisoning Compton will influence his decision is yet up in the air. As a former law enforcement professional, he is sensitive to the consideration that Compton has his side of the story and some of it, at least, is backed with the information gleaned from the audit and investigation he carried out before he was suspended. The surfacing of that information in the future might entail complication for anyone who is seen as having taken action against the messenger, i.e., Compton, who was attempting to bring that information before the public.
At the same time, Suchil recognizes that returning Compton to his position overseeing operations at City Hall could leave Jakher remaining in place as public works director untenable.
Suchil did not respond to an email from the Sentinel seeking his input or to several phone messages left with his cell phone’s answering service. A spokeswoman for Suchil said, “You can leave a message but do not expect a call back.”

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