Suddenly & W/O Cause, Upland City Manager Gets Jettisoned

In a seemingly sudden, inexplicable, contradictory and confusing move, the Upland City Council voted 3-2 to terminate city manager Rod Butler just under two years into his tenure as the City of Gracious Living’s top administrator.
Though over the last two years and particularly in the last several months, Butler was subject to the typical pressure city managers are under to perform, to all public appearances he seemed to have a comfortable relationship with the balance of the city council, well beyond any hint that a critical three-member majority was coalescing to seek his ouster.
At a few points over the last 23 months, Butler experienced a few isolated confrontations with members of the council that were fleeting, or at least seemed so, as when earlier this year he found himself caught between Mayor Ray Musser and councilmembers Gino Filippi and Debbie Stone, after Musser had been slighted by the Upland Chamber of Commerce, which had disinvited the mayor as a keynote speaker at its state of the city address. Stone and Filippi were opposed to the city supporting the mayor in putting on an alternative state of the city forum. Stone became irate with Butler when, trying to stay on the mayor’s good side, he sent mixed signals to the chamber of commerce as to the degree to which the city was prepared to cooperate in making preparations for its event. That brouhaha appeared to be temporary, however.
The single member of the city council who apppeared to have deep differences with Butler was Glenn Bozar. Bozar, a dyed-in-the-wool financial conservative and chairman of the city’s finance committee, has vociferously lobbied for reductions in city spending. Moreover, he has taken very seriously the pension crisis looming over all cities in California, including Upland, which was brought on by commitments made in the past by elected officials up and down the state to provide extremely generous retirement packages to public employees, such that most are able to retire between the ages of 50 and 60 and receive a pension that is anywhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of their highest annual salary. This has led, in the case of Upland, to a circumstance in which Upland currently has accumulaed a calculated $87 million and growing commitment to cover pensions into the future, which translates to the city shelling out somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million per year to cover shortcomings in pension payouts to its former employees. While Bozar has continuously raised this issue and pushed his colleagues to take decisive action to head off the crisis before it manifests, he has had at best mixed success in getting support for his position from the remainder of the city council.
The tension between Bozar and Butler reached its zenith late this spring and early this summer as the city’s finance committee took up the subject of the 2016-17 fiscal year budget for the city.
Butler’s budget numbers called for a 20.3 percent increase – $1,171,145 – of the city’s contribution into the city’s pension fund; a 20 percent increase – $549,7217 – for so-called fringe benefits; and 5.39 percent – $1,024,553 – for salary increases, all within a proposed $46.5 million general fund spending allotment. Citing concerns that the California Public Employees Retirement System’s investment earnings pool would not meet its anticipated goal, Bozar, with the support of the other two members of the finance committee, councilwoman Debbie Stone and city treasurer Dan Morgan, tasked Butler to rewrite the budget and reduce spending further so the city would be able to meet an anticipated demand from the state pension fund system that the city contribute more money into the retirement account mid-year. Butler, however, was reluctant to make more than token adjustments to the spending plans for the city’s various departments and three times resubmitted to the finance committee budgets that did not meet with Bozar’s approval nor that of Morgan. At the same time, Stone appeared to be persuaded by Butler’s remonstrations that he had imposed as many economies on city operations as he reasonably could. At last, in late June, the budget as Butler had framed it was presented to the full city council without the endorsement of the finance committee. Despite Bozar’s efforts to persuade his council colleagues to hold off on the budget’s approval so more spending reductions could be made to it, his council colleagues at that point expressed confidence in Butler’s judgment and the budget was passed 4-1 over Bozar’s objection.
Shortly thereafter, according to a reliable source at City Hall, Bozar began to push for Butler’s termination, citing cause. That cause would have been based on what Bozar characteried as Butler’s insubordination, consisting of his failure to redraft the budget as he had been directed by the finance committee. Bozar’s animus was based in large measure on the revelation that the California Public Employees Retirement System had failed to meet its 7.5 percent earnings goal over the last year on its investments, earning less than one percent, meaning Upland’s 2016-17 budget would be hit with bearing the added burden of an additional $600,000 to $800,000 payment into the retirement system. Firing Butler for cause would have allowed the city to avoid the triggering of a clause in Butler’s contract that guaranteed him nine month’s pay if he were to be terminated without cause being cited. At that point, in early July, there was not a single vote on the council to support Bozar.
Some three weeks later, however, the city scheduled a special meeting on July 27 at 10:30 a.m. to discuss the termination of an unspecified city employee. After holding a short public input session on the matter, which was problematic because at that point there was no official announcement with regard to which employee was being considered for termination, the council went into a closed session with city attorney Richard Adams. When the council emerged, mayor Ray Musser designated Adams to brief the public on what had occurred. Adams then related that Butler had been terminated on a 3-2 vote, with Musser, Stone and councilman Gino Filippi supporting the action and Bozar and councilwoman Carol Timm dissenting. Adams said that Butler had been placed on administrative leave through August 29 and that his termination would be effective as of that date. Butler would receive, Adams said, nine further months of salary from that date going forward due him under his contract and that the council had authorized him to negotiate with Butler a further separation agreement, presumably calling for conferring more money on the departing city manager. Adams said the city council had directed, on a 4-1 vote with Bozar dissenting, that Martin Thouevenell, Upland’s former police chief who for a time was also acting fire chief and on two occasions stood in as interim city manager, be appointed interim city manager. Jeanette Vagnozzi, Upland’s deputy city manager/city clerk/human resources director, will oversee City Hall operations until Thouvenell’s terms of employment are secured following negotiations with him on his temporary employment contract.
While the gist of Thouvenell’s assignment is to serve in the role of caretaker until a permanent replacement for Butler is found, one specific function in Thouvenell’s assignment, the Sentinel has learned, is to observe Vagnozzi and evaluate her suitability for the role of city manager and to ultimately make a recommdendation to the council as to whether she merits being promoted to the position of the city’s top administrator.
This morning, Thouvenell told the Sentinel he had not yet worked out his terms of employment with the city.
The radical complexion change with regard to Butler at City Hall from the beginning of July when the only member of the council gunning for his head was Bozar to that at the end of July when Musser, Stone and Filippi pulled the trigger on him and Bozar and Timm were unwilling to support his termination is a perplexing one.
One reliable source told the Sentinel that in the immediate aftermath of Bozar’s effort to have him cashiered, Butler broached the issue of his continuing tenure with the other members of the council. While Butler was, at least initially, assured he had nothing to worry about, that discussion at some point morphed into a consideration of what Butler might expect if he were to make his exodus from the city. What evolved was an acknowledgment that Butler, while not anxious to leave the city’s employ per se, was beginning to buckle under the strain of the imperative, sparked by Bozar and now ineluctably being embraced by the remainder of the city council, that further downsizing of municipal operations must come about because of the city’s projected financial future. Butler, faced with the prospect that one vote – Bozar’s – already existed to terminate him with cause and that an erosion of his relationship with two further members of the council with regard to any issue or combination of issues could result in just such a termination where he would not be eligible for a severance package, veered toward leaving under favorable terms now, and simultaneously relieving himself of the pressure cooker assignment.
Somewhat ironically, it may have been Butler’s more recent efforts to move toward meeting some of Bozar’s expectations that triggered his departure. For several years, the city fire department’s continued full-fledged operation of its fire station on San Antonio Avenue has been controversial, as some feel that the operation of a fire truck from that facility is a redundancy, given the geographical distribution of other firefighting assets available to the city, including other city fire stations, the county fire station in San Antonio Heights on Euclid Avenue near the northern border of the city and the CalFire station near the entrance of the National Forest. A suggestion that the fire fighting crew and its engine be withdrawn from the station and that the station be manned by a two-paramedic crew has been consistently resisted by the firefighters’ union. Butler’s apparent willingness to consider the proposal to convert the San Antonio station to a two-man outpost would put him crosswise with Stone, who counts as one of her major constituencies the firefighters union. A fast political alliance has been in place conjoining Stone with Filippi for nearly three years, such that Filippi and Stone are in lockstep on virtually every issue coming before the city council. By attempting to achieve some traction toward the economies Bozar envisions and simply contemplating reducing fire department operations, Butler may have compromised his long term viability as city manager, making an early exodus with a golden handshake for him a desired outcome.
Efforts to get a firsthand account of events from Butler were unsuccessful. He was not present at City Hall on Wednesday and had not returned by Thursday. It appears that he is no longer authorized to access his office at City Hall.
City attorney Richard Adams said there could be no official release of information to the matter pertaining to Butler beyond his statement at Wednesday morning’s meeting.
Those city officials who consented to speak to the Sentinel did so guardedly and with considerable circumspection.
One pointed out that Butler’s departure, after less than two years with Upland, fits what is now discernible as a disturbing pattern, as he remained in the position of city manager with the City of Patterson in Northern California for just three-and-a-half years, from February 2011 until August 2014. Butler’s one other city managerial assignment prior to Patterson was the two years he spent as the top administrator in Crescent City. Butler had previous municipal government positions at lower levels with the cities of Chino, Claremont, Ontario, and Pomona. Former Interim Upland City Manager Martin Lomeli had recommended Butler as the leading candidate among nine considered for the job in 2014. One Upland city official told the Sentinel that the city should have considered other candidates who had demonstrated longevity of five years or more in managerial positions. The official told the Sentinel that “now was the time” to make a decision with regard to Butler, as the electoral season will soon be upon the city “and that would end up in people on the council making decisions for political reasons.”
Another official told the Sentinel that it appeared Butler was getting along well with the balance of the council but that he was wearying of the challenges being city manager presented. “It looks like he just lobbed a softball to the council,” the official said, meaning that Butler offered to leave the city under favorable terms, both for himself and the members of the council, that would not prove problematic for anyone going forward or entail any possible future divisiveness.
A former official told the Sentinel, “Rod is real good at taking directions from the council. He’s not that good at giving directions. He’s not an aggressive leader. The council is supposed to decide where the city wants to go and the city manager is supposed to figure out a way for the city to get there and make sure it goes to where council wants. Rod was waiting for the city council to tell him how to get there. He was constantly waiting for directions. The thing is, if you ask the council for directions, you’re going to get five different answers. He needed to be a leader and figure out what to do and how to do it. The city was in a holding pattern.”

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