Upland Preparing To Fight Vagnozzi Wrongful Termination Suit Before A Jury

The City of Upland this week spurned an attempt to settle the wrongful termination lawsuit brought against it by former City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi, signaling instead it is willing to face down the accusations it and its officials acted prejudiciously toward her when it acted to terminate her in May 2019, less than six months after her chaotic and contentious tenure officially at the helm of the City of Gracious Living began.
At issue in the case, if indeed it does go to trial, is whether Vagnozzi was treated unfairly by four-fifths of the city council, including three members installed into office less than two months after she was promoted into the position of full-fledged city manager, or whether, in agreeing to take on the city manager’s post in a vote that consisted of the last action of three lame duck council members, she bit off far more than she could chew, thereby consigning herself to what some consider to have been a foreordained failure.
What proved out to be Vagnozzi’s misplacement in the role of Upland City Manager played against a backdrop of action and political miscalculation on her part in the years before her promotion to city manager and further miscalculation and action taken in the months after she assumed the city manager role.
Historically, at least since 1990, the position of Upland city manager has been a post fraught with both political and professional peril. City managers in all municipal jurisdictions must continuously remain in favor with a majority of their respective city councils, which is often a tortuous assignment in itself, given the myriad issues and matters a city manager is called upon to resolve, each one of which carries with the possibility of offending one of his or her political masters. In Upland, which has had more than its share of challenges, including having a mayor, commissioner and city manager indicted or criminally charged and convicted on political and public corruption charges within the last decade-and-a-half, remaining in office as city manager for any length of time is a daunting challenge, and the footing below the city manager’s feet at Upland City Hall remains, to this day, slippery. During the period from 1943, when Upland first created the official position of city manager, until 1990, the city stood as a model of managerial stability, having had only three individuals – Richard Manley, Elwin “Pinky” Alder and Lee Travers – in the city’s top staff position over the course of 47 years. In the 32 years since then, however, Upland has had a succession of 14 city managers: Ray Silver, Mike Matlock in an interim capacity, Kevin Northcraft, Martin Thouvenell in an interim role, G. Michael Milhiser, Robin Quincey, Stephen Dunn, Martin Lomeli, Rod Butler, Martin Thouvenell once more in the role of interim manager over a span of 17 months, Bill Manis, Martin Thouvenell a third intermittent time, Vagnozzi, Rosemary Hoerning, Steven Parker in an interim role, and now Michael Blay. The average tenure of each of those managers, counting Thouvenell’s three terms separately, is two years.
Vagnozzi was hired as a special assistant to then-City Manager Rod Butler in 2015 before transitioning into an assistant city manager’s role which also had her fulfilling, at one point simultaneously, the functions of administrative services director, human resources director, risk manager and city clerk. She at least seemed to be performing adequately in those capacities. In making herself at home in them, she became identified with senior staff in a way that committed her to the political alignments that by 2016 had seeped into the city’s administrative ethos. This alignment benefited and penultimately advanced her professionally, indeed obtained for her the ultimate prize of becoming city manager. With her decision to line up on the side of those in City Hall who were in ascendancy in late 2016, all of 2017 and most of 2018, however, she was left in a precarious position beginning in late 2018, literally weeks after she became city manager, when the political wind she had sailed and glided with for two years shifted to become a headwind which sent her careening in a tailspin to earth toward a hard landing.
Rod Butler had been hired as Upland city manager in 2014. He was faced with managing a senior administrative staff that had been winnowed considerably over the previous few years by the loss of several department heads. In 2015, he convinced the city council to fund a special administrative assistant-to-the-city manager position and he 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 duties in Upland included serving as city clerk, administrative services director, human resources manager and risk management director. By the fall of 2015, she had conformed herself well into all of her roles. In early 2016, the title of deputy city manager was conferred upon her. All seemed well. Precipitously, however, in the summer of 2016, three members of the city council – Mayor Ray Musser, then-Councilwoman Debbie Stone and Councilman Gino Filippi – for different, indeed in the cases of Musser and Stone conflicting, reasons, 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 for two days, and brought in 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 a 17-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 the next 16 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.
Thouvenell, a domineering A-type personality, seized, or was given by the council majority, carte blanche over the city. In the initial stages of Elliott’s first term, Mayor Stone, Councilman Robinson, Councilwoman Carol Timm and Councilman Gino Filippi went along with Thouvenell’s cost cutting and revenue generating plans. A part of Thouvenell’s strategy was 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. Only Councilwoman Elliott opposed that move.
At Thouvenell’s instigation, the council pushed forward with a host of programs, moves and strategies, virtually all of which some interest group or other in Upland resisted. Two such proposals were for the city to sell 12 percent of its landmark Memorial Park to adjoining San Antonio Hospital for use as a parking lot and effectuating a trade with Lewis Homes for Cabrillo Park, located within an existing residential district on 11th Street, for dormant quarry property proximate to the 210 Freeway. Time and again, Elliott emerged as the one member of the council either opposing or questioning the items on Thouvenell’s agenda, which were automatically supported by the council majority. As a result, Elliott early on became persona non grata with the council and Thouvenell, who orchestrated a series of actions to neuter her politically. These included removing her from council subcommittees internally at City Hall and withdrawing her as the city’s representative to intercity organizations and joint powers authorities and conferring her share of those assignments on the other members of the council. Ultimately, the city council passed a resolution of censure against her.
As the contretemps between Elliott on one side and Thouvenell and the council on the other side continued, Vagnozzi made what she considered to be a safe political calculation, siding with the council majority and Thouvenell, who was, throughout 2017, conducting an evaluation of candidates to serve as city manager. Vagnozzi, in her role as deputy city manager, administrative service director and city clerk, facilitated the censuring of Elliott and her removal from the various subcommittee and adjunct governmental positions she held.
Ultimately, the council, advised by Thouvenell, overlooked Vagnozzi’s application for city manager 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.
In his role as city manager, Manis found himself over and over again in the shadow of the overbearing Thouvenell, to the point that it created for him something of a psychological crisis. By the summer of 2018, he was seeking employment elsewhere. In September, he came to terms with the city council on a deal by which he would leave as city manager officially as of November 1, staying on the city payroll until that date, but departing from his office in City Hall immediately. Thouvenell was again the acting city manager, and with Vagnozzi ran the city.
2018 was an election year. Historically, Upland elected its council members and mayor in at-large elections in which candidates were drawn from anywhere within the 15.62-square mile city limits and all residents were free to vote with regard to all city council seats that were open, those being one along with the mayor’s post in elections corresponding with the general U.S. Presidential race and three council seats in California Gubernatorial election years. In 2018, however, Upland was set to make a transition, such that for the first time in its then 112-year history it was to hold by-district council elections.
Elliott had been elected to a four-year at-large term in 2016, so she was not due to seek reelection until 2020. In an effort to cripple her politically, Thouvenell together with Vagnozzi and the four members of the council majority drew an electoral map that created council districts and election sequencing that were intended to benefit incumbents Gino Filippi and Carol Timm. The map divided the city into what were essentially northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast quadrants, designated, respectively, as the First, Second, Third and Fourth districts. With the at-large terms to which Filippi and Timm had been elected in 2014 coming to an end in 2018, Thouvenell and Vagnozzi arranged, and the council voted, to schedule the elections for the Second, Third and Fourth districts to take place in 2018 and every four years thereafter, and the elections for mayor and the First District to take place in 2020 and every four years thereafter. As Filippi was a resident of the Third District and Timm a resident of the Fourth District, this fell in keeping with the cycling of elections that matched their then-current tenure. That is, they were scheduled in 2018 to seek election to their respective district posts as their at-large terms were ending. This was not the case with Elliott, who was a resident of the newly created Second District. If she simply served out the term to which she had been elected in 2016, as that term came to an end in 2020, she would not be able to seek election, or reelection as it were, to the council, since the election for the Second District council member at that point would have taken place two years previously and the Second District post would not be up for reelection at that point until two years hence, i.e., 2022.
The ploy hatched by Thouvenell and Vagnozzi to lull Elliot into a sense of political complacency and inaction, however, did not work. Recognizing she would automatically lose her spot on the council in 2020 if she did not run in 2018, a mere two years after her maiden election to the council, Elliot did not fall into the trap that had been set for her. She ran for the Second District council position that year.
At that point, the chicks hatched during Thouvenell’s 17 months as city manager and the time he had served as management consultant had come home to roost. Citizens opposed to the county’s takeover of the fire department and the imposition of the fire tax as well as the sale of Memorial Park to San Antonio Hospital had taken legal action to block those moves, both of which would ultimately succeed. Ultimately, the major leadership initiatives undertaken during Thouvenell’s reign as city manager which had been backed by the council majority were undone or discredited. Intense resident resentment at what had gone on during Stone’s two-years as mayor lingered throughout the city. Stone would not be up for election for two years, but her council allies Timm and Filippi were. Robinson, who had been appointed to a two-year term in 2016, saw the writing on the wall, and chose not to run against Elliott. In the November 2018 election, Elliott defeated Planning Commissioner Yvette Walker, who at that point was allied with the Stone, Timm, Filippi and Robinson. Filippi and Timm were defeated by newcomers Ricky Felix and Rudy Zuniga, respectively.
Following the election, the Upland City Council as it was then composed had two regularly scheduled meetings in November, on the 12th and the 26th. Thereafter, at the  next meeting of the council, scheduled for December 10, 2018, the new members Felix and Zuniga would be sworn in and Robinson, Filippi and Timm would depart.
Word radiated from City Hall outward that the lame duck council was brewing a departure concoction that everyone in the city would need to take a swig of. Rumors abounded. On Wednesday, November 21, the day before Thanksgiving at 5:48 p.m., the Upland City Clerk’s office released the agenda for the Monday November 26 meeting, revealing what it was that the outgoing council had in store for the City of Gracious Living. The council that night would consider hiring Jeannette Vagnozzi on a three-year contract as city manager.
The Upland community was blindsided by the development. From the time Butler had been given his walking papers in the summer of 2016 until that point, the previous and then-current city council had multiple opportunities to promote Vagnozzi into the city manager’s position, but had declined. At that point, after more than two years of overlooking her, after concluding on multiple occasions that she was not the right fit for the job, Stone and the three council members who were on the verge of leaving office decided that now was the time to saddle their successors with Vagnozzi.
Between the announcement of what was to occur with the release of the agenda and the meeting where the hiring was to be effectuated was the long Thanksgiving holiday and Monday morning and afternoon. A real opportunity for public discussion and assimilation of what was to take place did not exist. Still, despite the intervening holiday break, several Upland citizens sought out Vagnozzi in the days and hours before the city council meeting, appealing to her to decline the outgoing city council’s elevation of her to the city manager’s post and instead give what was then to be the incoming city council the option of either selecting her to serve in the city’s top administrative post or keep her as assistant city manager. One of her friends pointed out that at that time it was not yet known who all five members of the council were going to be, as someone to serve out the remaining two years of Elliott’s at-large term had yet to be chosen. By accepting the job, Vagnozzi’s friend reasoned, she would run the risk of antagonizing at least two if not three and maybe even four of the members of the city council, making her tenure, as long as it might last, miserable, and likely dooming her to a very abbreviated run in the city’s top staff spot. It would be better, Vagnozzi was counseled, if she were to remain in the acting city manager’s post but not accept the city manager’s appointment at that time, giving the city council the opportunity to judge her performance and determine on their own and on her merits whether she should be promoted by those she was going to have to work with over the next two and four years. If she failed to make the grade that the city council wanted in a city manager, it was pointed out, she would yet be able to remain in the assistant city manager post, which she was already deemed qualified for.
Vagnozzi responded that she had no illusions about having already burned her bridges with Elliott, and that she could not risk her future on the whim of three new council members she did not know. Indicating that her appointment by the outgoing council was guaranteed, she said she was going to accept the appointment as city manager.
At the November 26 meeting, 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 hiring Vagnozzi as city manager.
Upland residents Ralph Cavallo, Terri Donaldson, Hydee Hall, Carolyn Anderson and Linda Biscardi, who is also Vagnozzi’s cousin, spoke highly of her, giving glowing testimonial descriptions of her talents, and endorsed her hiring.
In addition, Jon Blickenstaff, a former mayor in La Verne, said he had known Vagnozzi for 30 years. He remarked that La Verne had made efforts to persuade her from leaving her position there to begin working in Upland in 2015. “It’s my observation that all of Jeannette’s work in both La Verne and Upland has been characterized by excellence, and she is the epitome of competence, dedication, civic experience, creativity, interpersonal skills and passion,” Blickenstaff said, adding that a wider search for another city manager candidate would be unlikely to unearth anyone who would surpass her.
Don Kendrick, the then-current mayor of La Verne, lauded Vagnozzi as “an amazing leader” and “a great facilitator” with “great vision and the ability to see things as they need to be done and those people to get them done. She is a great facilitator of people.”
Bob Russi, La Verne’s city manager, said that while Vagnozzi worked for him, “She served La Verne very well. 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.”
Others were less confident that Upland was making the best choice in hiring Vagnozzi. Most were less critical of her than they were uncertain about her suitability for the role being offered her. Most wanted the city to do a side-by-side comparison of her with other potential city managers.
Sharon Harden, a records clerk in the Upland Police Department who spoke on behalf of the Upland City Employees Association, which represented roughly half of the city’s employees, and Vera Heilman, a code enforcement officer with the city, called upon the council to hold off on hiring Vagnozzi and carry out a nationwide recruitment of qualified candidates before hiring a city manager.
Larry Kinley, who was at that time Upland’s treasurer, said, “The new city council should be given their own opportunity to select their own city manager. If they decide another city manager would be needed and they select another city manager, then we are going to be paying twice. We are going to be paying for Vagnozzi’s compensation for one or two years, whatever her contract is, plus the salary and benefits for a new city manager. So, we would be up to half of a million dollars, probably, for that position.”
Marla White, a 13-year resident of Upland, said, “It is clear the candidate that is being presented here tonight has high qualifications, but it seems it should be the new city council that should vote on such a critical matter. What is the rush to put in a permanent city manager until these people [the new council] have had a chance to get their feet wet?”
Steve Carvalho asked “What is the rush to appoint a new city manager? The recent election showed that the people of this city are paying attention. The residents want change of leadership. No financial or employment decisions should be made by the outgoing city council. The new city council should vet and hire the new city manager. A prudent employer has an interview process and a probationary period before committing to permanent employment. This protects the employer and the employee.”
Barbara McJoynt said that she was concerned that city staff was violating the proper protocol by “adding an agenda item without full and prior knowledge of the full council.” Her reference in that regard was to the consideration that Elliott had not been informed about the proposal ahead of time.
“I am asking you to postpone action on this item, as I have serious concerns about this process,” McJoynt said. “You have chosen to deviate from the norm with this move. I’m not in a position to render judgment about this individual, but as to the process, it is flawed.”
David Wade said that rushing to hire Vagnozzi carried with it the risk of costing the city “hundreds of thousands of dollars. If it doesn’t work out, like the six city managers we’ve had in as many years didn’t work out, she’s walking away with a huge bonus. That’s what this appears to me to be. A huge bonus for no value added. I believe we should have a hiring process. I don’t see any exigent circumstance whatsoever to do this tonight. I don’t think you need to do anything tonight. I don’t think you need to add to our exposure by giving a large bonus to somebody without proper vetting and the opportunity for other applicants to have a chance to fill this position.”
Diane Fedele said, “The current council continues to spend without apparent regard for the impact it has.” She said the council had made “more and more poor choices, ones you have not investigated nor researched thoroughly. You and previous city councils have been convinced to approve seven city managers in 13 years. For one reason and another, they have all left, and we the residents have paid their severance packages and are continuing to pay them their benefits and their California Public Employee Retirement System pensions to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now there’s an item tonight on the agenda to hire another. I don’t know Jeannette. I don’t know if she’s good at her job. I hear she is. My concern isn’t centered around that. My concern is: Why are you in such a big hurry to hire her, to promote her? In two weeks, the newly elected council members will be sworn in. Why then, do you feel it is your responsibility to hire someone for them? The voters in the three districts made themselves pretty clear when they voted to have all of you replaced. They wanted their choices to speak for them. They wanted them to be an independent voice. They wanted them to do their research and investigation.”
Steven Bierbaum said the item to hire Vagnozzi was put on the agenda only after it had become clear that Timm and Filippi would not be reelected, “with no forewarning whatsoever, no application or interview process, and most importantly, no communication with at least one of the current sitting members of this council, who, with respect, will be the only city council member seated here at the next meeting. The city council and senior city staff failed to notify or discuss the proposed hiring of a new city manager with all sitting city council members and city employee groups of their intended actions.” Bierbaum decried the springing of the hiring announcement on the evening before the onset of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Brinda Sarathy said, “I believe that appointing Ms. Vagnozzi in this way, by an outgoing city council, casts a cloud over the hire, does a disservice to Ms. Vagnozzi’s reputation, and furthers public distrust, which was clearly evident in the outcome of our recent election. An appointment in this manner might also lead to an atmosphere of toxicity within City Hall, if people feel that process was not followed. I also think the incoming city council should exercise caution and wisdom, so that they can give due time to see how competent Ms. Vagnozzi is and decide how to move forward, also in good faith.”
Irmalinda Osuna called for “forming a selection committee, establishing a set of criteria in terms of the mission, vision, goals and objectives for the city, advertising the position opening, evaluating the candidates’ statements of qualifications, documenting the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and conducting interviews for a final evaluation” before filling the city manager’s position.
April McCormick was the most critical voice with regard to Vagnozzi, stating that “In her role of city clerk she has been unable to answer a public records request. She’s not working for the citizens. She’s working against them at every single turn. To not submit this process to a bid, advertise it normally, take applications, interview people is a travesty of justice, democracy and everything else in this city that you just stepped on during your tenure here.”
Councilman-elect Ricky Felix asked the council to defer the hiring decision with regard to Vagnozzi to those who would be on the council in the weeks, months and years ahead.
“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.”
Councilwoman Carol Timm, who was not at the meeting, sent from North Carolina, where she was still 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.
Councilman Sid Robinson 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 the current council to do so for them. He said recruiting and evaluating city manager candidates was “a very long and tiresome process,” one which had already been carried out. “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 called selecting and hiring Vagnozzi “a gift to the next council. She’s proven her worth and value and I don’t think Upland can afford to lose her.”
Councilman Gino Filippi said, “Some of the choices with city managers have been wrong. 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.”
Mayor Debbie Stone, obliquely referenced Thouvenell’s previous 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.”
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.”
Janice Elliott said, “My concern is not about the city manager but the timing and also the selection process.” She said the city could keep Vagnozzi on as the acting city manager and that the selection should “take time. Haste makes waste.” She said the hiring would be a “disservice. 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.”
Before voting on approving the contract, Elliott sought to amend it 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 conferred upon Vagnozzi 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. That motion died for lack of a second and the contract providing Vagnozzi with a $205,368 salary, roughly $66,000 more per year than the $139,244.85 she had made as deputy city manager and some $58,000 more per year than she was making as assistant city manager, along with $28,200 in other pay and add-ons, $66,000 in benefits and a $68,599.21 contribution toward her retirement fund for a total annual compensation of $368,167.21 was approved 3-to-1, with Elliott dissenting.
Thouvenell’s management consulting contract with the city, which had been initiated on January 2, 2018 with Manis’s ascendancy to the city manager’s position, ran until December 31, 2018. But with Manis’s departure as city manager, the growing citizen discontent that manifested with the defeat of Filippi and Timm and the general course of events, he decided that the time for him to make his exit had come. He resigned his management consultancy in November, before Vagnozzi was hired as city manager. Vagnozzi thus took on the full-fledged city manager role utterly alone, without the support network of an assistant to the city manager, deputy city manager or assistant city manager, administrative services director or risk manager, roles she herself had filled previously. From the outset, she was overwhelmed in the city manager assignment, indeed overmatched, and unequal to the task.
Over the previous two years, as the 2014 recovery from the economic downturn of 2007 had sustained itself into a fourth and fifth year, the city’s employees’ bargaining units began to stir, floating increasingly bolder proposals as they sought substantial salary increases in collective bargaining exchanges with city leaders. Nevertheless, they had been held somewhat in check by the autocratic Thouvenell. With his resignation, however, it was as if city employees had been freed from their collective straitjacket. Enlivened, they began to push even harder. Moreover, it was not lost on the union leadership that Vagnozzi, having carried out assignments as deputy city manager and assistant city manager in keeping with Thouvenell’s unpopular policies, was decidedly out of favor with a small but quite vocal and active group of citizen activists. Further, Vagnozzi’s show of distrust and what was interpreted as a lack of respect for four of the council members under whom she thereafter served when she accepted the promotion to city manager weakened her. Reading the strong sentiment against Vagnozzi, the union leadership intensified efforts to achieve a new contract by personalized attacks upon her, believing their continuing pressure would pay dividends. Before the calendar had run through December, the union members took to wearing pins emblazoned with “11,” symbolic of the number of years they claimed to have worked since having last had a renewed contract or cost of living adjustment. The pins became a constant reminder of the tension at City Hall. The union leadership and its members were unrelenting, figuring that Vagnozzi sooner rather than later would cave and simply provide them with the raises in the five to six percent range they were demanding. If Vagnozzi held the line on that issue, then they were ready to escalate, sensing her firing would result if the council came to understand she did not have control of the troops she oversaw. Vagnozzi’s departure would ultimately be in the employees’ interest, the union leaders were convinced, since her replacement would come to the bargaining table knowing that his or her predecessor had lost her job, at least in some measure, because of not being able to keep peace with the city’s employees.
Vagnozzi was already on the outs with Elliott. The two newcomers, Felix and Zuniga, didn’t quite know what to make of the situation. Zuniga expected Vagnozzi to get a handle on things. When she did not, sensing that the situation was a reflection on the entire city as well as on him as one of its elected leaders, he became convinced that Vagnozzi was miscast in the role of city manager.
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 in the second week of January 2019 cast overwhelming votes of no confidence in her.
On January 16, 2019, the city council settled on appointing Planning Commissioner Bill Velto to fill the empty at-large council position that was vacated so Elliott could serve as Second District Councilwoman.
Soon thereafter, City Hall was in chaos and Vagnozzi was a basket case.
By late February, 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 theoretically needed to actually terminate Vagnozzi was not in place. 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, 2019 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 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 point at which point 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 that either Velto or Felix was 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 the Woodland Hills-based law firm of Goldberg and Gage. 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 litany 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. That complaint dated the city’s action against Vagnozzi had taken place “on or about April 29, 2019.” 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 the city that the unmarried Vagnozzi was gay and suffering from cancer, had been outed as a lesbian, and had been fired. In short order those reports were picked up and were being circulated by a cross section of Upland residents who had been at odds with her and City Hall for more than two years over the fire department shuttering, fire service assessments and parkland sell-offs.
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 in Upland had been 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.  He knew, as well, that Vagnozzi had not been fired. Her lawyer’s assertion that she had been terminated, together with the threat of litigation, made it seem to him as if Vagnozzi was setting the city up for something it did not deserve 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 was claiming she was 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 I 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 in the early evening of Monday, May 13, 2019.
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 the meeting’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.
It was as if Vagnozzi, who was riding the most attractive rising and falling steed on the merry-go-round, in reaching for the brass ring lost her grip on the pole and was propelled by the centrifugal force clear of the spinning ensemble to plunge face first onto the hard ground.
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.
In letting Vagnozzi go, the council conferred upon her a severance package in keeping with her contract, that being nine months of pay beyond her June 13 termination date. For the entirely of 2019, Upland paid Vagnozzi $340,759.44, which included $101,593.52 in salary through June 13, a $179,470.03 lump sum which included her severance and add-ons for six months, $26,856.09 in benefits and a $32,839.80 contribution toward her retirement.
In the aftermath of Vagnozzi’s departure from Upland, Bob Russi did not make good on his statement that he would rehire her in La Verne. After 2019, Vagnozzi began drawing the pension she is entitled to under the arrangement that both Upland and La Verne have with the California Public Employees Retirement System. She collected $118,679.64 in 2020 and $119,044.59 in 2021.
The right to sue letter that Goldberg had obtained from the Department of Fair Housing and Employment was dated May 2, 2019 and informed Vagnozzi that civil action against the City of Upland “must be filed within one year of the date of this letter.”
As of May 2, 2020, Vagnozzi had not initiated a lawsuit against Upland.
Subsequently, however, Goldberg’s partner, Bradley Gage, submitted another complaint with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment on Vagnozzi’s behalf in which he reiterated all that had been alleged in the complaint filed on Vagnozzi’s behalf by Goldberg in 2019 while Vagnozzi was yet employed. In that complaint, the city’s action against Vagnozzi was dated as having had taken place “on or about June 20, 2020,” which was one year and a week after Vagnozzi officially left the employ of the city. The Department of Fair Housing and Employment responded with a right to sue letter dated August 3, 2020. That letter directed Vagnozzi to initiate a lawsuit against the City of Upland within one year of the date of the letter.
On August 4, 2021, Gage, in conjunction with Goldberg and another member of their firm, Milad Sadr, sued Upland on Vagnozzi’s behalf, alleging discrimination, harassment retaliation and failure to accommodate and failure to take corrective action.
According to Gage, who signed the suit, Vagnozzi was discriminated against and fired “because of her sex, age, medical condition, and in retaliation for protected activities.”
The suit states that Vagnozzi was subjected “to a variety of other adverse employment actions, including but not limited to [being] circumvented or entirely cut out of the flow of information or communications intrinsic to her essential job duties, enhanced scrutiny, exclusion from meetings, negative performance reviews reduction in authority, administrative leave, and termination.”
As a woman over 40 with a medical condition, Vagnozzi was entitled to special accommodations, according to the suit. “Defendants were aware of these facts, and fired her when [she was] out on [a] medical condition. Before being fired, plaintiff helped to eliminate a hostile work environment, including those created by the chief of police and by a city councilwoman, who worked as a volunteer.”
The suit identifies Elliott as having “created a hostile work environment. Janice Elliott as councilwoman then retaliated against Vagnozzi, wrongfully firing her. The police chief made comments about Vagnozzi’s sex and medical condition calling her ‘the fatest (sic) vegitarian (sic) I have ever seen.’ The chief referred to plaintiff as “vegie (sic) fat” in reference to her gender and medical condition. Other comments made to Vagnozzi from another council member made references to [the] plaintiff being single and not having any children. He made comments about her salary as single woman and that she should not have been given a raise. Vagnozzi also was associated with another woman over 40, Luz Barrett, and with the prior chief, Goodman, who was over 40. Managerial level employees of defendants treated Vagnozzi differently because of her age, sex, medical condition, marital status, religion and association with other protected characteristics.”
Among the causes of action delineated in the lawsuit is that the city conferred Vagnozzi’s severance upon her in one lump sum, such that she incurred an “increased tax liability by having recovery paid all at one time, rather than over a period of time.”
The suit is marred, in some cases, by a lack of clarity, and in others by factual inaccuracies. References are made to a councilman, but the text does not spell out whether that is Velto, Zuniga of Felix. At one point, a councilman is referenced by the initials, RF, apparently meaning Felix. The suit cites Vagnozzi’s medical condition and the city’s failure to accommodate it, but does not specify the medical condition nor what accommodation could be made for it. In referencing age discrimination, which the suit intimates is a factor when an employee has eclipsed the age of 40, it mentions Police Chief Darren Goodman. While Goodman is over 40, he has not lodged any accusations of being discriminated against on the basis of his age. In referencing a “police chief” at one point, the suit’s narrative does not reveal which police chief this pertains to, either Goodman or his predecessor Douglas Millmore or his predecessor Brian Johnson. The suit, filed in August 2021, refers to Goodman as the former police chief. At that time, as he is now, Goodman is the current police chief, though this week it was announced he will be leaving the city for a position as chief in San Bernardino in May.
There are further problematic elements of the suit. While it cites a hostile work environment, it states or implies that it was Vagnozzi who was the victim of that atmosphere. City employees, however, have laid the responsibility for the hostile work environment at Vagnozzi’s feet. Employees relate that on multiple occasions, Vagnozzi, upon being informed of difficulties, challenges or complications, would grow irate and loudly profane. On January 22, 2019, a little more than a week after the Upland City Employees Association registered its no confidence vote in Vagnozzi, Steve Dukett, Upland’s development services manager, confronted Rami Asad, the former president of the Upland City Employees Association who worked within the city’s information technology division, and made clear that in the divide between management and labor, he came down on the side of management. Dukett’s line of authority as the city’s contract development services manager did not extend to supervision of Asad. Dukett offered his prediction that the union’s tactics would not succeed, saying that they could count on having to invest in union pins with the number 12. The exchange grew heated, and according to witnesses and a video of the incident caught on the cell phone of a city employee, Dukett tapped Asad several times on the chest with his index finger as he expressed his views. City employees claimed that Vagnozzi failed to rein in Dukett, and had herself failed to reduce or eliminate hostility in the workplace.
There are further examples, city employees said, of Vagnozzi engaging in activity she is alleging against the city. While her lawsuit asserts she was cut off from communications and information she needed to do her job, employees say Vagnozzi lacked communication skills, which resulted in miscommunications of the sort such as with her own lawyer, Goldberg, which resulted in mischaracterizations being put into the complaint on her behalf lodged with the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, which upon being made public mushroomed into the circumstance that led to her termination. This is not the city’s fault, they say, but rather an outgrowth of Vagnozzi’s overreaction and a failure on the part of her attorneys to fully understand the circumstance before they began their advocacy on her behalf.
Gage identified high blood pressure as the medical condition that Vagnozzi was dealing with. He did not confirm a report that Vagnozzi was also in cancer remission.
Asked what accommodations should have been made for her, Gage said, “Well they certainly should not have subjected her to a hostile work environment and then fired her.”
He identified Felix as the councilman who had made comments regarding Vagnozzi being unmarried and that a single woman should not have been provided with a salary increase.
Gage dismissed any suggestions that the circumstance of Vagnozzi’s hiring, in which she actively participated in accepting the city manager’s posting two weeks before two new council members were installed and less than two months before a third councilman was selected, played a part in her eventual termination.
“The city needed a city manager,” Gage said. “The city had to keep running through the transition period to the new council coming on. Her selection was done in a fair, proper and legal manner.”
The fact that Vagnozzi’s hiring had been effectuated on the votes and recommendations of three council members who left the council shortly thereafter “had no bearing at all on the validity of her hiring. If they had a valid contract in place, they had to at that point honor the contract they entered into.”
Failing to abide by Vagnozzi’s contract after those who voted for the contract left the council would be no more excusable than if any city abrogated a contract after an election resulted in a change on its city council, Gage said. “There are elections all the time,” he said. “You don’t cancel a contract just because someone different has been elected.”
By accepting her appointment, Gage said, Vagnozzi “had done nothing wrong.”
Asked how it was that the city had violated Vagnozzi’s contract given that it had adhered to the contract’s terms by paying out the severance specified in it when she was terminated, Gage said the lawsuit wasn’t brought for failure to meet the city’s contractual obligations but because she had been wrongfully terminated and because of discrimination, harassment and retaliation she had experienced and because the city had failed to make proper accommodation for her in her workplace and did not stem the unacceptable circumstances she was subjected to.
Gage did not accept any responsibility for the way in which his law firm drove both Velto and Felix out of the three-council member camp that was opposed to firing Vagnozzi into a 4-to-1 majority that cashiered her when it prematurely sent the complaint to the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, which threw the gauntlet down by threatening the city with legal action and created an erroneous impression that Vagnozzi was alleging she was claiming to have been discriminated against because she was an Islamic lesbian. Gage said that the language in the complaint asserting she was “harassed [and] discriminated against” because of her “creed… dress and grooming habits… sex/gender… marital status [and] association with a protected class” was misinterpreted. Her membership in or association with a protected class and the reference to sex/gender and marital status did not classify her as a lesbian, Gage said, but as an unmarried woman, he said. The reference to creed and dress did not translate into her being a Muslim either, he insisted. Without explaining why the reference to Vagnozzi’s dress and grooming had been included, he said that she was a Catholic. He did not explain how that had been held against her, given that two of the members of the city council are Catholic.
Instead, he doubled down, suggesting the misimpression that had spread among the city residents to the effect that Vagnozzi was a lesbian Islamist could in some fashion be imputed to the city government. “There is nothing about sexual orientation in there [the complaint to the Department of Fair Housing and Employment],” Gage said. “Even if that was true, it would be illegal for them to go after her because she was gay or a Muslim. Her religion was a reason we cited. We did put down her sex, her gender and that she is unmarried. That they wanted to misinterpret that is a sign they are now trying to cover what they did up.”
Gage insisted that Vagnozzi had been subjected to a hostile work environment and he said what had occurred between Dukett and Asad was an irrelevancy.
“That is one of the most ridiculous defenses I have ever heard,” he said, asserting that as city manager Vagnozzi was not responsible for breaking up fights between her employees.
“The people responsible for protecting employees from physical attack are the police,” Gage said. “As a woman, she would not be able to stop two men that are younger and stronger than she is to control that. You can’t expect the city manager to engage in vigilante justice. That is not the way city government works. When there is a physical issue between two employees, you call the police. Beyond that, you bring in human resources. All the city is doing is creating a bunch of untrue situations and excuses to get out from under the fact that they were not protecting my client from a hostile working environment. What is being said is not true in any event.
“A lawsuit like this is how you deal with discrimination against women,” Gage continued. “What they are doing is they are making things up. What they are doing is wrong and they are going to pay a lot of money for that.”
The council at Monday night’s meeting was scheduled to discuss in closed session the lawsuit brought against the city by Vagnozzi.
There was some speculation around town that the council was going to settle the case.
Before the council adjourned into the closed session, Upland resident Lisa Nicely spoke. She referenced the Asad/Dukett situation. Nicely said that Asad “reported it [Dukett’s altercation with Asad] and no action was taken. So, he actually pulled the security footage to prove he was assaulted by a city contractor. Ms. Vagnozzi took no action. Months went by and, in fact, he no longer works for us. We probably lost a really good employee due to her mismanagement of City Hall. In my opinion, the only injustice that has occurred is the waste of taxpayer money on her salary. I really hope that you decide that the best way to handle this injustice is to fight on behalf of our city and to not settle this lawsuit.”
Upland City Treasurer Greg Bradley followed Nicely.
“Previously, city finances were damaged by a group of people working for themselves and against the interest of the citizens,” Bradley said. “Look at how many people were hired or promoted into a position of higher pay, even when it was obvious that person was not suited for the position and would be fired quickly, how many CMs [city managers] that lasted just months. The lame duck city council of 2018 promoting Jeanette Vagnozzi to CM is an obvious example. Her employment contract designed by the lame duck and [then-City Attorney] James Markman was punishing to the new council and a ruse to get an employee made CM when she was in imminent danger of losing her existing position. It was designed to extract money from the city and redirect it to an employee via pay, severance and CalPERS [California Public Employees’ Retirement System] pensions. It was dishonest at best, and should be illegal. Perhaps we should consider an ordinance limiting the ability of lame ducks to vote on important matters. The way the group forced Vagnozzi on a newly elected council pretty much guaranteed her to be fired. She participated in her own firing by taking a job she knew she would lose almost instantly. Upland has developed a reputation for being an easy target for lawsuits. We became a target for every frivolous lawsuit by opportunists. It is time to stop it. When you look at the cost of defending a frivolous lawsuit, it is frequently cheaper in the short run to pay a nuisance fee for the problem to go away. The problem is this encourages more frivolous lawsuits. Let’s make them pay. We’re owed payment for damages by Vagnozzi, Markman, [subsequent City Attorney Steven] Flower and the lame duck council and their leaders. I would love to see a long witness list, including the members of the council, Markman, Flowers, and I’ll be happy to prepare a list of questions for them or even depose them myself. It will save us a lot of money once the parasites understand that we stand on what is right and fair and will tolerate no further damage.”
After its closed-door discussion, the council returned to the dais, at which point City Attorney Stephen Deitsch stated that the council had taken no reportable action, meaning, essentially, that the council had not consented to settling the suit brought by Vagnozzi.
Later in the meeting, the city council agreed to extend by $434,000 its contract with the law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, which the city hired on a $50,000 retainer on September 22, 2021 to represent it with regard to the suit brought by Vagnozzi. Acknowledged in a report accompanying the item was that “the current amount of the legal services has exceeded the original amount of fifty thousand dollars.”
The extension of the arrangement with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo was widely interpreted as an indication the city will defend itself in the face of Vagnozzi’s suit, all the way to trial.
Today, Gage told the Sentinel that the city need not go to trial.
“I am always willing to discuss a reasonable resolution to any lawsuit and am certainly willing to discuss a reasonable resolution in this case,” he said.
-Mark Gutglueck

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