Turlock City Manager Toby Wells was placed on an investigative leave following a split decision by the City Council during a special meeting held Thursday.
The split decision to place Wells on investigative leave —with Mayor Amy Bublak, Council member Rebecka Monez and Council member Pam Franco voting ‘yes’ and Council member Andrew Nosrati and Council member Nicole Larson voting ‘no’ — was made during the special closed session meeting held Thursday morning, the second emergency meeting called this week by the Mayor regarding the City Manager and City Attorney.
The reason or reasons for the investigative leave were not released to the public.
The first emergency meeting, which was noticed on Monday night and held Tuesday, had two closed session agenda items: Public Employee Performance Evaluation for the City Attorney and Public Employee Performance Evaluation for the City Manager. There was no action reported at the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, however, on Wednesday morning an emergency meeting agenda for Thursday morning was posted with the items: “Discipline/dismissal/release” of a public employee and review of services contracted by City Attorney.
At the conclusion of the Thursday closed session meeting, the Mayor announced that the firm contracted to provide legal services for the City, Churchwell White, tendered a letter of resignation effective Feb. 28.
Public comment preceding both Tuesday’s and Thursday’s emergency Council meetings called into question issues of transparency, fiscal responsibility and the Council’s integrity.
“I have a deep concern for the event occurring this morning,” said a member of the public identified as caller Sims. “The astonishing short time line, obvious lack of transparency, and bizarre timing of this issue are all incredibly unusual, unnecessary and set a very dangerous precedent for the behavior of this council. There has not even been a first official council meeting with our two new members. How on earth can there be a fair and comprehensive evaluation performed? In addition, we’ve already had considerable struggles in the past placing a city manager. Why would we sabotage ourselves by putting ourselves back in that same boat right now? Without our city manager and city attorney, no police or fire chief, we’re going to be in a horrendous situation in the middle of a pandemic. There’s no need to do this now. With the passing of Measure A, and the events of last year, we will be watching very closely and this does not bode well in terms of developing trust with your citizens. Mayor, we see you; your city sees what you’re doing and we do not like what we are seeing. We need transparency. Please do the right thing. This is not the right time for evaluations.”
One member of the public questioned if actions by members of the Council violated the Brown Act, the law that requires local government business to be conducted at open and public meetings and prohibits the majority of Council members of discussing items they will vote on in private before an official meeting.
“I was surprised to hear about this meeting last night because there wasn’t a lot of forewarning. In the middle of a coup in our nation’s capitol, it looks like we’re trying to do a coup in the City of Turlock,” said a member of the public identified as caller Endsley. “I know that’s an exaggeration of course, but it doesn’t feel like the timing is what it should be. Timing, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning. Why are we holding a meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning? People are at work, people are at school; this ought to be a transparent democracy and I don’t feel like this is transparent in the least. Two people who got outstanding, above level reviews are being kicked out of their jobs because of political needs by the City Council. Where was this decision made? Are we sure that the Brown Act has not been overridden by the needs of the few?”
Council members Nosrati and Larson expressed concern over the timing and ethics of the emergency meeting held on Tuesday and continued their disapproval on Thursday.
“What we’ve experienced in the last couple of days was rushed, it lacked proper professional evaluation and courtesy and continues down a path where we are losing public trust and showcasing a lack of transparency that the public will remember. These actions we do here have a great impact on our organization, not only reputationally outside of these chambers and outside of this building, but with the employees that provide their professional services. What I’ve heard loud and clear throughout my term and prior was that there is a continued instability and chaos in City Hall. What we have long sought is stability and leadership and management and it is deeply concerning the path that we are headed down,” said Nosrati.
Wells was appointed to the City Manager position in March 2020, with a three-year contract that includes an annual base salary of $220,000. He is the fifth person to perform the tasks of Turlock City Manager in the past five years, with two of those people being other City department heads filling in during the City’s executive search processes.
The Council did not state who would be covering the duties of City Manager during Wells’ leave or the process the City would take to investigate.
The City of Turlock has contracted its legal services through the firm of Churchwell White LLP with managing partner Doug White serving as the City’s primary attorney since 2019. The City Council did not state on Thursday if they planned to search for a new firm to provide legal services come Feb. 28 or start a search for an in-house attorney.
The City Council first regular meeting of 2021 is scheduled for Tuesday. An agenda has yet to be posted. Due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, all City Council meetings are currently closed to public attendance but are accessible to the public through Zoom, phone conferencing and video coverage available on the City’s website and on YouTube.