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"Getting Back On Track" -- San Fernando Council Hires Temporary City Administrator PDF Print E-mail
Written by Diana Martinez   
Thursday, 03 January 2013 05:09


New interim city administrator Don Penman

The newly elected city council is starting to clean house. San Fernando Mayor Antonio Lopez and Mayor Pro Tem Sylvia Ballin welcomed Don Penman as he sat down for his first day of work as the interim city administrator on Wednesday, Jan. 2.

Penman, retired from his former position as city manager of Arcadia, is no stranger to the City of San Fernando. He previously worked here as city administrator from 1982-90. Penman has also been the city manager in Arcadia, previously worked as an assistant city manager in Simi Valley and city manager of Baldwin Park.

It was no surprise to City Hall observers when former City Administrator Al Hernandez was placed on "administrative leave" on Dec. 7, following the successful recall election. Hernandez was viewed as being closely tied to the recalled members of the council and responsible for the state of the city's affairs, and became an immediate focus for the new council.

According to City Hall sources, Hernandez was given the opportunity to retire or face the possibility of being fired. He has discussed an exit agreement that meets the terms of his contract.

Hernandez had worked without a city finance director, and often danced around the topic of the city's finances and other serious matters. He was noted for often saying, "I'm not sure, I'll have to check on that, and get back to you." But after some pressure, most notably from members of the recall committee who questioned the accuracy of the city's budget, Hernandez had publicly cited the city's debt as $1.1 million. The new council, however, is bracing itself for the possibility of an even bleaker financial picture once it finally, as council members put it, "gets the truth."

"We don't want to waste any more time," Ballin said. "The city is facing very serious problems and we have to get to the bottom of this."

Hernandez, she believes, had been deliberately vague about the city's economic standing throughout his tenure. "There is real concern that the [deficit] number could be much greater than what he was telling us," she said. "We now have to go department by department," added Councilmember Jesse Avila. "We are now trying to correct all the damage that has been done," Avila said. "We want the public to know that we are acting to right what hasn't been done... to put things back on track."

With the decks now cleared, Ballin said she and other council members are finally learning the truth and plan to make public what they find out.

At a special council meeting called the morning after Christmas, the new council unanimously voted to hire Penman to temporarily fill the city's top post while they search for a permanent replacement.

Both Lopez and Ballin were frank about their dismay in recently learning San Fernando was in arrears in paying its dues for The League of Cities membership. "Once again, we were lied to. We weren't told the truth," Ballin said at the council meeting. "He [Hernandez] lied to me about that. I asked him about this specifically and he led me to believe that it was paid."

Lopez concurred. "I was not aware that we weren't current. I was told by our past city administrator that we were up to date. I even have an email."

City Planner Fred Ramirez – who was asked by the council to assume the duties of the city administrator last month – told the council that while the membership dues were listed on the city's budget, the city was actually behind in it's payments by two years.

Former Mayor Brenda Esqueda, who was recalled in the November election, spoke during the public comments period and accused the new council of failing to be transparent by calling a special meeting the day after Christmas.

Appearing disheveled at the 9 a.m. meeting, Esqueda said she represents "numerous residents," and was "speaking on behalf of "Community's Eyes," a group that she said she has started. She also criticized the council members for wanting to participate in the upcoming League of Cities convention later this month in Sacramento.

"The city is on the verge of bankruptcy and you want to take a trip to Sacramento," Esqueda said, adding that the dues weren't paid to the organization because of the financial condition of the city.

Esqueda, who was on the council dais since 2009, had never before used the word "bankruptcy" when referencing the city and stood behind the claim by former mayor and council member Mario Hernandez that the city had a balanced budget.

When the council went into closed session, Esqueda got into a verbal altercation with a past member of the recall committee that became so loud that police stepped in to keep it from escalating. Following her recall, Esqueda vowed to attend every council meeting.

"I believe had there not been a recall election, and those three [Esqueda, Mario Hernandez, and Maribel De La Torre] were allowed to be on the council for another year, then we would be facing bankruptcy by then," Ballin told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol. "We have so much to do, we had to have a meeting then, and we are going to have a lot more meetings." "It's not about circumventing the process," said Ramirez, in reference to Esqueda's criticism of the Dec. 26 council meeting.

Action needed to be taken before the end of the year, Ramirez said, noting his recommendation to enter into a new agreement with the city's cell phone carrier by the deadline, which he said would save the city money.

Ramirez said that because it is no longer necessary to hold a March election, money could be moved from that fund to pay the League of Cities' expenses.

"Beside government 101 ...there is new legislation [that impact cities] and the study sessions are led by professionals," Ramirez said, noting the networking that goes on at the convention is valuable.

"I am a strong believer in education," said Ballin. "There is nothing like education.

Decisions can't be made by people who lack education."

"We have operated with closed doors," Lopez said. "We are going to need a lot of professional help and are going to need to call on them to help with all the debt that has occurred."

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 January 2013 05:14