Mark Nuaimi

Outgoing Yucca Valley Town Manager Mark Nuaimi

By Mark Gutglueck
Friday, August 16, 2013

Yucca Valley Town Manager Mark Nuaimi was placed on administrative leave August 14 by a unanimous vote of the city council during a specially called council meeting. Language used in making the move strongly implied Nuami would be terminated at the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting to be held Tuesday, August 20.

The council’s action Wednesday night ironically follows six months of increasing acrimony directed at four of the council members over their February vote to offer Nuami a three-year contract extension into 2016 that will see his total compensation package raised to more than $300,000 per year.

At the hastily called August 14 meeting, the council adjourned into a closed session with town attorney Lona Laymon for the scheduled discussion of “disciplinary action or dismissal of an employee” and emerged 45 minutes later. Laymon then announced that the council had voted to place Nuaimi, the town manager since 2010, on administrative leave “pending further consideration of an employee release from that position at a regular scheduled meeting.”

In early February the town council, which then consisted of mayor Merle Abel and council members Dawn Rowe, Robert Lombardo and George Huntington, voted to provide Nuaimi with a three-year contract extension by which he was to see his total compensation, including salary and benefits, upped to $293,000 this year with annual cost of living increases that would see that figure eclipse $300,000 by 2015.

There had been previous discontent with Nuaimi among certain elements of the community, where the mean household income is $34,000 per year. Within two months, Nuaimi proposed several measures aimed at eradicating a $400,000 budget deficit which were immediately approved by the council. Those included the layoffs of the town’s associate planner and Yucca Valley’s two recreation coordinators, what appeared to be the forced or incentivized retirement of town clerk Jamie Anderson and community services director Jim Schooler and museum supervisor Lynn Richardson, along with a museum assistant, an animal shelter administrative assistant and a code compliance technician. Overall, the layoffs, retirements and reorganization entailed a 17 percent reduction in the town’s workforce, from 41 to 34 full time employees, which Nuaimi said would provide a $300,000 savings in the 2013-14 fiscal year as the retirement incentives are cashed out, and $725,000 per year thereafter.

In addition, Nuaimi announced that the town would do away with or severely curtail four popular municipal programs – the operation of the town’s pool during summer months, the Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, the town museum and Yucca Valley’s Concerts in the Park.

In March, Bob Leone was elected to the council in a special election to replace Isaac Hagerman, who resigned from the council last year. In his run for the council, Leone had been critical of the raise provided to Nuaimi and advocated against the closure of the pool and museum and the discontinuation of the firework and concert events.

In the aftermath of Leone’s ascension to the council, the long-festering discontent with Nuaimi metastasized, and serious discussion of a move to remove the four council members responsible for committing the town to keeping him in place at an elevated rate of compensation until 2016 ensued. That discussion evolved into a recall effort targeting Lombardo and Huntington, who had been reelected to the council without opposition in November. With both Rowe and Abel due to stand for reelection in 2014, recall advocates elected to seek Lombardo and Huntington’s political scalps at this juncture and to oppose Rowe and Abel for reelection next year.

Lombardo and Huntington’s supporters, as well as those of Rowe and Abel, have denounced the recall attempt as misguided, saying Lombardo and Huntington have done nothing meriting the attempt to remove them and had merely taken prudent steps to ensure the town’s solvency. Nevertheless, the cancellation of town recreation and cultural programs while the council was rerouting money that would have paid for their maintenance into the town manager’s pocket has resonated around the community. According to the recall campaign’s sponsors, more than half of the signatures needed to force a referendum on Huntington and Lombardo’s continued tenure on the council have been gathered and the group is on target to meet its signature gathering quota by the September deadline.

With Lombardo and Huntington at the center of the firestorm, the entire council appeared to be chastened by the community outcry against their February vote and by the progress of the recall effort. Before the start of the new fiscal year and the onset of summer, the town council relented from its earlier plan to institute some of Nuaimi’s harsh economies, and moved to appease the town’s discontented masses, backing away from the closure of the pool, allowing it to remain open in the morning, when swim lessons are offered and lap swimming and exercising activity is allowed. At 11:30 a.m. it is open for general public use and remains open until 1:30 p.m. Likewise, the town did not make good on its threat to cancel the July Fourth fireworks celebration. That display was again put on after sundown on Independence Day. The museum remains open three days a week. Concerts in the park are being put on.

The recall effort continued unabated. On August 10, last Saturday, the increasingly desperate Lombardo and Huntington, who are both Republicans, took the extraordinary step of venturing beyond their normal comfort zone of their circle of supporters, and appeared before the Morongo Basin Democratic Club at its regularly scheduled meeting, hoping to use that forum to present their side with regard to the effort to recall them from office.

While the two embattled councilman believed they might offer the crowd justification of their records and action in office and persuade at least some of those in attendance that removing them from office is a drastic and unwarranted step, the event became for them more of an educational venue, as both were given an unfiltered and direct demonstration of the impassioned low regard much of the community has for Nuaimi.

Initially, Lombardo and Huntington sought to explain the reasons for their reliance on Nuaimi, a former mayor in Fontana who had parlayed his access to former Colton Mayor Kelly Chastain into the position of assistant city manager in Colton before he left that position and was later hired in Yucca Valley. But the meeting morphed into a forum for the negative assessment of Nuaimi’s performance as city manager rather than an exposition by Lombardo and Huntington on why they merit remaining in office.

In a less than deft start, Lombardo insisted on utilizing Republican talking points, stating that he was “a capitalist and that is not a popular word with this group.” This remark elicited loud groans from the audience, a fair number of which were business owners. When responding to a resident who asked a question about socio-economic disparity in Yucca Valley, an oblique reference to the generous enhancement to Nuaimi’s employment contract with the town, Lombardo was met with boos when he stated that “if someone is poor, it’s their own fault. What they need to do is get an education and pull themselves up.” Lombardo insisted that personal wealth was a function of an individual’s effort and ambition, even in the face of suggestions by those in attendance that local government had fallen down with regard to its responsibility to create the opportunity for the economic advancement of its citizens.
At that point, several of those in attendance dispensed with subtlety and niceties, making direct inquiry of the two council members about what they characterized as the disrespect the council had demonstrated for the community by extending and enhancing Nuaimi’s contract while cutting municipal services to their constituents.

Huntington and Lomardo asserted the council collectively felt it needed to rely upon Nuaimi to guide the town through a thicket of challenging and complicated issues of governance and management. That provoked even tougher questions about the integrity and value of Nuaimi’s leadership as well as his character and judgment. Unrelentingly, those in attendance pressured Lombardo and Huntington with questions suggesting the city manager’s leadership had been oriented less toward public service than self advancement and self interest. Nuaimi had alienated many in the community, some suggested, and they questioned both his intent and judgment, as well as other aspects of his conduct.

In what came across as an extraordinary concession which transformed the tempo of the meeting and by extension Nuaimi’s fate, Lombardo and Huntington revealed that the council had been working with Nuaimi on behavioral issues, and that they felt he was “imperfect” but “making improvement.” This led to audience members questioning why the council had elected to extend his contract and increase his pay if he yet needed remediation with interpersonal skills. One audience member questioned the judgment of the collective council and Huntington and Lombardo in particular in having granted the raise and three-year extension given the council’s realization of the city manager’s deficiencies beforehand. In response to the overwhelming display of anger, frustration with and disapproval of Nuaimi, Huntington, pointed out that Nuaimi’s “expertise” had been of service to the council in the past, resulting in the council overlooking his “flaws” and “personality defects.” Huntington stated that he had heretofore been unaware that there was so much dissatisfaction with the town manager and that Nuaimi’s dismissal was something that would be “considered.” Lombardo concurred with Huntington, indicating that he too would consider “all options” going forward.

Four days later, the full council pulled the plug on Nuaimi.

An important issue that will need to be hashed out at the closed session prior to the public portion of the August 20 meeting is what official cause for Nuaimi’s termination will be provided. Without the citation of adequate cause, Nuaimi will be due continuation of the payment he is eligible for under his contract, meaning the council will in effect be providing him with a $750,000 buyout.

While Huntington and Lombardo and their colleagues may have hoped sacrificing Nuaimi would derail the recall effort, taking action that will ensure Nuaimi is paid roughly $300,000 per year for two-and-a-half years for simply leaving town is not likely to assuage the council’s critics nor end the effort to remove the two now targeted from office.