Local News

City Terminates Contract of Parks and Recreation Director

Note: This story has been edited from its original version.

The City has terminated the contract of Parks and Recreation Director Hugo Curiel. According to 1st District Fullerton City Councilmember Fred Jung, City Manager Ken Domer announced the action to members of the council Friday morning, January 15. In a letter that same day to members of the Parks and Recreation Commission, Domer wrote that the separation of Curiel’s contract was for no single cause, citing a “need to move forward in a different direction from prior years.”

Director of Parks and Recreation Hugo Curiel had his contract with the city terminated on January 15.

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In an email to The Observer, Domer reiterated that the contract separation was not because of any “wrong-doing” and there was “no cause for my action other than I am constantly reviewing operations and responding to changing circumstances. As the City Manager I am responsible for day-to-day operations and to make adjustments as needed, and sometimes they are bigger than others that are made more frequently.  Given the City’s ongoing financial condition, as we transition to a lesser level of service ability in response to staffing levels and revenue projections, the organization will constantly be changing so we can continue to deliver services and be responsive to our residents.”

According to Transparent California, Curiel’s salary was $141,024 in 2019, the most recent year available on the site, with additional pay of $8,536. Pension debt of $33,089 and benefits of $ 34,217 brought his total compensation for that year to $216,866.

Domer also wrote in his message to Parks and Recreation Commissioners that he would not be appointing a new Director for at least a year, but rather he would assign specified City employees to oversee different areas of the department who would be reporting to “Toni in the Deputy City Manager role” (evidently referring to Antonia Graham). Graham is expected to leave that position in 90 days to take a position as Chief Operating Officer of the newly formed Orange County Power Authority, of which Fullerton is a member, where Jung represents Fullerton as Vice Chair.

The following day, Mayor Bruce Whitaker, who now represents the City’s 4th District, said Curiel’s removal wasn’t a Council initiative, and that he had nothing to do with the decision, but did note that the Council has to be open-minded when looking at the City’s budget. He predicted that the Council would have to become more active in a time of tight municipal finances and that cities would need to be willing to restructure personnel and overhead. Neither Whitaker nor Jung supported Measure S, a proposed City tax increase, which was on the November 2020 ballot and failed by a significant margin.

Fred Jung said he supported the decision to remove Curiel, calling it “necessary as we go forward” in a phone interview with The Observer Friday, January 15. Jung, who was elected in November, characterized Curiel’s exit as, “The start of change that’s necessary for the City,” saying that it was “ridiculous that the City’s parks weren’t being better managed and taken care of.” Mayor Whitaker also said he had noticed deterioration in the City’s parks, but said most of the problems were “solvable,” (such as “lots of trash”) and suggested that volunteer assistance from residents could help to maintain parks in the City.

Without naming any specific issues, Jung also said he found it “objectionable on a personal level that the [Parks and Rec] department had found itself in the middle of one controversy after another.”

Both Whitaker and Jung thought there was favoritism on the part of the City in allowing access to City parks and facilities to some sports groups and not others. Jung, a former Parks and Recreation Commissioner, was careful to say he thought that the department itself was “great,” but that its leadership was not treating nonprofits equally. “You can’t expect leadership not to appreciate equity amongst non-profits,” Jung said. “One group’s agenda should not be prioritized while another’s is ignored.”

Whitaker would like to see Independence Park be made more available to members of the public who are not necessarily involved in organized sports activities. Whitaker also said that personal relationships had played a part in deciding which groups were given access to City fields, and that the City needed to set aside biases in those decisions.

Curiel was appointed to the job of Director in 2013 by then City Manager Joe Felz. Curiel had been with the department since 2008, serving as a Parks Project Specialist. Felz, who served as City Manager from 2011 until his resignation in early 2017, had prioritized revenue-generating activities for many of the City’s facilities. Downtown’s historic Amerige Field, for example, is unavailable to members of the public because it is leased to Hope University for baseball games. Prior to his hiring as City Manager, Felz himself served as Director of Parks and Recreation.

Nothing about the decision was included in the most recent of Domer’s weekly City Manager Updates, and the City has not issued a press release about Curiel’s removal. Efforts by The Observer to reach Curiel were unsuccessful.

The personnel shift comes just one month after the first meeting of City Council that now includes  two newcomers, Jung and 2nd District Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap. Previous members Jennifer Fitzgerald and Jan Flory, who both declined to run for reelection, were generally supportive of city hall initiatives. Jung said Friday that he was “elected for change.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included two sentences referencing the appearance of a possible conflict of interest in the allocation of city sports fields to sports organizations in Fullerton in past years. This passage has been removed at the request of individuals who complained that the story implied that they had either exerted or benefitted from alleged favoritism in the City’s decision to allocate fields and playing times to The Fullerton Rangers soccer club.

To clarify, in the author’s conversation with him on January 16, Mayor Bruce Whitaker referred only to the “political clout” of the Fullerton Rangers, but did not name any specific individuals who might have brought undue influence to bear on decisions about which sports fields the city chose to allocate to the team. It was the author alone who cited the position of a now former Fullerton City Council member’s spouse as a member of the Rangers’ board as an example of perceived favoritism, recalling comments by members of the public at the time of field allocation decisions.

The author included the reference to the Fullerton Rangers only as an example of the public’s perception of a possible conflict of interest, and did not mean to factually assert that undue influence was brought to bear on any field allocation decisions. The author apologizes to the individuals named if the former version of the article implied that it did. The Observer strives to  be as factual and clear in our reporting as we can be, and will provide corrections and/or clarifications to stories as necessary.

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15 replies »

  1. Hugo has been a wonderfully responsive, caring director of Parks and Rec. he not only returned phone calls quickly but would meet us in the park to better understand our concerns. Fullerton needs more people like him. Please rehire him.

  2. You do a great disservice to journalism when you print accusations that have no basis in fact. The city went through a thoughtful and exhaustive update on its field use policy ensuring that true non-profits got first priority access to field…fields that we taxpayers pay for. The entire City Council, including Mr. Whitaker, voted for that policy. You are dead wrong on favoritism being granted to any league because of my husband’s participation. Next time, work harder to get the story right. I’m sick of being your favorite scapegoat.

    • Jennifer, the writer is updating the article to more accurately reflect what Mr. Whitaker stated, what the writer added, and removing any reference to any implied wrongdoing for which we do not have proof. I apologize for any confusion and/or harm this may have caused.

  3. I want to be extremely clear: the assertion that I ever used my personal relationships to impact field access for either of the nonprofit sports organizations I have served is a slanderous lie. I have never once helped an organization prepare their field request, nor have I participated in any meetings related to field allocation, nor have I advocated in any way for greater field access, preferred fields or time blocks. In short, I’ve never had ANYTHING to do with that process, so there exists not one shred of proof that I’ve engaged in such conduct.

    I understand that Councilman Whitaker makes the assertion that personal relationships have been used in the past, but I cannot tell whether he cites me as an example or the writer makes that insinuation on his own. If Councilman Whitaker did not make this assertion directly, then I’d respectfully ask that he clarify his statement to clear my name and that Mr. Leslie also clarify that adding this insinuation was irresponsible, particularly since I was not even asked to comment.

    Ironically, it may be that Councilman Whitaker and I have very similar interests with regard to youth sports in this city. From my time on the Parks & Rec Commission to my time serving two different sports nonprofits, I have been a staunch advocate of recreational sports being the highest priority where our City’s resources are concerned. During the City’s most recent field use policy discussion, I advocated for greater transparency and accountability on the part of our partner nonprofits in the wake of the embezzlement suffered by the Rangers and FAST. In short, I have given hundreds of hours of my time to youth sports in Fullerton over the years, all the while maintaining a strict firewall between my service on local nonprofits and my wife’s service of the broader community.

    I will not simply watch as unfounded allegations are leveled against me, my wife, and others.

    • Sean, the writer is updating the article to more accurately reflect what Mr. Whitaker stated, what the writer added, and removing any reference to any implied wrongdoing for which we do not have proof. I apologize for any confusion and/or harm this may have caused.

  4. I would like the mayor and city council to look into the practice the city Park and Rec commission had regarding leasing park land to cell phone companies to build cell phone transmission towers. One tower at the Edward White Park has just been completed but seems not activated yet. From the proposal, the lease will provide the city a meager $38K annual income, but taking space out of a city park, in a dense residential neighborhood, and right next to Parks Junior High, with only 20 feet from the school’s track field, where kids do their daily outdoor activities. It is a potential liability to the city, if there are any adverse impacts to the health of the students, like what had been reported from many other cities across the country.

  5. I would like to thank Jennifer and Sean for calling out Fred Jung on his baseless accusations regarding field allocations. As a parks and Recreation commissioner and my involvement in the sports user group meetings as well as the development of the current sports user group policy, I find it appalling that Fred would stoop to that level and based on his misinformation, potentially make it difficult for Mr. Curiel to find employment in the public sector. In my opinion, Mr. Jung’s claims may have something to due with the user group he is involved with getting pushback from Parks and Rec. for their consistent user group policy violations. I may be wrong but his group has come up in discussions more than once. I could go on with Mr. Whitaker’s statements but I think Sean and Jennifer already addressed that appropriately in their above comments. Jesse, please explain to the group why the writer would publish this without fact checking his information. Seems like an important step in the process Right? I look forward to seeing an update.

    • Hi Michael. Thank you for your comments. If you would like to make an official comment or statement, free free to e-mail contact@fullertonobserver.com. In the article, Mr. Jung did not make any specific allegations, but gave an overall assessment/opinion on this matter and his views are of course his own. While I cannot speak to Mr. Jung’s motivations, his opinions on the matter as a new sitting Councilmember are relevant to this story.

    • In the interest of clarity, which I was very adamant about yesterday, I did not call out Councilman Jung. I simply wanted the baseless accusations included by Mr. Leslie removed…and they have been. Thanks again Jesse!

  6. Jesse,
    Thanks for your response. I will not be making any official comments or statements. I have no desire to drag this out. Any future comments from me will be as part of public comments in a city council meeting.

  7. All sorts of strings in Fullerton appear to have been pulled and persuaded the past 8 years in a fashion so that plausible deniability could be exercised. Think of all the unanswered code violations, idiot vanity projects, foolish vendetta lawsuits and failure of police reform. Of course it could all be an unhappy coincidence.

  8. “Domer also wrote in his message to Parks and Recreation Commissioners that he would not be appointing a new Director for at least a year” – Simple cost cutting for a financially overstretched city? Hmmm…

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