Fullerton Observer

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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