Local Government

Fullerton Council Terminates City Manager Contract on Split Vote

The city of Fullerton has terminated the contract of City Manager Ken Domer effective 5:00pm, April 27. During a 4:00 p.m. special meeting, Fullerton’s City Council removed Domer from his job on a 3 to 2 vote, with Mayor Bruce Whitaker, Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap, and Council member Fred Jung voting in the affirmative, and Council members Ahmad Zahra and Jesus Silva voting against it.

The contract of City Manager Ken Domer was terminated on April 27. Photo by Gaston Castellanos.

In a statement read following the 1 hour and 40 minute closed-session meeting, City Attorney Dick Jones reported the vote to remove Domer, as well as the unanimous vote in favor of the terms of his separation agreement from the city of Fullerton. Jones also reported that, with a 4 to 1 vote, Ahmad Zahra dissenting, the Council extended an offer to Steve Danley to serve as Acting City Manager. If he accepts, Danley would be officially appointed to the post during the Council’s next regular meeting on May 4.

Mayor Bruce Whitaker read a statement wherein he thanked Domer for his service. “His understanding and attention to our budgetary challenges and community needs have provided us clear alternatives and options as the City Council looks to focus on its current priorities,” Whitaker read. In the statement, Domer, in turn, thanked “all of the members of City Councils I served for their commitment to bettering the community of Fullerton,” and called working for the City a highlight of his career. Ken Domer was hired as City Manager in July 2017. He previously served for four years as the Assistant City Manager for the city of Huntington Beach, and before that, of Villa Park.

The Council had most recently evaluated Domer’s job performance during the closed session of its regular meeting on April 20. On Friday, April 23 the agenda for a special meeting with only one item entitled “Appointment, Employment, Evaluation of Performance or Dismissal of Public Employee,” appeared on the City’s website, leaving many to assume that a decision to terminate Domer was a foregone conclusion. The terms of Domer’s contract allowed for impromptu reviews, but Mayor Whitaker later commented that he was surprised when Council member Jung requested for one to take place in April.

Following the meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Dunlap said that a number of issues played into his decision to vote for Domer’s dismissal, citing “Perhaps a lack of resourcefulness to address the City’s finances.” Even before the pandemic Fullerton faced a shortage of funding for dire infrastructural needs and employee pensions.

Council member Ahmad Zahra said the next day that, although he had some disagreements with Domer, he considered him to be ethical in his dealings with the Council. He voted against releasing Domer because he didn’t think that replacing the City Manager would result in a different outcome from the financial struggles the City currently faces. He said that morale is down among City employees, and that it was not the best time to make such a move. Rather than dismiss the City Manager, Zahra said he would have preferred to see the Council unite and provide direction for him.

Domer will still be paid for the next nine months, according to the terms of his contract. Last year the prior Council, which included Jan Flory and Jennifer Fitzgerald before the election of Dunlap and Jung, added an additional three months severance pay above what had been six months to his contract in leu of a pay increase (Domer, like other City employees, had his salary reduced by 10% because of the pandemic). Councilmember Zahra said on April 28 that he considered last year’s deal a savings to the City at the time, and that no one could have foreseen Domer’s termination in such short order this year. Dunlap thought it was “unfortunate” that the last Council amended the contract “prematurely” instead of waiting for the new members to take their seats following the election to make that decision. Silva disagreed, saying that Council members have no way of knowing what is going to happen with the next Council.

Asked if the decision left the City in a disadvantageous position, Silva said “somewhat,” citing upcoming labor negotiations and the decision about what to do with federal funding. Dunlap said there is “never a good time to terminate someone,” but that “we’re moving in a direction that will put Fullerton on a path to progress.”

“That depends on what you think is the right direction,” Silva retorted.

Fred Jung expressed frustration that Domer’s budgets allocated “zero” money other than that realized through sales of surplus city properties, for infrastructure. “I gave him a chance to readjust his compass,” Jung said, who went so far as to suggest that Domer was “serving a different Council than what he saw,” and that “previous Councils leave shadows, ghosts in the building.”

Whitaker similarly said about Domer that he “at times almost seemed to be following an agenda from prior Councils,” but declined to identify any specific examples, saying it wasn’t the time to do so. He did note that all three of the Councilmembers who supported Domer’s dismissal also opposed Measure S, a proposed 1.25% local tax increase decisively defeated at the polls in November. “Some elements of the City have not gotten that message from voters,” he continued, citing a “steady drumbeat for revenue enhancement for future elections.” In September, Domer had suggested that if Measure S failed, special neighborhood tax districts might be a mechanism to  pay for localized road repairs throughout the City.

Jesus Silva later commented that it would take $10 million per year to make a dent in Fullerton’s infrastructure needs. Reacting to that figure, Bruce Whitaker said there were many different ways to address infrastructure funding, including reprioritization of funds.

Domer is the second administrator to lose his job since January when Parks and Recreation Director Hugo Curiel was terminated by Domer himself. Asked by The Observer if residents should anticipate more such administrative exits, Councilmember Jung said, “I don’t think that’s an expectation we should have.”

Whitaker addressed City department heads following the special session Tuesday to update them about the Council’s decision.

Whitaker described proposed Acting City Manager Steve Danley as a generalist and said he became aware of him during his own work for the County government (Whitaker worked for Chris Norby when he was 4th District Supervisor). He thought that Danley’s expertise in Human Resources would be helpful at the present moment, given unfilled vacancies at the City as it emerges from pandemic restrictions.

According to his resume, Danley previously served as a department head for the county of Orange for 33 years, including as Chief Human Resources Officer and Performance Audit Director, as well as Director of Administration for Public Works, Waste Management, and the District Attorney’s Office.

Ahmad Zahra said he would rather have seen someone from within the current City government appointed to the temporary position in order to save money but looked forward to any fresh ideas Danley might have. Zahra cited his concern about conflicts of interest in his vote against offering Danley the job because Danley currently heads a consulting firm that offers services to governments.

Silva said he first heard of Danley just the day before, on April 27. No other options were brought before the Council. Silva said he wished they could have waited to make a decision, but that he felt comfortable enough with him in the short term.

“Yes, I wish I could have waited, but then there is no one there to lead the team,” Silva said. Although Dunlap thought Danley might serve for as long as 6 months, Silva hoped that the Council could find a permanent City Manager “sooner than later” in perhaps as few as 2 months.

In the meantime, Mayor Whitaker said, “I think it’s time for ideologies to take a back seat and for us to focus on performance and results” and core competencies of city government.

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6 replies »

  1. Let me offer a contrasting view here.

    The city manager is a non-elected position that would seem to serve at the pleasure of the city council members who are themselves directly accountable to the voters. A majority of the council is new since he started in 2017. Sounded like the city council decided a new direction would be best, and it certainly is a different situation then what previous councils have faced.

    Given the changed circumstances, it is not unreasonable to think a different person might be a better fit. No one has made any allegation of ethical wrongdoing, and they at least had the courtesy to offer conciliatory statements to each other.

    The bottom line is, the city council has the right to choose who they think is the best for the job, and they decided it was time for a change.

  2. First, once again EXCELLENT FACT FOCUSED REPORTING

    Second, in the aftermath of this week, perhaps the new City Council could take _in a short_ “afternoon” workshop to review public relations. Not much, and please don’t spend too much money on this, but just a simple review.

    This is because a simple press release accompanying the closed session agenda item could have done wonders here:

    “This coming Tuesday, we the City Council, now 3-4 months into our term, will be meeting, necessarily in closed session (this is an HR item after all), to conduct a performance review of and with our City Manager. We would like our fellow Fullertonians whom we’ve been elected to represent to understand that such performance reviews are both normal and necessary and that in our system of local government the City Manager is hired by, is answerable to and works at the pleasure of the City Council. We ask for your thoughts and prayers as we conduct this task for the benefit of our city and all its constituents.”

    It wouldn’t have been hard, could have been printed on the city’s (or if need be mayor’s) stationary as an accompanying item to the agenda, or if that proved “hard” (due to time or perhaps temporarily understandable obstruction on the part of City staff) put on the mayor’s own web page and emailed to a few key local newspaper outlets, notably the Fullerton Observer here and the Orange County Register as well as the Voice of OC / OC Edition of the LA Times.

    The same result of the meeting could have been obtained without any meaningful accusation that the matter was “rushed” or being “conducted in undo secrecy.” Cheers.

  3. It was done with odd secrecy. I asked for public records showing any emails to or from anyone at the city including council members and any documents vetting Mr. Danley. There are none. The only email came in a comment letter to Councilmember Zahra who answered a residents question on how Danley came to be selected. Neither he or Silva had any prior notice of Danley who by the way was recommended by former OC Supervisor Nelson who happens to live next door to Councilmember Jung. Whitaker was Nelson’s field assistant when he was a supervisor and a friend of Dunlap…….

    • Whoops I meant field assistant to Norby. While I have questions about Danley’s qualifications for the top job of running a city with multi-million budget, why zero vetting was done, and why no alternative candidates were considered – my original feeling that Domer was pushed out has changed. Domer was being recruited by the City of Laguna Beach in what they said was an extensive candidate vetting operation. Domer was selected from among the 10 candidates being considered for Assistant City Manager position of the tiny city of 23,000 residents. He received severance pay from Fullerton, will be working at the beach town for same pay and less pressure, who wouldn’t go for that?

  4. Matt – good point – Domer may have been willing to continue as Fullerton CM – but he did have an immediate alternative waiting for him. Even more interesting now is that council majority appointed Acting CM Danley has hired (with city council majority approval) the new interim head of Human Resources department. According to the city – the Human Resources dept. will be conducting the search for a permanent City Manager instead of hiring a professional executive search company to vet candidates.

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