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City Manager Patrick Johnson's ability to hire department leaders may soon require consultation and majority council approval. Courtesy photo/The Coast News graphic
City Manager Patrick Johnson's ability to hire department leaders may soon require consultation and majority council approval. Courtesy photo/The Coast News graphic
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Vista council looks to temper city manager’s hiring authority

VISTA — At a special Aug. 30 afternoon meeting, the Vista City Council took aim at the city manager’s hiring authority by inviting stakeholders, city staff and elected officials into the appointment process.

The council, with Mayor Judy Ritter and Deputy Mayor John Franklin opposed, moved to amend the Vista Municipal Code to include in the section on the appointment of employees that “…the city manager shall make said appointments in consultation and agreement with a majority of the City Council.”

If approved at the next meeting, the amendment would sunset after 180 days if a hiring policy for the city manager is not adopted. The new process would also have a workshop sometime in October.

Councilmember Joe Green, who introduced the item, said he did so to engage city employees and other professionals for an “inclusive” process.

The council received correspondence from unnamed city employees urging council members to vote down the ordinance. Those in opposition questioned the council’s motives and believed the change would be detrimental to the city’s form of government.

“By no means am I trying to take away the authority of the city manager,” Green said. “I don’t think any of our council members have the time to sit on hiring and firing panels ….  I will say, If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I think having more of our staff and more of our city employees, even stakeholders, at the table, making these decisions is a great move by the city, and it’d be really great for morale.”

Green said the move has been coming for six years, adding he often feels blindsided by new hires or changeovers due to the city manager’s unilateral hiring power. The inclusion of the council majority is meant to alleviate that issue, Green said.

Green also told the public the meeting resulted from City Manager Patrick Johnson’s disinterest in forming a policy that would alter his hiring method.

Though the ordinance was proposed for transparency in anticipation of a new policy, Ritter said she was given notice of the meeting “late last week” and did not know the context of the meeting until Aug. 29.

“This proposal is a huge change in our city’s municipal code that ultimately takes away the city manager’s authority to manage and puts it in the hands of three council members,” Ritter said in a written response to her colleagues. “And that’s exactly what this is doing, who are coincidentally the ones attempting to change the code. In addition, they’re pushing the change through without significant advance notice to the general public. How transparent is that? That nobody knew about this meeting?”

Two former council members addressed the incumbents on Aug. 30, urging them to turn down the change, echoing the warnings of a shift in government.

John Aguilar questioned the motives of the City Council in bringing forward the item — at 3 p.m. rather than at 7 p.m. on Tuesday — adding that outside parties don’t belong in government hiring.

“What you guys are doing is not good,” Aguilar said. “This is the beginning of the end… When you allow special interest groups to control your council, you’ve already lost as a city. That’s what’s happening here. Let’s not beat around the bush; that’s what’s happening.”

Councilmember Corinna Contreras said she didn’t see any issue creating “a more inclusive way to hire individuals who are qualified.” Contreras said the city could do better than it has in the past.

The Vista city manager’s section of the municipal code was last reviewed and changed in 1983, its third change since the city was established in 1963.

Green said his proposal wasn’t personal, but the city has had issues with past department heads that have impacted staff. He looks to a policy developed through public workshops to freshen up the city’s code to bring in qualified, fitting candidates.

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