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September 17, 2013

Modesto city attorney Wood resigning

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood has submitted her resignation, after more than seven years as Modesto’s top legal adviser. Her resignation will be effective Nov. 15.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood has submitted her resignation after more than seven years as Modesto’s top legal adviser. Her resignation is effective Nov. 15.

In her resignation letter dated Sept. 15, Wood wrote: “The time has come for me to pursue other opportunities that have been presented....”

She did not respond Tuesday to phone calls and an email seeking comment. Her decision caught council members off guard.

“I am surprised to see Susana go,” Councilman Joe Muratore wrote in an email. “She did an admirable job of representing the city during very difficult budgetary times. I wish her all the best.”

Wood is one of the city’s three charter officers who report directly to the City Council. The council hires and fires these officers, who include City Manager Greg Nyhoff and City Clerk Stephanie Lopez.

Wood’s contract requires her to give the city 60 days’ notice before resigning. She is not entitled to severance pay. Her salary is $155,838, according to the city’s website. She also receives a $400-a-month car allowance, according to her employment contract.

Mayor Garrad Marsh said he suspects Wood is leaving to take a better-paying job. Marsh said that some time ago, Wood told him her pay was about 20 percent less than what comparable attorneys were earning. He said the city could not afford to raise Wood’s pay.

Marsh and five of the six council members said they do not know about Wood’s future plans. Councilman Dave Cogdill Jr. did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Wood’s decision to leave comes about one month after her annual performance review. The council met in closed session Aug. 7 to evaluate Wood, Nyhoff and Lopez.

When asked about Wood’s accomplishments and legacy, Marsh said she has led the city’s legal department during a time of unprecedented budget cuts and financial difficulties, yet she and her staff have continued to respond to the legal issues and challenges facing the city.

“Stability within our legal department is her legacy,” Marsh said.

Wood, 50, became city attorney in June 2006 after serving as a supervising deputy city attorney for Sacramento for five years and a deputy city attorney for Stockton for more than eight years. She is the first woman to serve as Modesto’s city attorney.

Wood wrote in her resignation letter that her time in Modesto has been the most rewarding of her long career in municipal law. She wrote that it has been a pleasure to work with the current and previous councils. She also praised the employees in her office.

But her tenure has been marked by rough patches. For instance, The Modesto Bee reported in May that a city investigation had determined Wood violated city policy in her handling of a request to change an employee’s timecard hours. The employee wanted her timecard to show she earned less money than she actually did so she could qualify for a state-subsidized preschool program for her daughter.

Wood was faulted for not reading emails that suggested the employee did not qualify for subsidized child care, and Wood apparently failed to consider the implications of facilitating the employee’s request to change the timecard, according to the investigation.

Wood said in May that it was important to note the allegations against her and her office involved fraud and that the investigation found no evidence of that. She said the report criticized her for not handling administrative matters well. “There was no finding of fraud, which I knew would be the case,” she said.

The council took no disciplinary action against anyone involved in the matter, though the mayor counseled Wood.

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