May 11, 2012

Oakdale fires embattled Public Works director

The city is firing its Public Works director, the latest example of the turmoil involving a divided City Council, financial woes and the treasurer's recent resignation.

The city is firing its Public Works director, the latest example of the turmoil involving a divided City Council, financial woes and the treasurer's recent resignation.

Joe Leach's last day will be July 20. He has been Public Works director since September 2009 and earns $111,588 annually. Public Works has been roiled by morale, performance and personnel problems, which predate Leach's tenure.

Leach said Friday he was not given the support he needed. He said the consultant brought in to review Public Works told him "no one could be successful in this situation."

Leach said he may consider legal action against the city.

"It's not out of the realm of what's reasonable," he said when asked whether he would file a claim or lawsuit. Leach added he may not stay through July 20.

But Leach said he was proud of his time with Oakdale.

"I've done my best in my 2½ years with the city," he said. "I hired some good, quality people. It's unfortunate that it has come to this, but life goes on."

Interim City Manager Greg Wellman acknowledged the issues facing Public Works would make "it a real challenge for anyone to be a success."

But Wellman said during his nine months with the city, Leach has been given the help he needs from city administration and the City Council.

"I feel like he was given the support required," Wellman said. "When you hire a Public Works director, there are certain skill sets that you want the director to have walking through the door. It's an extremely demanding job."

Oakdale has been in turmoil for months.

Wellman has uncovered a series of financial setbacks, including a $700,000 to $1 million annual revenue shortfall in the sewer fund. This week, he said he feared the city faced a cash insolvency crisis. Finance Director Albert Avila strongly disputed that, adding the city has $12 million in the bank and in its investments.

The City Council — which is short one member — is divided, and City Treasurer Mike Murray abruptly resigned Tuesday with about six months left in his term.

Some residents at Monday's council meeting questioned Murray's effectiveness in light of the city's financial woes. But small-city treasurers typically play a minor role in providing financial oversight. Their duties usually are limited to reviewing and signing a monthly report that lists the cash balances of all city accounts.

Avila said this week that he feared his job also is in jeopardy. The council will hold a special meeting Monday regarding the city's negotiations with its labor groups and Avila's annual performance evaluation.

Wellman said Friday he is not recommending the council fire Avila.

Public Works has come under scrutiny for its performance.

For instance, the department spent about $70,000 to fix a well because the city did not discover the problem while the well still was under warranty because of delays in getting permits to operate it.

The department also has been beset by personnel problems.

In March 2011, the city paid $185,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former Public Works employee who alleged he was the victim of racial slurs, threats and a hostile workplace when he worked for the city in 2005 and 2006.

William Moffitt, who is black, alleged in his lawsuit that co-workers used the "n" word in his presence, brought a loaded weapon to work to intimidate him and placed bets on how long it would take to force him out.

Moffitt was the city's only black employee. The lawsuit cost the city about $250,000 in legal costs.

And in July, the Public Works supervisor who hired Moffitt sued Oakdale, claiming he has been ostracized and humiliated by city workers for defending Moffitt. There has been no resolution to the lawsuit.

The Bee learned of Leach's termination after filing a California Public Records Act request for two letters sent to Leach telling him that the city would be ending his employment. The city initially denied the newspaper's request, but later consented after receiving a letter from The Bee's legal counsel.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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