In a stunning formal claim against City Hall, former City Manager Gary Hampton accused Mayor Gary Soiseth, Councilman Matthew Jacob and City Attorney Phaedra Norton of "unethical activities" regarding the selection of Hampton's successor, including an alleged high-level "cover up" when Hampton refused to join their supposed conspiracy.
"Elected officials engaged in bullying of (city staff) has got to stop," Hampton said in an interview this week. He had been set to retire at the end of August, but "continuous criticism and character attacks" forced him out six weeks early, he said in the claim.
It's not clear whether the document, filed Nov. 3, has been presented to the City Council. If rejected, Hampton then could sue, asking for six weeks of pay and benefits, or about $30,000. Much more important, Hampton said, is addressing a culture of intimidating managers when they provide information that Soiseth and other council members don't want to hear.
"It's not OK, how some are being treated," said Hampton, 56.
On Wednesday, Norton denied having approached Hampton in May to ask that he use his influence to help her chances of being chosen to succeed him, and subsequently undermining him along with unnamed others until Hampton felt he had no choice but to get out. Jacob did not return a call.
"I categorically and unequivocally deny the allegations set forth in the claim," Norton said.
Soiseth said, "I'm not sure why I'm named in this claim, though it does seem to be a pattern of behavior by Mr. Hampton."
In July 2016, Hampton filed a claim against Tracy, where he had worked. He alleged disability discrimination related to a knee injury, according to documents provided by Tracy City Hall. He named Mayor Michael Maciel and former city manager Troy Brown in that claim.
Hampton's career included time as police chief in Oakdale, Turlock and Tracy, and city administration in Tracy and Turlock.
"It's clear (Soiseth) is trying to smear my name and reputation," Hampton said Thursday. Soiseth and the rest of the Turlock council were aware of Hampton's legal dispute with Tracy when they welcomed him to Turlock, he said.
"The mayor is grasping at straws," Hampton said. "You see now what type of retribution some members of this City Council can do."
Hampton becomes the second former police chief-turned-city manager to leave Turlock early since Soiseth took office in 2014.
Roy Wasden was Modesto's police chief before he ran Turlock City Hall for seven years until retiring in December 2015. A year ago, Wasden confirmed to The Modesto Bee that "the challenge of change" associated with Soiseth's election played a part in Wasden's departure six months sooner than initially planned.
Hampton's early exit, it turns out, was much rockier.
Soiseth praised Hampton's "candor, honesty and wisdom" when City Hall announced in April that he would leave Aug. 31. However, "in May 2017, I was solicited by an appointed official of the city to engage in unethical activities intended to undermine the city manager recruitment/selection process, whereby I was requested to influence the selection of the next city manager to the benefit of the appointed official," Hampton said in his Turlock claim. "After refusing, I became the subject of continuous criticism and character attacks by the appointed official and supporters of the official."
Hampton said he discussed his concerns with Soiseth and Vice Mayor Bill DeHart in June. Nothing changed, Hampton said, so he left. In a June email to Soiseth and the council, obtained recently by The Bee, Hampton cited "the current adverse work environment that I am experiencing, which is not conducive to my continued successful leadership and management" as his reason for leaving early.
"They should have just let me retire in August instead of creating this adverse environment for me," Hampton said.
Norton had assumed Hampton's duties for four weeks in February when he was out on medical leave, and she had applied to become Turlock city manager in a troubled recruitment that has made its own headlines.
City leaders appointed committees of officials and regular people to review candidates, but differences on the council erupted into bickering and the council scrapped the search in October — despite having spent $13,000 on the process — and opted to start over.
Norton, meanwhile, was away on leave herself for several weeks. At one point in September, Councilwoman Amy Bublak angrily demanded to schedule a special meeting to discuss problems associated with having no city manager, city attorney or finance director, but Soiseth shut it down.
Norton was back on the dais Dec. 12. Asked this week about her extended absence, Norton said, "I was gone for personal reasons." She no longer is a candidate for city manager; "I made a personal decision not to continue" seeking the job, she said.
At the same Dec. 12 meeting, the council was scheduled to pay $290,000 to three attorney firms outside of City Hall who helped with matters such as labor negotiations and providing legal advice in Norton's absence. Of that amount, $165,000 would come from reserves, and $125,000 saved from not having paid a city manager's salary since Hampton's departure. But 3 1/2 hours into the meeting, Soiseth — with no explanation — announced that the item would be postponed to the Jan. 9 council meeting.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390