Morro Bay’s two top administrators survived an attempt to oust them after a contentious hearing Thursday that revealed bitter divisions within both the City Council and the community as a whole.
The termination or disciplining of City Administrator Andrea Lueker and City Attorney Rob Schultz were the subject of a four-hour hearing including an hour and a half of closed-door deliberations Thursday afternoon that resulted in no action being taken.
The meeting was called after the minimum 24-hour notice by Mayor Jamie Irons and was agreed to by council members Noah Smukler and Christine Johnson over the vocal objections of council members Nancy Johnson and George Leage.
“I think the process is the problem here,” Nancy Johnson told Iron during the hearing. “I think this flies in the face of transparency.”
Citing personnel confidentiality, no reasons for the potential terminations were given other than Irons saying the council needs to decide “do we have the right people in the key positions?” No indication was given whether the council would take the matter up again or when.
Similarly, no details of the closed-session deliberations were given. Both Lueker and Schultz are at-will employees, meaning the City Council would not need to state a reason for their termination.
Even though the meeting was in the middle of a workday and held on short notice, it drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Veterans Hall that can accommodate 300 people. The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Lueker and Schultz.
Before the City Council went into closed session, Irons opened the meeting to public comment and gave each speaker a minute to talk. About 100 people spoke with only 10 in favor of the pair being fired.
When they entered the building at the beginning of the hearing, both Lueker and Schultz received standing ovations by the partisan crowd. They also got many hugs and handshakes afterward.
Many praised Lueker and Schultz as hard-working professionals. Some said they will launch a recall effort against Irons, Smukler and Christine Johnson. Others angrily accused the three of having a hidden agenda.
“I do not believe this is the appropriate time or place for this,” said Morro Bay firefighter Todd Gailey. “This reeks of backdoor politics.”
“Your job is to do the right thing for the city,” said Janice Peters, who recently served 20 years on the City Council. “This action is not, and it breaks my heart.”
The handful of people who spoke in favor of the firings said it was the result of last year’s election that saw Irons, Smukler and Christine Johnson elected with enough votes in the primary election to avoid a runoff in the general election.
Betty Winholtz, who also served on the City Council for many years, said she thinks a majority of city residents still support Irons, Johnson and Smukler. Others cited mismanagement that has caused the city to become embroiled in numerous lawsuits as reasons to fire the pair.
Councilwoman Nancy Johnson and others asked Irons to explain why he called the meeting on such short notice and behind closed doors. Irons said he followed the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s public meeting law.
He said he called the meeting after 24-hour notice rather than a 72-hour notice in order to speed the process up and enhance its confidentiality. Such short notifications in possible terminations are common, he said.
“I did not need 72 hours to think about this,” he said. “I have had plenty of time to think about this.”
Irons also said he wanted the meeting’s public notice to omit the names of Lueker and Schultz, but they added their names to the notice themselves. He also asked them whether they wanted to have the deliberations held in closed or open session.
Schultz said the law allows open-session deliberations only if specific reasons or cause for termination are cited. Irons said no specific cause was given, and the deliberations were held in closed session.