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Morro Bay City Council member changes mind about hiring city manager

David Buckingham, Morro Bay's new city manager
David Buckingham, Morro Bay's new city manager Courtesy photo

A Morro Bay City Council member has changed her mind about the appropriateness of hiring retired Army Col. David Buckingham of Arlington, Va., as city manager.

The city announced Buckingham’s hire Tuesday after a 5-0 vote to extend an offer of employment to him on Friday.

But Councilwoman Nancy Johnson said she wasn’t aware until Tuesday, just before a council meeting, that Buckingham had a claim against the city of Bishop in a contractual dispute over a city administrator position that he’d applied for and ultimately didn’t get.

On Monday, the city of Bishop and Buckingham reached an agreement that pays Buckingham $38,000 to settle all claims. The agreement includes a non-disparagement clause that prohibits critical or disparaging remarks about Buckingham.

The agreement states, “(Bishop) considered hiring Buckingham as its city administrator, but ultimately decided to hire another individual as city administrator. Buckingham claims he was employed by city, disputes city’s right to hire the other individual and not to hire him, and claims damages. … By this agreement, the parties intend to settle all claims.”

The Morro Bay City Council approved Buckingham’s appointment as city manager Monday, knowing about another controversy in his background while serving as garrison commander at a U.S. Army base in Vicenza, Italy.

Buckingham admitted to losing his temper and using profanity during a 2013 Fourth of July incident at the base when a military police officer failed to follow orders to open a gate that was blocking traffic at the crowded celebration.

The incident led to Buckingham being relieved of duty and reassigned by the Army to director of environmental services at the Pentagon. An investigation cleared him of any unethical conduct.

Although the council knew about the Italy incident, it did not know about the controversy in Bishop.

“Regarding the issue in Bishop, we moved ahead with this without full information,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing that bothers me most. … It brings to mind questions I have about (interim city manager) Ed Kreins’ ability as a researcher.”

Johnson said she would have reversed her vote on hiring Buckingham if she’d known in advance that he’d filed a claim against Bishop.

Kreins, a former Beverly Hills police chief who has conducted hiring searches for other government agencies, vehemently defended his vetting process.

As part of Kreins’ duties, the council had assigned him to lead the search for a permanent manager.

“I advised the council about the Bishop position, and they saw it as a non-issue,” Kreins said. “I didn’t know about the settlement agreement until Tuesday.”

Buckingham said in an email Wednesday to The Tribune that he’d signed an employment offer extended by the city of Bishop and returned the contract to them, accepting the position in late June with plans to start work Sept. 1.

He said the incident in Italy was fully disclosed in his interviews for the Bishop job.

“Bishop’s change of mind had nothing to do with me, my character, professionalism or qualifications, a fact that was communicated to me by several leaders in Bishop,” Buckingham said in his email. “I do not know, nor do I believe it appropriate to speculate (on why they reneged).”

After accepting the position in Bishop, Buckingham arranged to leave his position with the Army two months earlier than he’d planned, rented his home in Virginia and he was actively looking to purchase a home in Bishop.

“After Bishop withdrew their offer, an action that had caused my family and me measurable financial loss, we came to an agreement in which they compensated me for those losses,” Buckingham said.

Outgoing Bishop City Manager Keith Caldwell said he couldn’t discuss what happened with Buckingham’s hiring process.

Mayor Jamie Irons defended Kreins’ background in hiring and investigation as a law enforcement veteran.

“During Ed’s tenure, he has invested himself in Morro Bay,” Irons said. “He has worked as a professional and he’s worked for this city and this council to do the best job and help us find the best city manager.”

Irons said the council discussed the fallout from Buckingham’s reassignment in Italy with Kreins, but not with Buckingham.

Irons said they were comfortable with Kreins’ vetting process, which included talking with generals who supervised Buckingham.

Irons and fellow councilman Noah Smukler said they felt Buckingham was the best candidate for the job. Irons added that was reflected in a unanimous council vote as well as endorsements of Buckingham by a five-member Morro Bay citizen’s committee and the city managers of Arroyo Grande and Lompoc, who participated in the interview process made up of professional peers.

Smukler said Kreins’ research uncovered that Buckingham was in charge of cleaning up a platoon at the Vicenza base that had disciplinary problems, which he believes should be factored into consideration.

“David was obviously not willing to sit with status quo at the base (he supervised),” Smukler said. “He identified a serious situation and saw that rules were being broken. He wasn’t willing to stand by. As a leader, especially at his level, sometimes you get put in an uncomfortable situation, and to do what’s right is commendable.”

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