Following advice of community leaders, Antioch Council fires Duran on split vote
To cost city more than $225,000
By Dave Roberts
The Ides of March came a day early for Antioch, when a divided City Council fired City Manager Steve Duran Tuesday night, on a vote of 3-2, just five months before he was scheduled to retire. The action will cost the city more than $225,000 in increased compensation to Duran. Mayor Sean Wright said the termination was necessary for the city to move forward. But the mayor did not specify what forward progress Duran was impeding or why it was necessary to take action now rather than wait for Duran’s tentatively scheduled retirement on Aug. 15, which he announced on the night of the November election.
The vote to terminate Duran during a closed session before the regular meeting. was 3-2. Wright, Mayor Pro Tem Lamar Thorpe and Council Member Monica Wilson voted in favor of termination, while Council Members Tony Tiscareno and Lori Ogorchock were opposed. The closed session, which lasted until 8:00 p.m. followed over an hour of public comments from a variety of community leaders, who all spoke in favor of Duran’s termination. (See related article).
The division on the council was also evident in Ogorchock’s charge that the council has violated the California open meeting law known as the Brown Act. She did not provide specifics, but said it possibly includes a “serial meeting.” The Brown Act defines a serial meeting as “a series of communications, each of which involves less than a quorum of the legislative body, but which taken as a whole involves a majority of the body’s members.” Ogorchock asked that the matter be placed on a council agenda “ASAP.” None of the other council members addressed the Brown Act violation charge.
Wright was the only council member to comment on the Duran firing. He argued that it’s a natural consequence of the November election. Voters changed city leadership, replacing Wade Harper as mayor with Wright, and replacing Mary Rocha on the council with Thorpe.
“Elections bring about change that inspire new direction, fresh philosophies and re-energized hope,” Wright said. “The recent election showed a renewed desire to help in a community that wants to see things improve. Volunteers have stepped up in greater numbers to serve on our commissions. And citizens have voiced their desire to help through phone calls and email. Our city has a phenomenal window of opportunity to take advantage of a growing economy, the expansion of eBART and completion of Highway 4.
“Sometimes taking advantage of that opportunity requires change. And you saw that tonight through a City Council who chose to make change. I look forward to working as a team with our staff, our new city manager to be able to really take Antioch to the potential that it can be. I’m excited about not staying in the status quo and moving forward in a direction that gives us the opportunity to be able to move forward and move forward quickly. And as we do that, we do go through some pains and some growing pains and learning. And I thank you for your patience with me as a new mayor and allowing me to learn with you.”
Wright also alluded to an article in the East Bay Times, “Antioch city manager says new mayor wants him gone.” In that March 11 article Duran alleged that Wright wants to fire him because Duran told Wright to stop holding discussions with a developer that included the waiving of city fees for a project. The article also said Duran wants an outside investigation of a possible Brown Act violation.
“As relates to some of the comments in the newspaper that have recently been said about me, unfortunately I am unable to really remark and go into,” said Wright. “I would just like to state that many of the allegations, many of the things said about me were in response to obviously today’s actions and trying to make them not happen. At some point there will be things that I’m sure will come out as it relates to that. And I’ll work with our city attorney as to what I can say so that it comes out. I want to be as transparent as possible and give out as much information as possible.”
Wright concluded his remarks under the Mayor’s Comments portion of the agenda by reiterating his optimism about Antioch.
“Thank you so much for all that you do,” he said. “I’m so excited. When we have a commission opening, now we get six or seven applications. It’s amazing how many people are standing up and stepping up to be able to volunteer and work and see a renewed sense of hope and opportunity in this city to be able to really drive forward. And I’m looking forward to be able to do that and do that with you as our citizens. Thank you.”
In 2015 Duran received $338,282 in compensation, according to state controller data. That includes $242,088 in wages and $96,194 in retirement and health benefits. His compensation was likely higher last year and will be this year due to the pay raise approved by the council majority. But based on the 2015 figures, he was on track to receive $140,951 during the five months until he retired in mid-August. Instead he will receive at least $366,472 because the termination agreement includes one month of unpaid leave plus one year of severance.
In other words, by being fired Duran will receive at least $225,521 more from the city than he would have had he been allowed to retire in August. Acting City Manager Ron Bernal did not respond by deadline to email requests to confirm and update those numbers.
When City Attorney Michael Vigilia announced the 3-2 vote to terminate Duran’s employment agreement with the city, many in the audience applauded and some cheered. That prompted a scolding during the Public Comments portion of the meeting from Antioch resident Ken Turnage II.
“I’ve never been a fan of Mr. Duran nor did I think he really fit for this city,” said Turnage. “But to hear the people from the audience applaud over the man’s termination is an absolute embarrassment. The man might not have fit our city, but to applaud his termination, if you want to be a better city you should be better than that.”
He was seconded by Willie Mims, who represents the East County NAACP. Mims was also critical of the council for starting the meeting an hour late without an announcement that it would be delayed.
Two residents expressed appreciation to the council for the Duran firing. Nancy Fernandez said, “I’ve been through a lot in the politics in the 50 years I’ve been here. Some pretty bad, some very sad. This is a new beginning. And I thank the three of you for showing our residents they are valued again.”
Frank Sterling also thanked Wright, Thorpe and Wilson for removing Duran. “One thing that bugged me about the previous city manager is he never looked at me,” he said. Sterling also complained that Duran did not provide information on police abuse in his reports to the city although those reports included details on drug- and alcohol-related crimes.
In other action, the council:
- Listened to a presentation by a consultant who offered to help improve the city’s image. “When you Google ‘Antioch,’ unfortunately what comes up is crime, issues of negativity,” said Rolando Bonilla. “I know that’s not what this city is. It’s hard working, about moving forward and giving opportunity. I want to help you change the narrative. If you want to attract tourism and investment, it’s not going to happen when that’s the first thing people see.”
- Voted 4-1 (Thorpe voting no) to participate in a statewide assessment program to help residential developers pass on costs to the buyers of their homes.
- Supported funding for the Arts & Cultural Foundation of Antioch, which puts on art shows at the Lynn House Gallery along with the summer concert series.
- Supported construction of a nine-hole disc golf course in Prewett Park this summer.
- Voted 3-2 (Wright and Thorpe voting no) to spend $1.1 million to study whether Antioch should build a $70 million desalination plant. Wright and Thorpe, noting that they were not involved in previous discussions on the project, said they wanted more information.