About 50 Antioch community leaders and other residents attended the public comments period prior to the closed session of the Antioch City Council, Tuesday afternoon, March 14, 2017.
By Allen Payton
In a show of solidarity, and a rarely seen large attendance during the public comments period prior to a closed-door session of the Antioch City Council, about 50 community leaders joined together and called for the firing of City Manager Steve Duran.
Upset with the way Duran has either treated them individually, their organizations and efforts since he was hired three years ago, or his comments about Mayor Sean Wright, made in a recent East Bay Times article, each speaker offered their reasons for why they wanted Duran to go and asked the council to fire him during their closed session, immediately following.
Speakers included long-time residents, business owners, former council and school board members and leaders of community organizations.
Duran sat there listening for over an hour to the negative comments directed at him, mainly looking down, until Antioch-based new home developer and long-time Rotarian Gordon Gravelle spoke. Then, Duran looked up and listened to what Gravelle had to say.
“You know when I read this article I was disgusted,” he said. “Disgusted because it put Antioch in a bad light, again.”
“Why would this happen like this?” Gravelle asked. “That this type of dirty laundry would have to be exposed to the public. It doesn’t.”
“I just want to give the council not a warning it might be a tip or a hint. I’ve been involved in litigation way too many times in my life,” he shared. “Always keep in mind that when you go in your attorneys will tell you it’s a slam dunk case. Then you get in $50,000 and it’s a 50/50 chance. “I don’t want this city, this learned council to get into this,” Gravelle continued. “Step back and take a look at all the facts.”
“The city is doing nothing right now and needs to move forward,” he concluded.
Richard Pagano, the new CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce spoke on behalf of the city’s business organization in favor of the termination of Duran’s contract.
More than two months have now passed in 2017 and the direction of the city of Antioch must begin to quickly clarify. It is time for the City Council to take the reins of policy and lead the City of Antioch rapidly to a new and more successful place. The people who live and work in Antioch are your constituents, and all of your decisions should put the interests of these citizens, businesses, visitors, employees, etc. in the top priority. Policies and actions that focus on this simple priority would be most welcome and expected by the 2016 voters.
The City Manager has already stated publicly that he will leave during this year. However, the City of Antioch cannot remain stuck in an old operational mode for most of 2017. As a result, we urge the City Council to rapidly remove the current City Manager. It is time to get on with making steady progress in the City of Antioch under a policy direction which is set, monitored, and corrected as needed from the City Council. It’s not that the current City Manager is not good at his job. It’s that he’s not a good fit for our city. The downtown plan has continued to stall, and the Somersville area is littered with garbage, homeless, and vacant shopping centers. To put it another way, economic development in our community is nonexistent and action on chronic problems is far too slow.
In recent days, several articles have emerged in local newspapers. These articles suggest a very dysfunctional relationship at City Hall. The City Manager suggests that the new Mayor is somehow “meddling” and yet he is in fact, the new mayor according to citizen voting. The Mayor and the City Council should be directing City policy and yet the City Manager seems to resist this as he tries to control everything at City Hall.
Maybe this explains why it takes so long for things to happen at City Hall without openness, engagement, delegation, and enablement styles of leadership? In the article, the City Manager now appears to threaten the Mayor with a lawsuit? Really? The last thing that the City of Antioch needs is another wasted year. Let’s cut our losses and move on.
The Antioch Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of its membership, respectfully requests that the City Council discuss and act on the termination of the city manager and establish temporary leadership. The City of Antioch deserves a City Manager who can lead city hall – under a policy direction as set by the City Council – toward a path of economic vitality. As business owners with employees, we recognize there are times when it makes good business-sense to let an employee go. Even if their termination comes at a potential financial loss. This is one of those situations. The Antioch Chamber believes even with this loss we will be avoiding situations and contracts that can cost the city far more expense than this small loss will amount to in the overall budget.
Nancy Fernandez, who with her husband regularly attends council meetings, was first to speak. She asked the council to “Pull items 1, 2, 3 and 7,” wanting item “2 postponed” due to a “conflict of interest by the negotiator, Duran.”
“We do not negotiate in secret,” she stated. Then gave her reasons for pulling agenda item “3, Humphrey’s needs to be torn down.” Instead, Fernandez suggested it become “Humphrey’s Park.”
Agenda item “7 must be carried out for the saving of our city,” she said referring to the Public Employee Dismissal.
“Measure O needs to be implemented completely,” Fernandez continued, complaining that the business license fee imposed on residential rental units was not being collected.
Antioch Planning Commissioner and form Councilman Jim Conley was next to speak.
“Mr. Duran has left you in an untenable situation,” he said. “They should give a specific date,” referring to Duran’s tentative retirement date. “Their attitude changes. They can stay on for months.”
“You’re not going to be able to hire a qualified replacement,” Conley continued. “There’s no start date. He (Duran) could change his mind…and stay until January.
He called it a “very precarious problem. There are remedies. You can pay him until January. You can fire him for cause. Even (for) as much as putting something on the agenda. You can negotiate or you can keep him here and take away his authority.”
“You need to protect the city,” Conley stated. “That’s something that Duran didn’t do when he spoke with” the newspaper reporter.
“He should have said it’s a personnel issue and I won’t comment. He made a page full of comments and threatened legal action.”
Next to speak was a man who wouldn’t provide his name but referred to himself as “Mr. Resident. He was the only one who spoke in Duran’s defense.
“I have been a resident of Antioch for 37 years. I rarely come to the council but I rise today to speak on items 5, 6 & 7,” he said. “I’m also an attorney. I’m grey haired, retired. “
Ordinance 210 is a non-interference by the board,” the man shared. “It’s a separation of powers and to avoid corruption. They work through the city manager.”
There is “no authority by the board to interfere in conducting business by the city manager,” he continued. The city manager is “to see that all laws are executed in the city.”
“A member of the council was admonished by the city manager for conduct that could interfere with the city manager,” he continued. “The mayor should recuse himself of consideration of those three agenda items.”
There “might be a referral to a civil grand jury,” the man concluded.
He was followed by Joe Lamont who said, “City Manager Duran…is not of, by and for the people.”
Susan Welch was next to speak, saying “he does not care how the people want their city to be.
He is rude.”
Joanne Boyd said, “he said you won’t get what you want but you’ll get what you need. Mr. Duran isn’t invested in Antioch.”
He’s “not all good or all bad,” she continued. “He was hired by the previous city council. We have little confidence in the previous council and even less in the city manager.
We worked hard in the last election to have a change in vision.”
“I wish Mr. Duran well in his retirement years,” Boyd concluded.
Former Antioch Councilman Ralph Hernandez spoke next, saying, “The firing of the city manager, I think it’s appropriate for cause for various reasons. Of course he’s entitled to due process and you give him due process.”
“When he was hired we had a financial problem and a public safety problem,” he continued. “He hasn’t accomplished anything. We are still below 1 officer per 1,000 residents. Our budget…we have over $150 million in unfunded liabilities.”
“His position is an at will position,” Hernandez explained. “He’s spoken to the press, criticized the mayor…(that) is intolerable. I would also ask for his dismissal. He gives direction to the mayor and the council. If he has…he has failed. Replace him with someone who will properly serve you and the residents.”
Susan Martinez said she has “lived in Antioch for over 25 years. I’m here to express my frustration with…city operations.”
“You’re not able to do your jobs as city leaders when you’re told to ‘stay in your lane,’” quoting a comment by Duran in the Times article. “It’s frustrating to me to see your hands are tied when told to ‘stay in your lane.’”
You have my full support today to make the changes today,” Martinez concluded. “Thank you for all you do for this wonderful city.”
Pagano spoke next followed by Terry Ramus, a former member of the Mello-Roos Board and Chairman of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee.
“There are many good people who serve every day for the city of Antioch,” he said. “Unfortunately the recent newspaper article…our worst fears have come true. You can’t be effective if someone is resisting and saying to stay in your lane.”
“You should terminate the city manager tonight then bring the rest of the city along who doesn’t sees the citizens as obstacles as Mr. Duran often does,” Ramus continued. “Mr. Duran sees customers…as an obstacle to his own self-observed genius. The system doesn’t work like that.”
He referred to city hall as a “vampire bureaucracy” that “when someone shines light on it the fangs come out.”
Former Councilwoman Norma Hernandez spoke next, stating, “We’re expecting change. Trump is having the same problem. People don’t vote for change to have the same leadership.”
“He may be the one who will select your chief,” she warned. “So we need all new leadership.
He has no business doing that because he works directly for you folks. You can’t trust anyone who hands you any documents, it may be false.
“You guys are handling our money,” Hernandez said. “If you make a mistake the homeowners can go down the tubes. We’re supposed to have a reserve fund and not give raises and retirement we can’t afford.”
“Get rid of him and get a new city manager to hire a new chief,” she concluded.
Dr. Jeffrey Klinger said “his comments were, well in poor taste.” They “demonstrate the siege mentality” that “he citizens are part of the problem.”
He called for “new leadership that puts transparency, where the citizens oversight is seen as something positive.”
“Before something new there needs to be someone new,” Klinger continued. “There is no time to waste. Respect the citizens’ desire for change and get us new leadership as soon as possible.”
Antioch Realtor Mark Jordan began his comments with “the old saying, actions speak louder than words.”
“Are you going to fire him or whether we’re going to continue down the same path?” he asked. “I’ve sat across the table from Mr. Duran and negotiated. What I’ve learned is that Mr. Duran can be pretty stubborn.”
We need to change their (city staff’s) mindset. I don’t believe Mr Duran is that kind of person,” Jordan continued. “He’s functionally good at what he does. But…people want change. If you keep Mr. Duran there will be more of the same.”
“Two of you voted for Mr. Duran. It’s not Ok to not correct a mistake,” he stated. “So let your actions speak louder than your words. So, let’s be done here and move Antioch in a different direction.”
Lee Ballesteros was next to share her concerns and took more of a legal approach.
“Mr. Duran unlawfully brought City Ventures in for exclusive negotiations.” She claimed he “Violated the Brown Act” and “that’s cause for Mr. Duran for being dismissed for cause.”
She stated that “discussion on real estate negotiations” were to occur in open session and that the “Appellate Court rejected” it occurring in closed session.”
“The exclusive right to negotiate (that Duran was given by the Council with City Ventures for the lumber company lot and other city-owned parcels) are grounds for his dismissal.”
John Ballesteros, who said he is a “50-year resident and downtown business owner for over a quarter century,” spoke next about the possible tearing down of the Nick Rodriguez Center and theater. He said that he “tried to negotiate with Mr. Duran,” to hold plays in the theater, but that Duran responded “Why not seek another town.”
Ballesteros referred to Duran as “the lapdog of the developers.”
A man named Rick spoke next saying he has “lived in Antioch for 27 years.
“I’m most disappointed in the performance of Mr. Duran,” he stated. He “chose an adversarial approach” and spoke about the proposed event center also known as the Town Square on the old lumber company lot. “We were told we would get what we need not what we want.”
“Mr. Duran’s plan was to have the theater and center torn down to build more homes and raise the tax base,” he stated. “Steve is unwilling to work as a team.’
Duran “campaigned against us by spending $50,000 to make slick videos and even a survey,” Rick continued. “Whenever we succeeded to get on the agenda it would be last.
“Antioch needs progress and results. Steve Duran has failed…it’s time to terminate Antioch’s relationship with Steve Duran,” he concluded.
Recently honored as the Antioch 2016 Citizen of the Year for Most Impact, Sal Sbranti offered his own “performance evaluation of Mr. Steve Duran. I’ve had many meetings with Mr. Duran in the past,” who told him “my people are too busy to meet with you.”
“I did get a meeting with Duran and (city Finance Director) Dawn Merchant,” he continued. “The first thing” Sbranti asked about Duran told him “was ‘out of your purview’.”
Then he said Duran told him “I’ve heard all about you. I asked what he’d heard and he didn’t say,” Sbranti shared.
Next, he spoke about the Measure C Oversight Committee of which Sbranti had been a member. “Our report given to you was that we had concerns, yet what went to Antioch was this,” showing a copy of the newsletter city staff mailed out to the residents with a different message.
Jennifer Hughes said she wanted a city manager who is “vested in the whole of Antioch not just building more houses.”
Speaking of the recent news articles, she said, “the mayor showed class in not responding.”
Gravelle spoke next, followed by Antioch Realtor and Rivertown Preservation Society member Katy Cook.
“I don’t feel Mr. Duran is an asset to our city,” she said. “He does not work for us the people.”
A little girl named Chloe walked up to the podium with a man who read from a note she had written.
“We want a park. We don’t want it in Waldie Plaza. We want it at the Beede Lumber Yard,” he said reading from Chloe’s notes.
Joy Motts, a former Antioch School Board Trustee and a leader in the effort to build a park and event center on the lumber company lot, spoke next.
“If you want to improve our city you have to participate. Many of the people in this room…they too are passionate and participate,” she stated. “They’ve been ignored and disrespected since Mr. Duran was hired.”
She spoke about two groups, the Antioch Rivertown Preservation Society and the Save The Yard group, that “have been intentionally disenfranchised by Mr. Duran. It is time for an inclusive collaborative vision for Antioch. It is time now for a new city manager.”
Former business owner and docent at the Antioch Historical Society Museum’s Sports Legends wing, Tom Lamothe spoke next.
He said he’s been a “resident of more than 50 years and a business owner for 30 years. I’m here to support the council in whatever decision you make.”
“Some want to remove the city manager at all cost,” Lamothe stated. “But I’m a little more cautious.”
Brentwood resident Holly Cuciz, who has been involved with the Antioch Animal Shelter, wsa one of the few to say something positive about Duran.
“I’m not here to bash Steve Duran. I found in some circumstances he was very responsive,” she said. “But I trust the council. I’m more concerned about the long term, who will be taking his place…an entrenched employee or someone from outside.”
“There’s problems like with the police…Because we have such high crime in Antioch,” Cuciz continued. “I’m thrilled by the new leadership. I was disturbed to see that article in the newspaper. That should not have happened.”
Antioch business owner Brian Bellante was last to speak and straight forward said, “I was born and raised in Antioch. I love Antioch. I have a business in Antioch. I’ve hired and fired. The city manager works for you guys. If he’s not doing what you guys want done, then you need to fire him.”
One indication that Duran may have already agreed to go quietly, was given following the public comments, when City Attorney Michael Vigilia asked the council to include Assistant City Manager Ron Bernal in the closed session agenda item 8, which was listed as “Conference with Labor Negotiators.” Agenda item 7 was listed as “Public Employee Dismissal.”
The regular council meeting begins at 7:00 p.m. in the Antioch City Council Chambers at City Hall, at 200 H Street in downtown. It can also be viewed on Comcast Local Cable Access Channel 24 or on the city’s website, via live stream video, here.
See the complete agenda and packet, here.