City fires utilities director

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By David Giuliani

Utilities Director George Du Four’s car broke down on the way from Albuquerque, so he couldn’t make it to Wednesday’s City Council to argue against his firing.

A councilman supporting Du Four pleaded for a delay — to no avail. By a 3-2 vote, the council fired the director.

After a week and a half of secrecy, Mayor Tony Marquez finally revealed the reason why he wanted to let Du Four go: He contended the director had adjusted customer accounts in violation of city ordinance.

No details were given.

Late last month, the mayor placed Du Four on unpaid leave until the next council meeting, but he apparently didn’t tell at least some council members about why he suspended the director until Wednesday’s meeting.

To make the firing happen, he needed the recommendation of the city manager. The problem: There was no city manager.

Since City Manager Sharon Caballero resigned suddenly in mid-December, the position had been unfilled. The mayor had designated a couple of city directors, Carlos Ortiz and Elmer Martinez, to serve as part of a “management team,” but he appointed no one to the manager’s post.

That changed Wednesday. He asked the council to approve the hiring of Ken Garcia as interim manager.

Since last week, Garcia has been working as a consultant to manage the city’s utilities — at a cost of $100 an hour, which figures out to around $200,000 a year on a full-time schedule.

By a 3-2 vote, the council supported Garcia as the interim manager. Council members Morris Madrid and Cruz Roybal backed Garcia, while council members Diane Moore and Andrew Feldman opposed him. Marquez broke the tie in favor of Garcia.

Garcia took the city manager’s seat, where Ortiz had been sitting for that night’s meeting. Ortiz got up, shook Garcia’s hand and went into the audience.

Later in the council meeting, Garcia gave Marquez what he wanted — a recommendation to fire Du Four.

It’s not clear why Marquez didn’t pick Ortiz or Martinez as interim manager, instead going with an outside consultant. As it stands, the mayor expects to fill the position on a permanent basis soon; five manager candidates visited the city on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Du Four said he got word that the other directors refused to make the recommendation when asked during a meeting earlier in the day. So he said the mayor was forced to pick someone who would do what he wanted.

Du Four, who started in October 2007, also denied violating any city ordinances. He said that his department refunded late fees when the department accidentally disconnected some accounts because it failed to post bills on time.

Before the council fired Du Four, members voted to pay him for the last week and a half, the time he had been suspended.

Before the decision to fire, Feldman and Moore railed against the recommendation to let Du Four go.

Feldman suggested that the decision to hire an interim manager the very same night was to get someone to recommend Du Four’s dismissal. He asked the mayor for the reasoning behind the decision.

Marquez said he didn’t want to air personnel issues in public. But he said he would disclose that he was displeased with Du Four’s performance, alleging that the director violated city ordinance by adjusting bills.

“Do you have evidence?” Feldman asked. “None of the members have been provided with evidence.”

City Attorney Carlos Quiñones interjected, saying that the meeting wasn’t a quasi-judicial hearing and that Du Four, as an exempt employee, wasn’t entitled to progressive discipline.

Moore apologized to the several dozen residents in attendance that she was even a part of a discussion about Du Four’s dismissal when he couldn’t make it there to defend himself.

She said Du Four has improved the utilities since taking over, correcting many problems that have existed for years.

Feldman agreed, saying Du Four had to clean up problems from the previous director.

After he couldn’t get more of an explanation in public, Feldman requested that the council go into closed session to hear the entire case against Du Four. But Marquez said that such a request contradicted Feldman’s arguments for transparency in government.

The council majority rejected going behind closed doors.

Councilman Morris Madrid, who once worked for Du Four in a previous job at Highlands University, said the utilities director was enjoying luxuries that he didn’t get when he was fired by the council as city manager in January 2005.

“To this day, I still haven’t heard any reasons (for being fired),” he said.

Madrid said that having been on the opposite end of a council firing decision, he didn’t take such action lightly.

“This issue is about the management of the department. It’s not about a person,” he said, adding that working for the city of Las Vegas is not a good career move.

Madrid noted that he had made his concerns about Du Four in public before. A few weeks ago, he told the Optic that Du Four failed to keep the council abreast of developments in connection with a state grant; the city later lost that money, but Du Four said he followed the mayor’s orders against taking action in connection with the money.

Moore questioned why the city was hiring yet another consultant — in this case, Garcia — when workers in utilities still don’t receive decent pay.

She said Du Four’s firing would be another example of “another director being dismissed, with no plan.”

“Our employees deserve more,” she said.

Her comments ended with applause from the audience.

The council voted 3-2, with Madrid, Roybal and Marquez in favor, to fire Du Four. They quickly adjourned, with Moore and Feldman in dissent.

After the meeting, the mayor said the interim manager’s pay would figure out to around $95,000 a year, which is less than the $200,000 annualized compensation he would be making as utilities manager.

“He is taking a sacrifice,” Marquez said.

Garcia said he has never spoken with Du Four and doesn’t even know him, but he said he reviewed information in the case against the director. He said the mayor never requested an anti-Du Four recommendation.

Du Four said in the telephone interview that he didn’t know Garcia.

“How can he make that recommendation? He never evaluated me. I’ve never been evaluated since I started with the city,” he said.


Comments from the public:

Six members of the public spoke out regarding the firing of Utilities Director George Du Four during Wednesday’s City Council meeting:

• Meredith Britt said the city need to “settle down” and let employees do their jobs. If a decision hurts employee morale, the council should reconsider what it is doing, she said. She urged against a “slash-and-burn” mode of dealing with employees. She called Du Four well-qualified.

• Betty Quick said Du Four has been a good utilities director and that he takes the time to explain bills to residents.

• Susan Hayes, who represents a water association in Ojitos Frios, said Du Four has worked well with her group. She said he has told them when the city plans to pump water at Taylor Wells, which is believed to have an impact on Ojitos Frios’ water levels. “George Du Four listened to our concerns,” Hayes said.

• Glen Yocum, a member of the city utilities committee, praised Du Four for regularly bringing water stakeholders together. “He’s building a wider sense of community,” he said. He also said Du Four hasn’t played favorites when dealing with utility customers.

• Alex Aragon said the mayor has kept his promise to bring change to the community, but it’s been bad change. “If you’re going to let someone go, give them due process,” he said.

• Amos Estrada asked what the city has accomplished since the mayor took the helm last March. He said the administration has fired most department heads and drove the city manager to resign suddenly because of the mayor’s micromanagement. He said the mayor stressed out Du Four so much he went to the hospital for a heart problem. He referred to Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”