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Clerk, chief get 2-year contracts

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Council strikes automatic renewal clause

By Martin Salazar

The city’s governing body has awarded two-year contracts to its police chief and city clerk despite objections from one councilor who argued that the contracts violate state law and the city charter.

The contracts for Police Chief Christian Montaño and City Clerk Casandra Fresquez run from Jan. 1, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2014. Both received pay raises in their new contract.

Montaño will be paid $71,468, an increase of 1 percent over his previous salary. Fresquez will be paid $60,212, which is 5 percent more than the salary outlined in her previous contract.

Dodge told the Optic that both Montaño and Fresquez had received exceptional performance evaluations. The difference in pay raises, he said, is due to the fact that Fresquez hadn’t been given a raise in the nearly four years she has served in her position while Montaño received a raise about six months after he was promoted to chief. Dodge added that there has been an inequity between what the city clerk has been paid and what other city directors are making, and the raise was an attempt to eliminate that pay gap.

There was consensus among governing body members at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting that Montaño and Fresquez have done a great job in their positions. Still, the vote to grant the two-year contracts was split, with Councilors Vince Howell and Joey Herrera voting for the new contracts and Councilors Tonita Gurule-Giron and David Romero voting against. Mayor Alfonso Ortiz broke the tie, voting for the contracts.

Dodge thanked the governing body for awarding the contracts.

“What you’ve done today is taken a big step in providing continuity and providing security for two of your top leading officials in the organization,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Gurule-Giron raised concerns that a two-year contract violates the city charter, that it is in violation of the Bateman Act because it forces future governing bodies to honor the commitment of the current one. Gurule-Giron said she spoke to several charter commission members and was told that the intent of the charter was that the chief and clerk be given one-year contracts.

She also raised a concern that the contract, as written, would give Montaño and Fresquez a three-year term because it would expire on Dec. 31, 2015. And Gurule-Giron objected to a clause in the contract that would have automatically renewed the contract for two years unless the governing body provided them with 30 days notice prior to the nonrenewal of the contract.

Ortiz acknowledged that the contracts should have listed the end date as Dec. 31, 2014, saying both documents mistakenly had 2015.

But both Dodge and City Attorney Dave Romero argued that the contract complies with the city charter. They said it doesn’t violate the Bateman Act because the contract requires the city to establish a reserve fund to encumber the funds it is committing.

Herrera made the motion to approve the contract, with a few changes.

The end date was amended to reflect Dec. 31, 2014. The contract presented called for a six-month severance package in the event that Montaño or Fresquez were to be fired without cause. Herrera amended that to a four-month severance package. And Herrera agreed to Gurule-Giron’s request that the automatic renewal clause be stricken  from the contract.

In arguing against a one-year contract, Herrera said the city clerk would be in the middle of an election cycle, and it wouldn’t make sense to give her a contract that expires two months before the next municipal election. Herrera added that he had spoken to the Municipal League attorney, who advised him that the contract wouldn’t violate state law or the charter.

Howell said that based on his reading of the charter, he didn’t think that a two-year contract would be prohibited. And he added that he thinks the city does need stability.

Among the other terms of the contracts approved:

• Montaño and Fresquez must receive performance evaluations annually, and their annual pay raises may be between 1 and 5 percent.

• Both are entitled to the use of a city-owned and maintained vehicle for city-related purposes.

• Both must be provided with a cell phone or a monthly stipend of $50 for a cell phone.

• Both can be terminated with or without cause by a majority vote of the governing body. If they are terminated without cause, they are entitled to four-months’ severance pay.

Also at Wednesday’s Council meeting, Ortiz announced that he would be setting up a process for Dodge’s performance evaluation. He said the process would involve councilors and some directors. And he pledged that he would provide the evaluation criteria ahead of time rather than handing out the evaluation form at the beginning of the meeting where it’s being handled, as was done last year.

Gurule-Giron recommended that the mayor include community members in the evaluation process, and Ortiz said he’d take that request under advisement.

Dodge said he’d be fine with the evaluation taking place in open session, saying he tries to do as much in open session as possible. But both Ortiz and Gurule-Giron indicated that they’d prefer to handle it behind closed doors.