In a 3-2 vote on Nov. 18, the Hollister City Council approved a release agreement and severance payment for Paul Eckert, the interim city manager who resigned Nov. 15. The payout can be no more than $25,000, but the exact amount will be determined later. City Attorney Jason Epperson said the payout was in exchange for “a release of all and actual or potential issues between Mr. Eckert and the City of Hollister.”
The council hired Eckert on Nov. 4. The hiring faced opposition from members of the public because of a lawsuit brought against him alleging retaliation following a sexual harassment complaint when he worked in Sioux City, Iowa.
Epperson told BenitoLink it wasn’t his “purview” in determining how or when the recruitment process would be renewed to find another city manager. Meanwhile, Brett Miller, administrative services director and finance manager, is acting as city manager until at least December.
Miller, who will receive a 5% pay hike, told BenitoLink that he would consider taking on the city manager position full-time.
Councilman Marty Richman told BenitoLink, “I imagine CPS Consulting will still be involved in the new search and they will credit us. They told me ‘we owe you one.’”
Councilmembers Richman, Honor Spencer and Carol Lenoir (the three “yes” votes) admitted a lack of due diligence during the recruitment process. Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Councilman Rolan Resendiz, however, doubled down on their support of Eckert, insisting they investigated him and that he had been treated unfairly. Resendiz said Eckert might have grounds to take legal action against those who allegedly slandered him. Eckert expressed his intentions in his resignation letter (see PDF below).
“There are clear records and witnesses that link Councilmembers with outspoken and uninformed area residents,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “While I will respect our understanding, I will likely take legal action against uninformed persons who slandered me and who are not official members of the City of Hollister.”
Velazquez told BenitoLink that Eckert would most likely sue locals Elia Salinas, Cheryl Vaughn Booth and Salvador Mora for calling Eckert a predator. Velazquez also accused Richman, Spencer and Lenoir of “orchestrating their apologies.”
“What are they thinking when they call him a predator?” Velazquez said. “That’s the same as calling someone a child molester.”
In his letter, Eckert said his “strong professional reputation had been destroyed due to political infighting.”
“It’s abundantly clear to a wide array of Hollister City employees and residents that the real cause of the shocking outcome was the deep-seated conflict among Councilmembers,” Eckert said in the letter. “The political witch-hunt of the last two weeks has everything to do with the City Council’s ‘win at all costs’ attitude and total disregard of the damage to innocent bystanders.”
Eckert faced a lawsuit in 2013 from a Sioux City employee alleging he retaliated against her for her complaints against him for sexual harassment in 2004.
Eckert had been city manager of Sioux City for 16 years before leaving in 2013. Since then, he has held administrative positions in cities including Morgan Hill, Mount Shasta, Paradise, Santa Paula, Foster City, and most recently Gridley.
After spending $1 million defending Eckert, Sioux City settled for $300,000, according to the Sioux City Journal.
During public comment, Mora asked if Eckert’s acceptance of the severance pay would guarantee he would not sue the city for negligence, which he described as “despicable because he chose to apply for this job knowing that he had a history that could come out.”
“At least we know how the mayor feels and supports sexual harassers, as well as Councilmember Resendiz,” Mora said. “Thank you for showing Hollister your true colors.”
Booth said she was disappointed that some council members did not support zero tolerance regarding sexual harassment.
“When people voiced their opinions on social media the mayor answered [that] it was a smear campaign by people with special interests,” Booth said. “Prior to Nov. 4, I had no special interest. I now have a very special interest of maintaining an environment of zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”
Booth also accused Resendiz of an unsolicited term of endearment by referring to her as “sister” on Facebook, which she said “is what got Eckert in trouble.” She compared the City Council’s moral compass to that of the judge who sentenced Stanford student Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexual assault because “prison would not be appropriate.”
“The judge thought it more important to protect [Turner’s] swimming career than for punishing him for raping an unconscious woman,” she said. “I feel we have a little bit of that here.”
Salinas, who was a vocal critic of Eckert on social media and at council meetings, showed up on Nov. 18 with numerous documents she claimed prove Eckert lied repeatedly about what transpired in Sioux City.
“I did this because I’m a concerned citizen,” Salinas said. “This is not political. This is not a smear campaign. The facts are that this man was a predator and he was also good at retaliation. It’s sad that you guys did not do your homework. You spent a lot of money on this guy and now you reward him with $25,000.”
Richman said he made a mistake by only considering the “technical” side of Eckert’s qualifications because he was “looking for the best technician.” After Eckert’s hiring on an interim basis, Richman said he looked at Eckert’s background more thoroughly and talked to him for several hours at various times.
“When it was over, I decided Mr. Eckert was not a good fit for Hollister,” Richman said. “I don’t hold any animosity toward people who say we should have done a better job because we should have done a better job. My decision is not based on any salacious information because I’m not a judge and jury. I don’t blame anybody but us. I don’t blame the people we hired to screen people.”
Lenoir apologized for her inexperience in hiring executives.
“I take some of the responsibility in hiring CPS to find the best candidate and do a background check,” she said. “I didn’t realize that we should have done our own independent [background check] because I thought we hired somebody to clear his background. I made a mistake and I’m confident that I learned a lesson, and if you allow me to participate in the next selection I’ll take advice from the community.”
Even though Spencer cast the only vote against hiring Eckert, she also apologized for “not doing my homework.”
“We need to hire the best of the best and not settle for second best,” Spencer said.
When Velazquez insisted he did his homework, Mora called out “No, you didn’t.”
Velazquez responded, “That’s easy for you to say from over there. It’s not our job to become the investigator, judge and jury. As much as we want to believe we have all the facts, we just don’t.”
The mayor said he spoke to people in different cities where Eckert had worked and the person who investigated the accusations against him, who he claimed said, “’We found no sexual harassment, whatsoever.’ There’s a lot of information that’s not adding up. It’s not fair to call someone a sexual predator without those facts. And I can tell you those facts are not there. At the end of the day, it was all allegations.”
Resendiz said that he knew about the accusations against Eckert and conducted his own research before voting to hire him. He said Eckert was offered the job, only to have the offer turned into an interim position. He said he supported the interim position because he assumed Eckert would ultimately receive the permanent position.
“What’s happening here is highly exaggerated,” Resendiz said. “We had plenty of time and facts to make a decision. You can’t accuse somebody of being a predator without facts. You cannot compare them to a court case where somebody was convicted of rape. That is defamation of character. That is slander.”
Resendiz said he could not support paying Eckert $25,000 to “let him go away quietly.”
“It’s ironic that we’re settling with him because that’s the same thing the city in Iowa did,” he said.
Other related BenitoLink articles:
Hollister interim city manager resigns two days after closed-door meeting