Residents ask council to resolve Sterling’s fate

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Residents ask council to resolve Sterling’s fate By Jasmine Marshall — Staff Writer 5/7/03 With voices sometimes shaking in anger or faltering with tears, hundreds of Santa Marians came to City Hall Tuesday to tell the City Council they believe the fate of suspended Police Chief John Sterling lies in their hands — and they want him back. The emotionally charged City Council meeting took place just five days after Sterling was told to empty his desk and placed on paid administrative leave on May 1. Citizens began lining up outside City Council chambers nearly two hours before the meeting in hopes of getting in to make themselves heard. A group of Latino residents from the West Newlove neighborhood carried signs featuring pictures of Sterling working with the community, reading “We Want Chief Sterling Back!” in both English and Spanish. “We want to know why Chief Sterling is gone,” said Ramon Martinez, a West Newlove resident. “He has worked very hard with our community to improve things in the West Newlove neighborhood. We think he should be brought back.” City officials have been uniformly tight-lipped about the reasons for the suspension, citing the need to protect Sterling’s privacy rights as an employee. But two well-placed sources within the city have told the Times on condition of anonymity they believe conflicts with City Manager Tim Ness and Sterling’s brief bid for 33rd state Assembly District in February were factors. The sources also said they have the chief’s suspension letter, and that it reads “… pending termination.” Among those who came forward to speak Tuesday was Lana Adams, a San Luis Obispo County resident who said she had invited Sterling to a Republican event at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Last week, two sources within the city indicated that Sterling’s attendance at the event seemed to bring the chief’s conflicts with Ness to a head. “I have first-hand knowledge of the incident, which was apparently the catalyst of Chief Sterling’s current problems with the city manager for allegedly ‘participating in political activities while on duty,'” Adams told the council. Adams said that when she invited Sterling to the event, “he said that he ordinarily had City Council (that night) but that it was a light agenda and (Commander) Danny Macagni was covering for him …” She went on to state that the chief did not speak at the event. “The whole situation indicates to me that you have a huge problem and it is a personal issue not with the chief of police but your city manager,” Adams said. In response, Mayor Larry Lavagnino said Sterling’s run for Assembly “had nothing to do with his suspension.” Adams responded she had been told by Sterling the suspension did have to do with his run, “and that I believe him before I believe any of you.” Before the start of public comment, Lavagnino asked City Attorney Art Montandon to read a memo explaining what the city can and cannot say regarding the chief’s suspension and what his employment rights are. “Personnel matters are confidential. We can only tell the public a limited amount of information regarding these matters,” said Montandon, citing Sterling’s right to privacy. Montandon also explained Sterling is an “at-will” employee, and different factors that could lead to the termination of a department head, including those “for cause,” meaning the department head “does something significantly wrong related to their job.” This could include neglect of employment duties, engaging in personal conduct detrimental to the city, or refusal to accept a reasonable assignment or follow direction. “It should be noted that this listing is for example only and is not an indication, in any way, that the chief of police has conducted himself in this manner,” Montandon cautioned. Montandon also explained to the audience that as an “at will” employee, Sterling can be terminated at any time “without cause” by the city manager. Ness also made a prepared statement, describing his management style as “team building,” and saying that he works with all city employees to give them feedback on their performance. Ness added that when dealing with sensitive personnel issues, he has consulted with the city attorney and outside legal counsel before making decisions. “Decisions like this are not made overnight,” he said. Ness also said the city and he, himself, had been threatened with litigation due to the chief’s suspension. Lavagnino praised Ness’s performance, saying he is “one of the best city managers in the state, a view shared by all council members.” Although many citizens said they understand Ness may have the power to suspend and ultimately fire Sterling, most refused to accept such an outcome. “So much power has been given to two individuals, but it is you who we vote for,” said Teresa Arredondo to the council. “We are asking you, Larry, Leo, Bob, Alice and Marty to look at Tim Ness’s decision before you make a final one.” In a voice on the verge of tears, longtime Santa Maria businessman Dan Lopez urged Ness and the council to take a second look at the issue. “Sometimes it takes a bigger person to make amends,” he said. “Let’s be larger than life and bring back John Sterling.” For roughly two hours, dozens of community members came forward, testifying to Sterling’s commitment to working with youth, minorities and immigrants, and for helping to bring the community together. Pastor Rick Bloom of Pacific Christian Center said he’s “never felt safer in any community than Santa Maria, and that’s because of John Sterling.” Robert Ramos, an officer with the Santa Maria Police Department for 19 years, spoke, saying Sterling had the support of officers and had done much to improve the condition of the city since taking over in 1999. “Do we want to go back to the way things were before?” Ramos said. Only one resident, Ernest Armenta, spoke favorably of Sterling’s departure, saying he would support Ness “100 percent.” Lavagnino told the audience at the end of public comment “what you have said tonight will have an impact on how this will proceed.” Staff writer Jasmine Marshall can be reached by e-mail at :nav Source:

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