Officials hope to work out settlement with Sterling

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Officials hope to work out settlement with Sterling By Jasmine Marshall — Staff Writer 5/20/03 Santa Maria officials say they are still hoping to work out a legal settlement with Police Chief John Sterling before tonight’s City Council meeting — but as of Monday that goal had not been reached. City Attorney Art Montandon said that he is continuing to carry out the wishes of the council regarding the embattled police chief, who has been placed on paid leave. “The direction given by council is to work as hard as possible to settle the issue prior to Tuesday’s meeting,” said Montandon. Sterling’s attorney could not be reached for comment. On May 1, Sterling, 52, was placed on paid leave, and said he was told the action was “pending termination.” Since then, City Hall has been at the center of controversy brought on by the decision to oust the popular chief. On Friday, a subcommittee made up of Mayor Larry Lavagnino, City Councilman Leo Trujillo and Montandon issued a statement that the council, “by unanimous vote, does not wish to continue Mr. Sterling’s employment with the city of Santa Maria.” Lavagnino and Montandon both said the purpose of the statement was to clarify the council’s position due to comments made by Sterling to the Santa Maria Sun, a weekly newspaper. “The action was not a firing,” Montandon cautioned. In the article published on May 15 in the Santa Maria Sun, Sterling is quoted as saying, “If we have these conflicts for whatever the reason, and the City Council wants me to leave, fine.” Sterling later said those comments were taken out of context and that he was acknowledging the power the council has. On Friday, he said he still plans to appeal if terminated. In an employment appeal hearing, the city would use an independent hearing officer not connected to Santa Maria, according to Montandon. The officer would hear both sides of the issue and look into evidence before making a recommendation whether the termination was warranted or not. But that recommendation does not have to be followed. City Manager Tim Ness has the ultimate authority over the hiring and firing of department heads, including the police chief. As in the recent appeal hearing of terminated Santa Maria Police Corporal Joe Martinez, Ness could reject the findings of the hearing officer, and Sterling would still be terminated. That leaves him with only one recourse: File a lawsuit against the city for wrongful termination. Reaching a legal settlement with Sterling soon would head off such action, or the need for an appeal hearing. A settlement could involvement payment of money to Sterling, said Montandon, as well as conditions such as sealing the contents of the chief’s personnel file. A large turnout is expected at tonight’s council meeting. The Santa Maria Police Officer’s Association ran an advertisement in Monday’s Santa Maria Times urging residents to attend and show their support for Sterling. Staff writer Jasmine Marshall can be reached by e-mail at :nav Source:

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