By Shawn Raymundo
Interim City Manager Robert Dunek is likely to remain in his position for the remainder of the year, as the city council tonight will vote on a contract amendment that would extend his role for another six months while the search for a permanent replacement continues.
During this evening’s council meeting, which will be conducted via teleconference, councilors are slated to vote on amending Dunek’s contract that was set to expire once he’d worked for a total of 960 hours—a limitation the state had set for retired public employees returning to fill vacant temporary positions, according to the city.
If approved, Dunek will continue serving as the interim city manager until Jan. 1, 2021, unless a permanent replacement has been appointed or he’s reached a new 960-hour limit—or either he or the city terminates the contract.
Dunek’s wage will remain at its current rate of $137.27 per hour.
“(Dunek) has a stellar record, he’s well respected in the county, and I think we’re lucky to have him here in San Clemente,” Councilmember Kathy Ward said on Tuesday afternoon, noting Dunek’s 21-year tenure as Lake Forest’s city manager. “He’s willing to stay until we have a person in the permanent position.”
In late January, the council had voted to approve Dunek’s interim appointment, temporarily replacing former City Manager James Makshanoff, who had resigned to become the city manager in Pomona.
While Ward spoke highly of Dunek, one councilmember has been vocal in her criticism of the interim manager.
“He and I don’t get along very well,” acting Mayor Laura Ferguson said on Friday, June 12. “He and I have had our differences.”
Throughout Dunek’s time at the helm, he and Ferguson have had quite a few disagreements—most recently over his decision not to agendize a status update on the city manager search for public session.
“It would just be the status of where we’re at. We can do that, say where we’re at, how many people applied and what’s next,” Ferguson said, referring to her request to hold a public presentation on how the city manager search is proceeding. “The recruiter (Bob Murray & Associates) suggested that it’s time to do that, to give the community a chance to speak on it.”
As of this posting, Dunek had not responded to a request for comment on the city manager search, and Assistant City Manager Erik Sund said he cannot comment on the matter, stating that it’s a topic for closed-session talks among councilmembers.
Gary Phillips, who’s leading the recruitment for Bob Murray & Associates, did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
According to Ferguson, the council has been unable to move forward with the recruitment process because members have remained split on conducting candidate interviews.
“We have a couple of members who didn’t want to interview candidates . . . we haven’t been able to move forward, because half of our team hasn’t wanted to interview,” she said.
Ferguson last week made similar remarks to the Voice of OC, which Dunek cited as part of his reason not to agendize the status update. He outlined his explanation in correspondence with Ferguson, who shared the email thread with San Clemente Times.
“It appears to me that the need to have the public disclosure of the City Council’s deadlock on interviewing potential candidates as a way to move the process forward is negated by your quote today in the Voice of OC article on recent Council actions,” Dunek had written on June 11.
“You already clearly placed that information in the public realm,” he continued. “Consequently, I think any further discussion of that matter publicly could be more detrimental to the effort than advancing it. In contrast, I suggest it would be better to list it on Closed Session to determine if attitudes are changing.”
An item listed on the agenda for tonight’s closed session, which is scheduled for 5 p.m., refers to the interim city manager and city manager positions.
Speaking on Ferguson’s statement to the press, Ward said the acting mayor’s comments were a break in confidentiality and closed-session discussions, which aren’t meant for public record unless they have been reported.
“We’ll have an announcement in the public when we have an announcement—when council works it out. But she’s not supposed to be talking in public about recruitment that we’re doing confidentially,” Ward said, later adding: “It’s unfortunate that she spoke to a reporter about it, but I can’t add to it.”
Ward also said she’s “looking forward to hiring a new city manager when the time is right.” When that time might be, however, Ward wouldn’t specify, citing closed-session discussions.
In a written statement from Councilmember Chris Hamm, he told the SC Times on Tuesday that his goal is to hire the most qualified candidate for the city manager role. Based on previous experience, he added, a city manager wants “a unified vote in support in order for them to accept a job offer.”
“That being said, a unified vote from a four-member council that has two councilmembers up for reelection does not present the unanimous decision most city managers would want in order to start a new position,” Hamm wrote.
Asked to elaborate on his position and whether he believed the council shouldn’t move forward with the recruitment until after the election this fall, Hamm wrote: “I’m saying I want the best candidates possible to apply for the position.”
Hamm’s seat is one of those that’s up for election in November. Hamm recently announced that he will not be seeking a third consecutive term in office. New Councilmember Gene James is also up for reelection, as he was elected in a special election last November to fill the remaining year on the late Mayor Steve Swartz’s term.
Another special election will also coincide with this year’s General Elections in order to fill the rest of former Mayor Dan Bane’s term. Bane stepped down from the council this past April after accepting a job in his hometown of Blue Spring, Missouri.
For Ferguson, she said she wants to get moving on filling the city manager vacancy, explaining that the city needs a permanent, physical presence at the helm.
“We, this council, when the former manager left, this council was tasked with finding a replacement,” Ferguson said, adding that the search shouldn’t be delayed until there’s a new council sworn into the dais. “This is our job . . . this is a task assigned to this council, and I’m ready to do it now; I was ready to do it yesterday.”
Tonight’s public session meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. and can be viewed through the city’s YouTube channel.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.