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By Shawn Raymundo
A proposed amendment to extend Robert Dunek’s contract as the interim city manager for another six months was turned down on Tuesday, June 16, leaving the city of San Clemente without an official chief executive in place.
In a 2-0-2 vote, with Councilmembers Chris Hamm and Kathy Ward abstaining, acting Mayor Laura Ferguson and Councilmember Gene James voted to reject an amendment to extend Dunek’s contract through Jan. 1, 2021, or until a permanent city manager could be appointed.
For the time being, Assistant City Manager Erik Sund will step up to the interim position, as the council later appointed him to the role in a 3-1 vote conducted during closed session. Ferguson was the sole nay vote.
The city has been on the hunt for a permanent replacement since late January, when former City Manager James Makshanoff resigned to become Pomona’s new chief. That same month, the council appointed Dunek for the interim position while the recruitment process continued.
During the council’s discussion on Tuesday, Ferguson said that extending Dunek’s contract would continue to delay the recruitment process. She also said Sund has essentially been leading the city already by being a physical presence at city hall while Dunek has been working remotely.
“As it stands now, with the interim city manager, we haven’t had him here with his physical presence for the last two months, while we do have the assistant city manager who has been here for that duration,” she said. “So it feels like we have been paying for two city managers.”
Acknowledging that Dunek was appointed during a turbulent time for the city—faced with the departure of former Mayor Dan Bane, as well as the ongoing public health crisis—James said his decision not to support a contract extension wasn’t an easy one.
He also noted that some of Dunek’s decisions to address the pandemic and slow the spread of the coronavirus were met with outrage from “a vast majority” of the citizens, including himself.
Two of the most unpopular decisions were the city’s action to pour 37 tons of sand into San Clemente’s skate park in order to deter skaters from trespassing and the enactment of chain-link fencing around the Pier Bowl parking lot to try to prevent overcrowding at the beach.
The sand-filled skate park attracted nationwide media attention and backlash from residents. The fencing, which was put up because motorists had continued to just move the barricades out of the way, prompting tow trucks to remove vehicles, sparked a demonstration to tear it down that led to multiple arrests.
Ward and Hamm issued sharp criticism of Ferguson and James on Tuesday night, accusing the two of admonishing Dunek over those decisions, which were made in the middle of a pandemic.
“He took over the city of San Clemente immediately preceding a pandemic, and I think it’s unfair for anybody to judge,” Hamm said. “An individual came into a city, had roughly eight weeks to prepare and was thrown into a very unique situation. And to hang him on sand and on a fence . . . to hang his hat on that is not an appropriate decision to make.”
Ward later echoed Hamm’s comments, stating that by not extending Dunek’s contract, the city is handcuffed “with all of the items that we have to do and all of the work we have to do. Essentially that’s not going to be getting done.”
“This is leaving our city flat-footed; worse than not passing a budget,” she added.
Ferguson proposed the motion not to approve the contract, with James seconding. Both Ward and Hamm opted to abstain from voting, allowing the motion rejecting the contract to pass in a 2-0-2 vote.
Sund’s appointment as interim city manager will go into effect on Thursday, June 18.
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.