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Richard Warne Part 2: Coalinga to 29 Palms

By   /   April 29, 2011  /   12 Comments

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According to the 2000 census, Coalinga, CA‘s population was a little over 11,000 when Mr. Warne became their City Manager in July of 2001, just two months after leaving Grand Forks, North Dakota. Coalinga doesn’t offer much information on their City Manager.  However, a few articles can be found in the archives of local newspaper, The Coalinga Recorder.   The earliest information that I can find begins in 2004 with an open letter to the public from City Manager Warne

An open letter to the citizens of Coalinga
Published: January 20, 2004
COALINGA — Those of you that know me know that I am a straight forward person and “tell it like it is.”

You also know that I am not afraid to take action or make tough decisions even if they are unpopular. I am writing this letter to the citizens of Coalinga to give them the straight facts regarding the City’s financial status and Measures C, Measure D and Measure E that will be on the Coalinga ballot on March 2…

The letter goes on to explain the dire circumstances that the city is facing.

Since 2001, the city has downsized, restructured, consolidated and streamlined its operations to cut expenditures and increase the efficiency of its operations. Thirty-five positions have been cut from city payroll, use of Claremont Custody Center prisoners has been expanded to cut city operating costs, city bonds have been refinanced to save interest costs, special assessments have been paid down to avoid interest costs, 30 city properties have been sold and put back on the tax rolls, grants have been aggressively pursued and many more cost-saving measures that cannot be explained in this short letter has been implemented.

This process has saved Coalinga taxpayers $4.5 million in one-time costs and $3.7 million in on-going costs across all city accounting funds. But the city is still in serious financial trouble.

Mr. Warne advocated for Measures C, D, and E. These tax increases on the city, he states, are necessary to protect public safety. Without this additional revenue, the Fire and Police Departments would be facing serious cuts.

It appears that all three measures were defeated by the citizens of Coalinga.

One reporter wrapped up the year of 2005 in an article titledYear in review; Coalinga hospital opens, WHC bond fails, city staff changes.

Top members of the Coalinga city government played musical chairs during 2005, according to the pages of the newspaper. In June, Fire Chief Ben Ramsey, serving as the top firefighter for the city for five years, resigned with no comment on cause. Former police chief Frank Steenport was appointed Huron chief this month while Pat Medina oversees both police and fire as Public Safety Director for the city.

City Manager Richard Warne resigned in August after the council held a closed door meeting. Warne followed George Edes who held the spot for four years. Steve Julian was hired as city manager in November.

It should be noted that Mr. Warne was awarded the International City Management Association’s “Program Excellence Award for Innovations in Local Government Management” award.  When Mr. Warne became City Manager in 2001,  the state was looking at closing the Claremont Custody Center due to mismanagement in both financial and operational departments. Coalinga under the direction of the City Manager decided to use the inmate population to perform duties in the city, saving the city $1,302,000 annually. In addition, this program provided job training for the inmates.

Grover Beach, California

Grover Beach, California

September 2005- February 2006- Grover Beach, California-Mr. Warne is hired as an interim city manager.  During his short time there he is credited with installing storm drains, putting in a computer network in city hall, and obtaining funds to repair a bridge that was damaged in an earthquake.  The city council would have liked Mr. Warne to stay, but Mr. Warne stated that Livingson, Ca would be a better fit for his family.

The rest of the story is a little more difficult to write.  The events that happened in Livingston are recent and the emotions are still running high.  I also visited Livingston and talked to people about the events that led to a city recall and separation agreement that could not be discussed. The citizens of Livingston were careful to only talk about things that were general knowledge or could be found in the local newspapers or in city council meetings.  What happened in Livingston can and has happened in many cities.

2006- 2010- Livingston, Ca- February 2006 Mr. Warne signs an employment agreement with the city of Livingston. The agreement is similiar to what most city managers and cities agree to. For example, manager serves at the pleasure of the City Council.  At any time during the term of this Agreement or any extension thereof, the City Council reserves the right to terminate the employment of Employee and determine his last day of employment upon the vote of three or more council members at a duly called and noticed council meeting.

Compensation:

Base pay, performance pay, no salary reduction, severance pay-6 months.  It is the changes to the employment agreement that puzzled some citizens and city council members.  In a November Special Meeting of the city council, Mayor Frieson said that the City Council gave Richard Warne a positive evaluation and has negotiated amendment to his contract that include votes needed to discharge the City Manager would change from 3-2 to 4-1, a cooling off period after an election for 9 months (although in the final draft it says 3 months) and severance pay would change from 6 months to a year.  The Mayor explained that since Mr. Warne was such a competent Manager, they wanted to keep him.  The City Council voted 3-2 to approve these changes.

Why the change from a 3-2 vote to a 4-1 to discharge Mr. Warne?  Some suggest that it was to protect him from future new city council members and others that newly elected council members had stated that they wanted to clean house. Others say to change the tendency of the town to go through City Managers, 8 city managers have come and gone since 2000.

Another controversial action by City Manager Warne was hiring Burke, Williams, and Sorenson, a law firm retained by the city for another legal matter, to prepare a Candidate Handbook, answer questions, help resolve complaints and provide legal interpretations for candidates, public, staff and City Council members and provided attorneys at the two Livingston polling places during the November 2006 elections. The cost to the city was $61,299.52. In a letter dated June 16, 2008,  Mr. Warne stated that no formal vote was taken and no member of the city council on any side of this issue requested that this item be placed on the agenda.

Why would a city pay this much money for lawyers during an election? Some say that previous elections have been “ugly, with threats against voters” and others say that certain council city hopefuls were wanted on the council.

A major sore spot for the city is water.  Water rates in Livingston had not been raised since the early ’90s.  I am not sure the reason for such a long period of time other than an explanation that I was given by a city official.  Foster Farms is located in Livingston and uses 68% of the water and because it is such a huge buyer, it pays for the majority of the water used in Livingston. Then why does the water department have a deficit? Some say because of all the litigation that the city is involved in, money is used to pay the litigation costs.

The city council made several attempts to win public support of the water cost increase, but most citizens felt the increase was too high and most would not be able to afford it. In an article in the Merced Sun-Star, Mr. Warne is quoted as saying

While the city was faced with strong opposition it was made clear that if these increases are not passed cuts in other areas will have to be made.

“From time to time difficult decisions need to be made,” said City Manager Richard Warne. If these problems are not solved today, he said, the city will have to start cutting from the fire and police budgets. The losses from the water and sewer budgets have to come from somewhere and that is currently the general fund, he said. The water fund has already amassed a deficit of more than $1 million. Read more: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2009/05/06/

Moving forward to summer and fall of ’09- Livingston raises water costs despite public opinion.  City Manager Warne and the City Council could not pass the water increase because two council members consistently voted no. However, after attending a League of California meeting, the city council believed that it didn’t take a super majority of 4 out of 5, but could pass it on a simple majority 3-2. The current lawyer that insisted on super majority was fired and a new lawyer hired. (Later, they do find out it did require a 4-1, although there is some confusion, due to so many lawsuits pending)

This event galvanized the citizens of Livingston to start a recall in early 2010. The three city council members that voted yes were targeted for the recall. It was a long process that cost the city $54,000 but many feel that it was necessary to turn the city around.  It looks like Mr. Warne saw the writing on the wall, once the new city council members were seated. They now had a 4-1 vote to dismiss him. After two meetings in October, both meetings not resulting in any action, Mr. Warne leaves his post as City Manager. The Lawyer that was hired that helped get the water rate passed “cut ties” with the city as well.

I talked to both sides of the Foster Farms-water hike mess. One side believes that Foster Farms is catered to because it employs most of Livingston. The other side says that until Warne arrived there were problems, but they could be solved by negotiation. Even Warne’s supporters agree that he can be abrupt and stubborn, however they see it as a strength.

One side warns us (29) that Mr. Warne is a smart man that likes to be in control and micromanage. The other side says he is competent and will work long hours to benefit the city.

One assessment is that he has been hired in towns with problems and he wasn’t afraid to do what had to be done, but took the fall for it.

Another assessment is that he is very clever, very competent and knows how to get what he wants.

Both sides can’t believe he is being paid $171,000 in these hard economic times, especially in a town with a median income of 35,000.  They both say ask him what he plans to bring to the town to deserve that kind of money.

In my conversation with Mr. Warne, he said he had researched 29 very well and was looking forward to working with 29 to maximize the resources of the Joshua Tree National Park and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center.

Here is my opinion- whether he is a bully as portrayed by some or just an organized competent guy that can get things done- we have a city council that will do their job for us and we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Just don’t mistake our niceness for weakness.

Part 1 of this story can be read here

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About the author

Cora Heiser

Twentynine Palms resident

12 Comments

  1. HogWild HogWild says:

    We shall see. Seems we can look forward to some tax hikes for the sewer system. I think if I were going to help out a city in such dire straights that I wouldn't require a salary quite like that. Time will tell, probably gone in a year or two from the looks of things.

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    • hadenough29 hadenough29 says:

      Why not increase the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) by a percent or two now and let our visitors pay for Waste Water Treatment when needed.

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      • Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

        Are you actually serious? How much do you figure that TOT is going to have to raise to pay for that Waste Water Treatment System?

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        • hadenough29 hadenough29 says:

          Gotta start somewhere. It dosen't come out of mine or your pocket and it puts in line with the TOT they are paying down the hill and actually goes towards something benefical to the community.

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          • Cora Heiser Cora Heiser says:

            hadenough29,
            We should be providing services and welcoming our visitors and use that to get them to come back, which will bring us revenue and self respect, not using them to pay for our failure to plan for the future.

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            • Cora Heiser Cora Heiser says:

              Also the attitude it doesn't cost you or me...kinda got America where it is today. Everything costs something, sometimes it is an untangible cost.

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  2. Jim Harris Jim Harris says:

    Cora,
    Thank You for the report, and your comment about get it right. It looks like you did a lot of work and i want to publicly thank you for that. As i have said behind your back and to your face, you are GREAT at researching most anything. I look forward to seeing you at the next Mtg.
    Jim

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    • Cora Heiser Cora Heiser says:

      Jim,
      You are welcome. This was important to me because I believe 29 deserved to know what we were getting. I am also looking forward to covering the upcoming planning and city council meetings.

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  3. [...] Richard Warne Part 2: Coalinga to 29 Palms [...]

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  4. Cora Heiser Cora Heiser says:

    Mark,
    Thanks it is always nice to be appreciated.

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