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Former City Manager Made Nearly $1M Without Working in 2020

Fontana City Manager Ken Hunt was the highest paid city manager in California in 2020. He earned $932,623 by resigning to retire. The high pay has raised eyebrows among taxpayer advocates.

(TNS) — A nearly $1 million payment to former Fontana City Manager Ken Hunt made him the highest paid city manager in California in 2020, though he didn't actually work a single day that year.

The California State Controller's Office cast a spotlight on Fontana this week after updating its public pay database with figures for 2020. In the state ranking, Hunt surpassed the next closest city manager's wages by roughly $350,000.

The high pay and the lack of explanation for it from Fontana has raised eyebrows among taxpayer advocates. While golden handshakes for public employees aren't unusual, most are in the $500,000 to $600,000 range, experts said.

Robert Fellner, executive director of Transparent California, has spent years collecting, compiling and publicizing public employees' salaries. He's seen his fair share of generous severance packages, he said. But when presented with the $932,623 paid to Hunt in 2020, his first instinct was that the number had to be an error.

"Paying someone $1 million a year for not working is the highest I've ever seen," he said.

'Resigned To Retire'

Officially, Hunt announced his retirement in July 2019, when he was roughly halfway through a five-year contract. City officials in news reports at the time painted it as a mutual decision. It wasn't until months later that it was revealed that the well-liked city manager and the city had signed a settlement agreement outlining the terms of his resignation.

At the time, Mayor Acquanetta Warren stated Hunt "resigned to retire" and declined to discuss the reason why. Hunt's contract and the settlement agreement suggest Hunt either received a sweetheart deal or had claims that could have cost the city much more.

If Hunt had resigned willingly, Fontana wouldn't have owed him any severance, according to his most recent contract. Instead, the City Council went above and beyond even the 12 months of severance required if it had fired him without cause. Though he stopped working immediately in July 2019, the city agreed to pay him not only for the rest of 2019, but all of 2020 as well.

Allowed to Reach 30 Years of Employment

The extra months, which were counted as paid leave, allowed Hunt to reach 30 years of employment and begin collecting a $16,707 monthly pension in February 2020, according to a settlement agreement released by the city and pension data collected by Transparent California.

Fontana ultimately paid Hunt $1,127,378 in wages and benefits from July 6, 2019, to January 31, 2020, according to calculations provided by the city. That's roughly the equivalent of three years of Hunt's 2019 wages.
The bulk of the payout — the $932,623 reported to the state controller — was spread across three paychecks in January 2020. It included $312,865 in "settlement pay," $476,772 in leave payoff (equaling roughly a year-and-a-half of accrued leave), and an extra $64,137 for "longevity."

In addition, Fontana paid a combined total of $386,582 to the two men who led the city in Hunt's stead: interim City Manager Michael Milhiser, who managed the city from July 2019 until April 2020, and current City Manager Mark Denny, who was hired that April.

A spokesperson for the city provided a copy of the settlement agreement and the list of payments to Hunt. She referred back to the settlement agreement when asked why the city paid more than required by Hunt's contract.

City Council Mum

None of the City Council members could be reached for comment. Hunt did not respond to a call for comment.

The settlement agreement states that upon signing it Hunt would be placed on paid leave effective July 12, 2019, and would "not report to the Employer's facilities or perform any duties or act on behalf of the Employer in any capacity." The paid leave was to continue until his resignation on Jan. 31, 2020. Once he resigned, the city had to pay him 12 months of his base pay, plus a longevity bonus, and continue to offer him health benefits for at least a year unless he found other work.

In exchange, Hunt waived his rights to any potential claim against the city, agreed not to defame the City Council and stated he would not share his "subjective opinion relating to the (settlement) negotiations, the terms of this agreement, or his prior employment."

"Should any inquiry be made, the Employee may respond only by indicating that the separation was amicable," the agreement states.

It's unclear when exactly the City Council approved the settlement agreement. The city's spokesperson was unable to provide the meeting minutes, the meeting date or a vote tally of the agreement before the holiday weekend. The agendas in the two months immediately prior to Hunt's sudden exit did not seem to show any applicable closed session items.

California's Brown Act requires public agencies to specifically list closed session items for terminations, though, even if the city failed to do so, enough time has passed that it is no longer possible to void the action.

'Hush Money?'

The most troubling part of the payout is the complete secrecy around what happened, according to Fellner of Transparent California. The fact that Fontana paid more than required by Hunt's contract could be construed as "hush money," he said.

"The government can't pay someone $1 million to not work without telling the taxpayers footing the bill why," Fellner said.

Scott Kaufman, the legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, agreed.

"If the public doesn't believe those dollars are being appropriately spent, they have the right to remove the elected officials at the next election, or even recall them," Kaufman said. "It's not the city of Fontana's money, it's taxpayers' money. If they're not getting that accounting and they're being actively thwarted from getting that accounting, they have the right through the electoral process to make their voice heard in other ways."

(c)2021 the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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