Gone but not forgotten

City building director is let go unceremoniously

Fritz McKinley in 2010.

Fritz McKinley in 2010.

cn&R File PHOTO by kyle delmar

Fritz McKinley, director of the city’s Building and Development Services department, was cut loose from the job unceremoniously on Monday, Feb. 25. A source at the city said City Manager Brian Nakamura summoned McKinley via email at 3:30 that afternoon, and about an hour later McKinley was gone. The next day the 25-year city employee’s office was empty.

This comes on the heels of the Jan. 7 exit of Assistant City Manager John Rucker, which also happened on a Monday following a meeting with Nakamura. In that case, Rucker sent a brief email to fellow employees telling of his departure, but providing no details. There was no such email from McKinley, a city employee said.

Nakamura is leading a cost-saving effort at the city by reducing the number of departments from 10 to five, and that means eliminating jobs as well.

A number of those who work on the second and third floors of the Chico Municipal Center, however, have expressed concerns in the wake of these actions, ranging from bewilderment to downright anger. But in each case, of those who’ve been contacted by this paper or have contacted us, none wanted to be identified for fear of retaliation. They said the sudden and unexplained departures of longtime employees just six months after Nakamura was hired out of Hemet has had a chilling effect on the work environment in city hall.

And on Wednesday (March 6), the Press-Enterprise of Riverside County reported that Hemet’s assistant manager, Mark Orme, had announced his resignation to take the job of assistant city manager in Chico. At Nakamura’s suggestion, the salary for that position was recently bumped to a top range of $185,000, more than Nakamura’s predecessor Dave Burkland was paid.

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” one employee said about McKinley’s abrupt departure. “All I heard was that he was gone. He didn’t email us like John did. I heard he couldn’t access his computer or email. It’s just so weird, because nothing is transparent anymore, and yet we keep hearing the word ‘transparency’ as they restructure the city government.”

Another longtime employee, Assistant City Attorney Alicia Rock, was let go two weeks after Rucker. City Attorney Lori Barker said she could not comment because it was a personnel matter, but she did indicate the position was not being eliminated as a way to tighten the city’s budget belt.

Another city worker who also asked for anonymity said employees on both floors of the Municipal Center “are walking around in a daze right now.”

“Fritz was the quarterback of the second floor,” she said. “I was so afraid this was going to happen. When I saw Fritz’s name on the [city manager’s] calendar on Monday, I thought, ‘Oh, my god. I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it does.’ [Nakamura] is taking away our leaders.”

She said there is a “hint of alienation and even retaliation in the air.”

“I’m afraid of losing my job,” she said, “but I’m not sure I want to work there anymore.”

Nakamura also said he could not comment on McKinley’s departure, citing employee confidentiality. He did comment when asked about the working conditions in city hall and employees expressing their concerns in light of recent developments.

“I have an open-door policy,” he said. “And many have used it and come into my office to talk. I’ve no interest in creating an environment of alienation. I want an open and transparent organization. After all, we spend more physical time with employees than we do with our own families.

“I always say we need to respect each other’s space. We are a family, but there are times when families have highs and lows. I don’t want to jeopardize that family environment, but we do have a business to run, and the council has asked me to step up and do that.”

As for the departure of Rock, the assistant city attorney, Nakamura said that is Barker’s business, pointing out that he, Barker and City Clerk Deborah Presson are independent of each other and answer to the City Council.

McKinley supporters pointed out that the day after he left, there was a city Finance Committee meeting that included documents from him that showed how the Private Development Fund, which was deep in the red five years ago, had been fiscally healed under McKinley’s leadership. Those documents included a graph that shows the PDF annual fund balance deficiency had gone from $2 million in fiscal year 2007-08 to $100,000 in fiscal year 2011-12.

“Fritz was really looking forward to that meeting,” a source said. “He had slides and PowerPoint and was ready to go. But he was gone the next day. At the meeting the staff was scared to say anything.”

City Councilwoman Ann Schwab also spoke highly of McKinley in the wake of his leaving, and said she, too, was a bit unnerved by what had happened. She noted that back in 2009 his efforts to avoid having local levees decertified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency saved 25,000 homeowners altogether as much as $12.5 million in unneeded flood insurance coverage. At the time, McKinley told the City Council he was confident that he could convince FEMA that the levees along Mud and Sycamore creeks were sound.

“Could anyone have done that?” Schwab said. “Maybe. But the fact is Fritz did.”