Ontario council seeks power to hire department heads

Mayor Riley Hill of Ontario. (Angelina Katsanis/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – The Ontario City Council wants the power to hire key city employees, upending a long-standing practice of leaving such decisions to the city manager.

Voters in the city will get the final say on that as the council last week supported a number of changes to the city charter. The charter governs how the city runs.

The recommended change, approved 4-2 on Tuesday, June 15, will be on the May 2022 ballot.

Another change will allow councilors to take away the title of council president.

But it was the change to city hiring that engendered the most vigorous debate among councilors.The majority of the council – including Mayor Riley Hill and Councilors Ken Hart, Freddy Rodriguez and Sam Baker – want to take charge of hiring city executives such as the police chief, fire chief and community development director.

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said of the three counties and four cities he’s worked for in the past, none of the governing bodies had the power to hire department heads.

A special committee convened in March to review a charter that has been unchanged in 36 years. The committee included four citizens, three councilors, and four city staff members. 

The charter review committee focused on comparing Ontario’s charter with a model charter from the League of Oregon Cities. Most of the nine changes it suggested emerged from that comparison. The group presented its recommendations to the city council on June 3. 

Riley Hill telegraphed at the Charter Review Committee’s second public hearing in late May that he wanted to propose an additional amendment. 

“A department head must be approved by the council. I think that should be in the charter,” said Hill at the June 3 council meeting. 

Jason Grant, director of advocacy for the International City/County Management Association, said that in some cities councils hire for specific departments. He couldn’t identify any city in the U.S. where the council makes all such hiring decisions.

Grant said that typically a council is in charge of setting goals and an overall vision for the city while the city manager is in charge of executing this vision. To do this, according to both Brown and Grant, city managers must be able to choose their own team. 

“I’ve never hired a fire chief or a police chief. I don’t know what credentials to look at. They may be a dandy person, but they may not know how to do their job,” said Councilor John Kirby. “I don’t know that I’m qualified to do that.”

Councilor Michael Braden added that there’s a difference between policy makers and administrators and that he thought the added amendment was “bad policy.”

Supporters of the change pointed to a disconnect between the council and the departments. Hart said that of citizens he had spoken to, all “assumed that the city council had a role in the selection of the chief of police or the fire chief.”  

After more than 20 minutes of debate, Hill appeared to strengthen the language of the amendment and suggested it read, “Three members of the council, mayor and two (councilors), could interview and make a recommendation to the council, along with the city manager; the council would have the final decision.” 

City Attorney Larry Sullivan said he is still working on the official language of the charter. 

The amendment passed 4-2 with Braden and Kirby opposed. Councilor Eddie Melendrez was absent.

“It takes me out of the process of hiring, but I think the implications are broader than that too,” said Brown in an interview with the Enterprise. “It’s not just about being in the room, it’s more about having the ability to choose the team that I need to be successful.”

Brown said that he has “absolutely” thought critically about his future in Ontario if the amendment were to pass, but that such a decision “was a long way off and I know the council needs to do what they think is best for the community regardless of my intentions.” 

“This is obviously not the system I came here under. I want to stick with professional management,” said Brown. 

The Charter Review Committee’s other recommendations largely won council support with little debate. Those included new language that would allow the city council to remove a sitting council president by a majority vote and requiring a councilor to remain a resident within the city during their term.

Both measures arose in the context of public outcry over the behavior of Rodriguez, who is currently council president. Rodriguez has listed his address as outside the city of Ontario on official documents, but maintained that he has a permanent address within city limits as well. 

A third measure seemingly directed at Rodriguez was voted down. That measure would have allowed city council to expel a member for disorderly conduct following notice, a public hearing, and a two-thirds vote. 

Brown said that the citizens’ right to vote councilors into office was important and that authority not be delegated to councilors. 

“I don’t think that’s a right the people should lightly concede to six people,” he said. 

One other change passed without debate was the original raison d’etre of the Charter Review Committee: “Any proposal to implement or increase a city sales tax shall be referred to the voters by the Ontario City Council and that referral to the voters shall occur in November of a U.S. Congressional election year.” 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.


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