Ontario grapples with rapid turnover of employees in key positions

Several key employees are abandoning their city positions, including police chief Steve Romero. (The Enterprise/FILE)

ONTARIO – A rapid succession of resignations among top city staff is unusual and could strain resources, said Ontario City Manager Adam Brown.

Erik Hartley, the Ontario Municipal Airport manager, left in August and Police Chief Steve Romero plans to depart in October. Peter Hall, city human resource manager, also recently announced he will leave and IT Tech Ken Monson already quit to work for the Ontario School District.

“It is a lot of people in a short period of time,” said Brown.

Ontario City Councilor John Kirby said the departures are “more happenstance than anything” and that “they are all good people.”

Brown said while a “multitude of factors” prompted the resignations, he pointed to a recent string of political controversies as one possible reason.

Brown said work at city hall is “a tough environment.”

“We work in the public eye. It’s a fish bowl. Our elected leaders have to make tough decisions and they have to do it in front of everybody,” said Brown.

Conflict and controversy has racked the council during the past months.

In January, Mayor Riley Hill sued the city in an effort to overturn a nuisance finding that resulted in a $500 penalty for his company, Eldorado Investments Inc.

Then in May, former Ontario councilor Marty Justus sent a cease and desist letter to then-Council President Freddy Rodriguez and Hill regarding an assertion that the two took claims of sexual abuse of minors against him to the Ontario police.

Justus put the city on notice he might sue for violations of his civil rights that could cost the city $1 million.

The notice by Justice was just one more chapter in what became a long political saga at city hall that involved Hill, Rodriguez and Justus.

Rodriguez, recalled from office in June, castigated Justus as a child molester and pressed police to investigate him last fall. When Rodriguez concluded Ontario police were not doing their duty, he sought the intervention of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, according to interviews and police records.

Hill also relayed to police hearsay about Justus and sought to be treated as an anonymous source.

Police investigations found no evidence against Justus, available police records showed.

Meanwhile, city councilors embarked on a significant effort to amend the city charter, the document that governs how the city is run, by transferring the power to hire department heads from the city manager to the council. The city formed a special review committee to review the proposal.

The effort appeared to be spearheaded by Hill, who said during a review committee meeting in June that he wanted to propose the hiring change – unprecedented in Oregon city governments.

“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.

Michael Braden, Ontario city councilor, said recently he believes the recent political upheaval was a factor in the resignations.

“I feel what is going on is a perfect storm of personal issues and their dislike of the political environment, some of the actions of the city council and the mayor,” said Braden.

Braden said a “negative political environment is having an impact and influence.”

“But I can’t trace it to one specific action,” said Braden.

Braden said there was negativity “and criticism, as I perceived it, that came out of the city council directed at Adam (Brown) and Chief Romero.”

“I do believe, though, there has been an uptick in staff morale,” said Braden.

Romero said he decided to leave the city for several reasons, including other job opportunities and to be closer to family.

However, Romero said the political climate played a role in his decision.

“I believe there is a lack of support for public safety by the elected body,” said Romero.

He characterized his decision as “abrupt.”

“Some of it is that I have realized the city of Ontario and the police department lack formal structure and cultural capacity that fall in balance with my professional and personal goals to launch more contemporary and more sophisticated models of policing,” said Romero, who was hired just over two years ago.

He said the city has “urban-level issues but continues to take a rural community approach to them.”

“So, it was the proper time in my career to seek out new learning and development opportunities,” said Romero.

The Enterprise attempted to reach Hill for comment but he did not return phone calls.

City Councilor Ken Hart said he didn’t believe the departures were connected to a negative political climate.

“I wouldn’t hang my hat on that. That’s kind of a broad statement. I think each of those individual people has their own individual reasons for leaving,” said Hart.

Hart noted Hall left to work for the city of Meridian because it “was a great opportunity.”

Hall said his decision to leave Ontario was “all about timing.” Hall said he will fill the role as management analyst for the Meridian Public Works Department.

“My ultimate goal at the beginning of my professional career is to become a well-rounded public servant. This position in Meridian will give me a different perspective while allowing me to take on a new challenge and continue to grow,” said Hall.P

Previous coverage:

Riley Hill, mayor of Ontario, sues his own city over $500

Ontario mayor wins suit against his own city over nuisance citations

Reports show Rodriguez slings unprove claims and Ontario mayor offers tip against former councilor

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