YUCCA VALLEY — After nearly a week of speculation, the Town Council voted Tuesday to fire Town Manager Mark Nuaimi.
The council voted 4-1, with Councilman Bob Leone dissenting, to release Nuaimi without cause, after a nearly two-hour discussion in closed session.
Tuesday’s decision came less than a week after the council voted unanimously to place Nuaimi on administrative leave.
A separation agreement between the town and Nuaimi characterized him as the “focal point of political divide.”
Politics aside, the separation agreement referred to a dispute about whether the council had reason to fire Nuaimi with cause.
The agreement states Nuaimi and the town “agree that (Nuaimi’s) immediate dismissal without cause is in the best interest of the town.”
Mayor Merl Abel suggested the council dismissed Nuaimi without cause to save further expenses and conflict.
“Our ‘yes’ vote was made out of the most prudent and economical option that allows our community to move forward,” Abel said.
Leone clarified he was in favor of terminating the employment contract, but was opposed to the $126,666 severance pay Nuaimi will receive, in addition to up to a year’s worth of medical benefits.
Most attending Tuesday’s meeting expected Nuaimi’s contract would be ended. What they wanted to know was why.
“Staff wishes to dispel the speculation that Mr. Nuaimi’s dismissal was based on any specific charges or grievances brought against him,” town attorney Lona Laymon said. “The dispute … is precisely is what’s stated in the severance agreement itself.”
Some who spoke during the meeting said they would submit a Freedom of Information Act request for documents that could point to wrongdoing by Nuaimi.
After Laymon read aloud the council’s decision, Nuaimi took to the podium to deliver a final parting message.
“A bull in a china shop is how many would describe how I come across, but know that I meant no harm,” Nuaimi said.
“It’s never easy to part ways and I completely understand why the Town Council has found a change in leadership is necessary at this time.”
Projects completed, but compensation drew fire
During his three-year tenure as town manager, Nuaimi oversaw completion of projects including Norm Essig Park and the replacement animal shelter, but he also became a target of criticism. In his speech Tuesday, he touted the town’s accomplishments over the last three years, including its “pension reform and benefits overhaul.”
Nuaimi’s own benefits package was raised by more than $13,000 this year, and the council took heat for it.
Earlier this year, citizens launched an effort to recall Councilmen George Huntington and Robert Lombardo, partly because they voted to increase Nuaimi’s compensation package, then voted to cut town programs and staff.
Nuaimi was also targeted by critics for his role in the failed sales tax increase, Measure U, as well as for his delivery of high-dollar town projects and new development.
“Looking back, I wish I’d done more to address the political tone of debate in this community,” Nuaimi said as he read a statement Tuesday.
“As the town manager, I fell short in realizing just how divided this community was. Worse yet, some of my approach actually contributed to the climate that had so many wanting my head on a platter this evening. I really just believed in what we were proposing and I was advocating strongly for this community and for the town.”
‘We cannot destroy each other’
Nuaimi has 21 days to review the separation agreement and agree to the terms and conditions. Laymon expects the process will be much quicker than that.
Deputy Town Manager Shane Stueckle will serve as the town’s manager until further notice.
After speakers chastised the council for approving the severance agreement, Yucca Valley resident Charles McHenry tried to chart new territory.
“I was hoping we’d start using this as an evening to start bringing people together,” McHenry said.
“There are no victories in this room. We cannot destroy each other the way we have been. We need to work together for the good of the community.”