City Council reverses '09 decisions

mgaytan@losbanosenterprise.comAugust 28, 2013 

In a 4-1 vote Wednesday, the City Council reorganized the finance and administration departments and re-classified the accounting and budget supervisor job title to finance director.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove voted against the change.

The structural changes in some departments were part of budget cuts in 2009 and 2010, when the city asked workers to pay more for benefits. Stonegrove said since the economy has improved, the city has been able to restore some money from those givebacks.

"The employees sacrificed a lot for the city," Stonegrove said. "We've been able to restore 2.5 percent of the givebacks for three of our groups. I would like to see our employees' salaries restored to levels pre-2010 before we start to make structural changes that are going to cost the city."

Accounting and budget supervisor Sonia Williams has been acting as city finance director. Her monthly salary will increase and range from $7,875 to $9,845 per month.

City Manager Steve Carrigan said Williams was hired in 2009 when the city was having economic difficulties. The supervisor has been working in that position for the last four years, and the promotion is deserving, he said.

Administration will be led by Lucy Mallonee, human resources director and city clerk.

The city saw steep declines in sales and property tax revenue as the housing market imploded in 2009. Los Banos was also reeling from the discovery of a nearly $2 million embezzlement by former employee Mary Ann Jones.

The last time Los Banos had a chief financial officer was when Melinda Wall held the position in 2009. Wall retired in the wake of the embezzlement.

In other action, the City Council established a policy regarding invocations at City Council meetings after receiving a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation objecting to the city's practice to open council meetings with prayer.

A number of local clergymen and community members were prepared to speak against any action not to continue invocations.

City Attorney William Vaughn said this type of issue has been fairly common in California during the last five to 10 years and there have been numerous lawsuits filed by individuals objecting to prayer invocations at public meetings as an abridgment of the separation of church and state.

The Religion Foundation, which is an advocacy organization headquartered in Madison, Wis., did not explicitly threaten a lawsuit but has been active in filing lawsuits throughout the country regarding similar issues.

The policy the council put in place Wednesday is similar to one the city of Lancaster used in a case where someone had challenged invocations at their meetings.

Lancaster's policy was approved by the Federal Court.

As part of its policy, the city must provide a list based upon responses to invitations being sent to all religious congregations within the community, as well as interested community members. It must rotate speakers based upon the list and cannot review content prior to the invocation or edit the message.

Meanwhile, Vaughn prepared a letter to the FFRF thanking the foundation for its concern and letting it know a policy has been put in place and the council will continue to conduct invocations.

Stephen Hammond, senior pastor for Bethel Community Church, said he is very happy with the council adopting the policy.

"I'm glad that they chose not to edit the pastors. The pastors that pray in front of our council are a very close representation of the beliefs of the citizens of Los Banos," he said.

"I'm glad they are including more people."

Reporter Marina Gaytan can be reached at (209)388-6562 or magaytan@losbanosenterprise.com. Reporter Corey Pride contributed to this article.

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