It’s getting sour in the citrus capital of the world.
Terms such as “witch hunt” and “mob mentality” were tossed around Santa Paula City Hall chambers on Monday, May 7, as residents lashed out at city officials for the decision to place Police Chief Steve MacKinnon on paid administrative leave.
Citing personnel reasons, City Manager Jaime Fontes has not commented further on why he placed MacKinnon on leave about three weeks ago. City Council members have since denied knowing what sparked Fontes’ decision. But a private investigator, hired in January, allegedly launched a probe into the chief’s personal use of a city car.
The city has released a spreadsheet that shows MacKinnon billed the city $2,184 of personal gasoline purchases for trips to Arizona between April 4, 2010, and Dec. 28, 2011.
MacKinnon was hired in 2005 and his job-offer letter states, “A City vehicle will be provided for your personal use as well as use in the performance of your duties.”
MacKinnon did not receive the $350 monthly car allowance issued to other department heads, which would have totaled $7,000 during the 20-month period in question.
The vast majority of speakers Monday night addressed how the city has blossomed on MacKinnon’s watch. The crime rate has fallen, civic engagement has grown and business has flourished, MacKinnon supporters attested. The investigation is a waste of taxpayers’ money and could have been handled internally, many of the speakers said.
“I’m greatly concerned about the response of both the City Council and city manager. You were obviously caught unaware about a concern or question about the use of a car by the chief,” said Mary Ann Krause, former mayor of Santa Paula, who was also interviewed by the investigator about the chief’s car use. “That’s understandable, but over the couple of years the city manager has been here, he has had the opportunity to meet the department heads and he should have done personnel reviews during that time to be familiar with the terms of his chief department heads’ terms of employment.”
Mayor Bob Gonzalez, who retired as police chief in 2005, attempted to cut off Krause by saying he had mistakenly allowed the previous speakers five minutes to address the Council and it would now be shortened to three minutes. The crowd booed Gonzales, and Krause continued to say that any attempt to show the community that MacKinnon has not been doing his job is not going to be accepted by the community because “They know he is pulling shifts during the night in order to avoid paying overtime. . . . They respect the work he is doing very much and are very glad that someone is finally getting the work done in Santa Paula.”
“I’ve never seen a leader as energetic, as creative, as hard working as Chief MacKinnon,” said Betsy Blanchard Chess. “The real Santa Paula is better than this. Please stop what appears to be a tawdry little witch hunt, and reinstate the chief.”
Two speakers during the hour-long public comment period supported the city manager’s decision to place MacKinnon on leave. Andrew Castaneda said there is likely more to the investigation than the public is aware of and encouraged the Council not to give in to the “mob mentality” of MacKinnon supporters.
Resident Larry Sagely, speaking for what he called “the silent majority,” complimented the city manager on doing his job and said, “I know you all (Council members) have had to deal with problems created by former city managers, former City Council and mayor. I know that many of you, in the whole time you’ve been here, have had to straighten out that mess.”
Sagely added that perhaps Fontes is in the line of fire because he is Latino. “Could there be a degree of racism going on here?” he asked. The crowd jeered, and Sagely exited City Hall.
Though the investigation has been completed, city officials have not announced a hearing date regarding the results.