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Commerce Mayor Baca Del Rio Gave a $35,000 Severance to Employee Who Worked Only Four Months

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In 2014 Commerce Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio implemented a Severance Pay Package that would give a employee at the city, only employed for four months, a $35,000 severance.

By Brian Hews

Editor’s note: In the print edition of HMG-CN, Firestone Boulevard Project was used instead of Washington Boulevard Project, the online version has been corrected.

Hews Media Group-Community News has obtained documents that show the City of Commerce, led by Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio, devised a secretive plan and paid a $35,000 “severance” to city employee Wendell Johnson after Johnson objected to the bidding and award process for the City’s multi-million dollar Washington Boulevard Project (Washington).

Documents also show that Baca Del Rio and City Attorney Eduardo Olivo apparently devised the plan to give the severance to Johnson as possible hush money by hastily passing Commerce City Resolution 14-105, months after his hiring, that established entirely new rules for City severance payments.

Johnson worked for the city from March 24, 2014 to September 23, 2014, a mere six months.

But checks obtained exclusively by HMG-CN show that Johnson was shockingly paid a 4-month severance amounting to over $35,000 in January 2015.



The reason given for the release and severance was that the city, “implemented a reorganization plan and that Johnson wanted to leave his ($9,500 per month, $114,000 per year) city job after the reorganization.

Sources inside the city told HMG-CN that once Johnson, who apparently had a smoking gun that the bidding process for the Washington was rigged, told city officials of his concerns, the process to remove him as a city employee began in earnest, directed by City Attorney Eduardo Olivo.

The first step in their plan, and a document that indicates Johnson had the evidence to prove the Washington bidding process was manipulated, was to draft a Separation Agreement and General Release (Release) that read as if Johnson was ready to file a lawsuit against the city.

Click here to see release.

No one at the City would comment on HMG-CN’s question as to why, if Johnson agreed to resign because the City reorganized, did he need the Release to leave his job.

Section 2 of the Release, “released and forever discharged the City, its management and supervisory team, of all charges, claims, causes of action of every kind that [Johnson] has, or ever had, or may in the future relating in any manner to [Johnson’s] employment with the City.”

Part B, Section 2 read, “[Johnson] agrees not to start, join, or cause to be started a lawsuit or any action arising from any alleged unlawful conduct relating to his employment with the City.”

The Release was signed Nov. 8, 2014, but Johnson “resigned” from his position with the City September 23, 2014, which turns out to be a very significant date in the plan.



The second part of their plan was to hurriedly pass Resolution 14-105, “Providing For Fringe Benefits And Related Compensation For Executive Management Employees Of The City Of Commerce.”

Click here to see entire resolution.

According to former Councilwoman Denise Robles, there was no discussion of Resolution 14-105 at any City Council meeting, “it was just approved,” she said.

In the Resolution, Johnson was re-classified as an Executive Management Employee.

The Resolution was passed on September 23, 2014, the exact same day Wendell Johnson resigned from his position.

A short, seemingly out of place “Section 18,” of the Resolution, found on page 11 between the Holiday Policy and the Computer Purchase Program, conveniently provided Executive Management employees a new severance pay package, “if the position was reclassified or eliminated,” where no such severance pay existed before.

Essentially, the new Section 18 gave Johnson $35,000, where he would not have received the money prior to the passage of Resolution 14-105.

City Attorney Olivo did not respond to questions as to why he would let the City pass a resolution that basically provided a $35,000 severance where none was needed.

Johnson resigned September 23, 2014, presumably during normal working hours, the Resolution, passed and dated September 23, 2014, could only be passed at Council Meetings, which occur at 6 p.m. or later, so therefore Baca Del Rio, Olivo, and anyone else connected with the Release could have stopped the implementation and saved $35,000.

It is questionable timing and extremely illogical that Baca Del Rio and the city would pass Resolution 14-105 with a new Section 18 defining severance pay given the fact the California employers are “at-will employers.”

Section 2922 of the California Labor Code states: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.

Employment at-will means that an employer can terminate an employee with or without cause, or with or without notice. In fact, an employer can terminate an employee for no reason at all. The reason for a discharge from employment, for example, cannot be one that violates public law.

Several emails into the Mayor, Mayor pro tem, City Council Members, the City Attorney, and the City Administrator went unanswered.

Phone calls into Wendell Johnson went unanswered.

Former Commerce Councilwoman Denis Robles commented, “I find it interesting that the attorney nor the council members will respond to your emails. At council meetings, I have observed the councilmembers making quite a bit of comments. As for the issue at hand – I did have some concerns about the project and contract. Of course as usual as I questioned I was given a response from the attorney to attempt to quiet me. I was made aware of a concern that a contract in connection with a contractor (Transtech) was approximately $1.3 million over the next lowest bid. I requested to see all bids and was told that the director of the department threw them away because they were not supposed to be obtained. It made no sense to me. Even if the bids were obtained in a manner that was not within policy, the city employee, specifically a director – probably should not have disposed of the documents. I tried continuously to obtain documents and inquired extensively into the matter – to no avail. As you continuously reveal all that is taking place in the City of Commerce, hopefully the residents will realize what is going and demand ethical behavior and accountability from their elected officials. It would be good to see comments from all councilmembers in regards to this issue and other pertinent issues being addressed in the media.”

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