​​​VP council scuttles negotiated 

contract with city manager

By Tina Richards

With newly elected councilmen Robbie Pitts and Vince Rossini sworn in, the Villa Park City Council’s first order of business was selecting officers; the second was ratifying an employment contract for a new city manager, slated to replace the departing Jarad Hildenbrand.

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Nelson was named mayor by a 4 to 1 (Diana Fascenelli opposing) vote.  He apparently knew he was going to be selected, as he had ordered “Mayor of Villa Park” business cards on Nov. 28, two weeks before the Dec. 13 council meeting.  Robert Collacott was named mayor pro tem by a 3 to 2 vote.  Councilman Robbie Pitts had nominated Diana Fascenelli for the job, but she was defeated by the same 3-2 vote.

City Manager Jarad Hildenbrand had given notice a month ago; his announced last day was Dec 15.  The VP Human Resources committee – Bill Nelson, Diana Fascenelli—began the search for a new city manager within days of learning of Hildenbrand’s departure.   Collacott and Nelson thought the selection should be left up to the incoming council, as did the not-yet-seated Vince Rossini. The sitting council, however, believed it would be irresponsible to leave the new members with a hole to fill, and it would be just one more thing for the inexperienced electeds to deal with.

A rare consensus

Fascenelli and Nelson interviewed nine candidates and one, Jessica Binnquist, was deemed the best choice by both of them.  She’s been manager of an L.A. County city for 10 years, and was assistant city manager at another city prior to that.  “She was head and shoulders above the rest,” Fascenelli says.  “Bill and I never agree on anything, but we both chose her independently.”

The candidate returned for a second interview, then met the other seated council members, and visited separately with Pitts and Rossini.  An offer was made, she countered; the HR and legal team negotiated a final contract, which she accepted.  The new council was expected to ratify the contract Dec. 13.

Vince Rossini opened the discussion by noting that the contract included one-year severance pay and he thought that was too much.  He suggested that a six-month severance was adequate.  City Attorney Todd Litfin explained that a one-year severance was “industry standard.”  “City managers serve at the will of councils, which change,” he said. “It is customary to offer a level of security.  It does not apply if she quits or if there is malfeasance.  And it’s only for the first two years. 

Jump with a safety net

The thinking behind lengthy severance pay is that city manager positions are few.  Orange County has just 34.  If a city manager leaves one job to take another, the individual does so with an expectation of continued gainful employment. City manager contracts are customarily binding for two years. If the manager is arbitrarily terminated within that time, the negotiated severance provides some backup while he or she looks for another job.  
“One year severance is standard,” Fascenelli advised.  “Jarad had the same condition in his contract.”

Collacott said he was also concerned about the length of the “termination clause” and wanted a six-month probation period to counter it.
Probation is not generally written into city manager contracts, because the individual is technically on probation every day.  All a probation period does is give the city the option of firing a manager “at will” and early on without having to pay severence. 

“We want minimal government,” Collacott said.  “We have a small city staff. We went through an abbreviated review process.  I think probation is warranted and one-year severance is too large.”

Good for the goose

“It was a lengthy review process,” Fascenelli countered.  “We spent 30 hours researching, interviewing, negotiating.  Jessica will be one of the lowest paid city managers in the county, but the job is the same.”

 “Is this contract consistent with Jarad’s?” Robbie Pitts asked.

“Yes,” city attorney Litfin answered.  “It’s consistent with Jarad’s.”

“So why wasn’t this – severance, probation – considered in the past?” Pitts queried. “Why is this an issue now?”

“Because,” Rossini weighed in,  “things change.  We can do things differently.  We don’t have the same challenges as other cities.  And she doesn’t have a master’s degree.“

“A master’s degree is not a requirement,” Fascenelli interjected.  “And the council gave HR a budget, which we stayed within. Why is this a concern now?”

“You have the option to take the job or not,” Rossini said.

Prepared to prevail

Collacott, who had distributed revised contract language to his colleagues on the dais during the meeting, motioned to accept the contract, but with six months severance and a probation period.  It carried, with Collacott, Nelson and Rossini voting “yes;” Pitts and Fascenelli voted “no.”

“I’m disappointed in you,” Fascenelli told Nelson.  “You didn’t bring any of this up during hours and hours of discussion.  And you said, during those discussions, that she was your choice.”

“I’m concerned about this process,” Pitts said.  “If she doesn’t take this new contract, we’re going to lose a great candidate.”

Villa Park did.  Binnquist, who was in the audience, told Hildenbrand that night that she was not taking the job.  Subsequently, the council received emails from two other candidates asking that their names be withdrawn from consideration.

Don Powell, an outside contractor is serving as temporary city manager.