The Somerton City Council voted at a special meeting Wednesday to hire City Attorney Jorge Lozano –who has held the title as a contractor for three years – as a full-time employee for a position that also acts as the city’s prosecutor and chief personnel officer. 

Council Member Miguel Villalpando said he was supporting the recommendation by City Manager Ian McGaughey: “That was one of the things when he was first hired, he was to assess and see what changes or improvements could be made in the service not just for the community but also  for the employees, and if those are his wishes, I’m supportive. He knows the daily activity better than I do.”

Council members who participated in the meeting, either in person or by telephone, voted 5-0 to approve the recommendation, presented by McCaughey at a council work session last week. 

Mayor Gerardo Anaya, who had recused himself from the vote, and Council Member Luis Galindo did not attend the meeting, which had been posted the day before. Anaya did not return a call seeking comment about his recusal.

The council also voted to postpone discussion of Lozano’s salary until a later meeting when more council members would be available for a regular or executive session. 

After the votes Candice Orduno-Crouse, the contracted city prosecutor who will be displaced by the decision effective Oct. 14, raised her objection. She said that the Arizona League of Cities and Towns and state bar’s ethics committee had found combining the three jobs into one “of interest.”

She added, “Considering this is a big payroll increase (she had estimated $10,000 or more), I would think that the public would have an opportunity to discuss this, and bring it to a referendum.” 

The council vote also eliminated the staff position of human resources manager and the contracted role of city prosecutor, while adding a administrative assistant to the city staff for the human resources department, also components of McGaughey’s proposal. 

McGaughey said the special meeting was called quickly because there was “some urgency to personnel needs, which I can’t discuss here.”

He said the human resources manager job is currently filled, but declined to identify who has the job. The “contacts” page on the city website lists Lucia Armas as holding the “human resources” job within the finance department. 

Armas did not return a call seeking comment. 

McCaughey justified the changes Wednesday in terms of value, particularly getting more hours of legal service for roughly the same amount of money. 

“The city currently pays, on average, $100,000 (per year) for 13 hours of legal services per week,” a combined total between the contracted city attorney and prosecutor. “This resolution would create a full-time, salaried position that would work a minimum of 40 hours per week, providing legal services to the city,” he said. 

He also said creating strong personnel policies for city staff had been another council priority. 

“This position will provide advice on development of those policies, while holding staff accountable for policy development and administration, while overseeing the human resources department for compliance and risk management,” he said. 

McCaughey said the changes had been vetted by attorneys at the city’s insurance risk pool and the League of Cities and Towns. Other Arizona cities with a combined city attorney/prosecutor position include Florence, Show Low, Sierra Vista and South Tucson. 

In a PowerPoint presentation shown at last week’s work session on the issue, McCaughey said hiring Lozano full-time is expected to cost somewhere between $129,000 and $152,600, depending on the negotiated salary, benefits and other costs. 

The city’s total legal costs for fiscal 2019 were $96,500 and $102,200 for fiscal 2018, according to the PowerPoint.

The financial savings are expected with eliminating the human resources manager position, for which the current pay and benefits cost $73,800 per year.

Hiring an administrative assistant to work 19 hours per week on human resources paperwork, which McCaughey is recommending, would cost about $13,400 a year in pay and benefits. 

Orduno-Crouse, who has a Yuma law office and has been the city prosecutor for 10 years, told the council she had been making about $35,000 a year from the city prosecutor contract, not including expenses.

But she said her objections weren’t about the money, as she has family ties to Somerton.

“The majority of the cases here are domestic violence, mental health and assault, and I’ve always gone with the idea of not just looking for punishment but looking for resolutions, to save the city money,” she said. 

She also questioned why the council passed a resolution to make the personnel change, without changing the city ordinance pertaining to the city attorney job. 

After Orduno-Crouse had spoken, Vice Mayor Martha Garcia asked if the council should move forward in light of the objection. McCaughey said, “That’s just comment at this point, the council has already made their determination.” 

Garcia thanked the prosecutor for the comments, and said, “we’ll go ahead and maybe follow up with any information that needs to be followed in respect to these concerns, so we won’t be in violation of anything.” 

After the meeting, Orduno-Crouse said she had concerns about transparency during the relatively short period the changes were being considered.

She didn’t speak until just after the council had voted because “I was under the impression it was still under discussion,” she said.

 Yuma Sun reporter Blake Herzog can be reached at 928-539-6856 or bherzog@yumasun.com

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