Compton fires third city manager in five years

Willie Norfleet, who had worked for the city for about four years, will be replaced by Lamont Ewell, a Compton native and retired city manager for cities including San Diego and Santa Monica.

Amid financial turmoil and changing political tides, the Compton City Council has voted to fire its third city manager in five years.

The council voted 3 to 2 late Tuesday to terminate City Manager Willie Norfleet, effective immediately. Norfleet had worked for the city for about four years and served as city controller until his predecessor, Charles Evans, was fired last fall.

Norfleet came under fire over revelations in the spring that the city was running a $25-million deficit in its general fund and over his handling of deep budget cuts and mass layoffs intended to get the city’s finances stabilized.

The council voted to bring in Lamont Ewell, a former Compton firefighter who went on to serve as city manager for cities including San Diego and Santa Monica before retiring in 2009, as Norfleet’s replacement. Ewell’s contract is slated to be approved next week.

Ewell, who grew up in Compton, said taking the helm during a troubled time is a way for him to pay back a debt to the city.

“Given the fact that, in my view, the city has actually been responsible for the career I enjoyed for 34 years before retiring, I felt it was the least I could do to help in any way I can,” he said.

The appointment will bring Ewell out of retirement on a temporary basis in hopes he’ll spark a turnaround in the troubled city. Under law, Ewell may only work full time for up to a year without sacrificing his pension benefits. The listed pay for the city manager’s post is $185,000 a year.

Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, who voted to fire Norfleet, said the council majority was unhappy with the way he handled the budget, and particularly with his lack of communication with some council members during the process.

“We couldn’t get information that we should have received to make an informed decision…. It was just very difficult talking with him during the budget process and even after,” she said.

The coalition of unions representing Compton employees filed an unfair labor practices claim and is threatening a lawsuit over alleged violations of the state’s open meetings law in the way the budget was adopted and the layoffs carried out.

The council voted in July to approve the budget with a last-minute amendment proposed by the city manager containing $1.2 million in concessions that the unions had not agreed to and that the public — including some council members — did not see until midway through the meeting.

The disputed concessions have not been implemented at the advice of the city attorney. Lowell Goodman, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 721, said the unions are hopeful that the new city manager will come to the bargaining table.

Reached by phone, Norfleet said he had done his best in a tough situation and thought he was targeted partly because he pushed the council to make tough fiscal choices.

He acknowledged that he could have been more vocal in warning the council that the deficit was ballooning before the city hit a crisis situation, but said some of his warnings went unheeded.

“Let’s face it, when good times are rolling and the party is on, so to speak, no one wants to hear that the music is going to shut down,” Norfleet said.

The former city manager said he was not bitter over his ouster.

“I do wish them well. I will say it’s the greatest experience I’ve had [working in Compton], and I’m not really complaining,” he said.

Mayor Eric Perrodin voted against firing Norfleet, saying it was unfair to punish him for a problem that had been building long before he became city manager.

“I think he was put in a situation that was a yeoman’s task for anyone to try to succeed at, but he was trying and it’s unfortunate that the council wouldn’t give him the opportunity to succeed with what he had to deal with,” Perrodin told the council.

Perrodin also said he thought the vote came too soon after newly elected Councilwoman Janna Zurita took office and violated the City Charter. City Atty. Craig Cornwell disagreed.

The mayor has problems of his own to worry about. He appears to have lost his council majority with Zurita’s election in the spring and also faces a recall threat.

Former City Clerk Charles Davis got approval last week to begin gathering signatures to force a recall election, in which Perrodin could lose his seat.

Perrodin’s opponents have targeted the mayor before. There were six failed recall attempts last year, all thrown out for technical reasons. The current attempt is the first to get to the petitioning stage.