Toby Wells, who left his Ceres city manager position in 2020 to become city manager of Turlock, was placed on an investigative leave following a split decision by the City Council. The action was taken during a 3-2 closed session vote on Thursday.
Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak, and councilmembers Rebecka Monez and Council member Pam Franco voted to suspend Wells against the wishes of Andrew Nosrati and Nicole Larson. It was the second “emergency” meeting of the week called by Bublak regarding Wells and contract city attorney firm of Churchwell White, the same firm for which Ceres contracts for legal services.
Churchwell White tendered a letter of resignation effective Feb. 28.
At meetings held this week, a number of Turlock residents phoned into the Zoom meeting to call into question the council’s integrity as well as transparency and fiscal responsibility. One caller, identified only as Sims, questioned the action given that two members of the council are new and would be unable to fairly evaluate Wells’ performance. He also noted how difficult it has been to find a city manager. Sims added: “Without our city manager and city attorney, no police or fire chief, we’re going to be in a horrendous situation in the middle of a pandemic. There’s no need to do this now.”
He attacked Bublak, saying, “Your city sees what you’re doing and we do not like what we are seeing. We need transparency.”
Another Turlock resident named Endsley said the action against Wells appeared to be a coup. “Two people who got outstanding, above level reviews are being kicked out of their jobs because of political needs by the City Council,” he said.
Nosrati and Larson expressed concern over the timing and ethics of Tuesday’s emergency meeting and continued their disapproval during Thursday’s meeting.
“What I’ve heard loud and clear throughout my term and prior was that there is a continued instability and chaos in City Hall,” said Nosrati. “What we have long sought is stability and leadership and management and it is deeply concerning the path that we are headed down.”
Wells was appointed as Turlock city manager in March 2020, with a three-year contract that includes an annual base salary of $220,000. He is the fifth person to serve as city manager in five years, with two of those people being other department heads filling in during an executive search.
The council did not state who would be covering the duties of City Manager during Wells’ leave or the process the city would take to investigate.
Turlock has contracted its legal services through the firm of Churchwell White LLP with managing partner Doug White serving as the primary attorney since 2018. The council did not state on Thursday if they planned to search for a new firm come Feb. 28 or start a search for an in-house attorney.
The City Council first regular meeting of 2021 is scheduled for Tuesday. An agenda has yet to be posted.