City leaders also hire interim city attorney for the permanent position

By Janene Scully

Noozhawk North County Editor 

The Solvang City Council has taken steps to fill some jobs left empty by forced layoffs last spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday night, the council agreed 4-1 to hire a public works maintenance worker, a parks maintenance officer, an assistant planner and a city clerk. An office assistant would be boosted from part time to full time.

Shortly after the shutdown last spring, the city axed 12 positions, citing the expected loss of transient occupancy tax, or bed tax paid by people who stay in local hotels. 

“Today’s recommendations are the first step in rebuilding the city organization for post-COVID operations,” City Manager Xenia Bradford said Monday.

Solvang is one of the top cities to receive transient occupancy tax, estimated at $500,000 a month, Bradford said. That revenue disappeared during the most stringent shutdown orders in the past year.

Bradford’s initial recommendation did not include the city clerk slot returning at this point, but Councilman Mark Infanti said he wanted to bring back that position full time now and not later.

The abrupt layoffs of both at-will and union employees in March 2020 led to an unfair labor practice charge from Teamsters Union Local 986 representing Solvang workers. 

“Is the union cool with this? Is this compatible with what the processes are?” Councilwoman Claudia Orona asked. 

“I would say that as a result of the actions that were taken in 2019-2020, the union was not OK with that,” City Attorney Dave Fleishman said. “They did file an unfair labor practice charge against the city. We are working to try to resolve that with the union.” 

A vacancy policy, adopted in October 2019 and reversed by a unanimous vote Monday night, required an analysis of each empty city position and council approval to fill the job.

Remaining mum about specifics, Fleishman said the matter remained “in a holding pattern,” with ongoing discussions taking place between city and union officials.

Teamsters representative Jeff Lee welcomed talks about rehiring employees, contending the city remained “on course to hopefully try and reverse some of the wrongs that had been done.”

“I just want to say I’m glad to see that the council is considering a reversal of the previous council’s vacancy policy and considering to bring back positions,” Lee said. “Of course that’s good. The union’s very happy with the council’s consideration of doing that.”

Other residents supported hiring employees for those empty slots. 

Nancy Emerson favored filling vacancies, noting that the city manager has done that role along with other jobs that had been left vacant. 

Resident Julie Glendenning agreed that Bradford has been forced to fill too many roles. 

“I don’t feel we have the proper checks and balances, especially in financial areas,” Glendenning said. 

Lee also questioned why the former council looked to city staff to save money rather than trimming the costs of its then-city attorney, Chip Wullbrandt from Price Postel & Parma.

“When the March 2020 state of emergency was declared, I feel like rather than removing 12 full-time positions, I would have liked to have seen the attorney at the time reduce their expenditures to offset the massive deficit that the city was facing,” Lee said. 

Wullbrandt resigned in mid-December before his expected firing, and the new council rehired Fleishman, who had done the job with his partner, Roy Hanley, for two decades. 

Last month, the council approved Jan. 22 invoices totaling another $23,254 for Wullbrandt, putting his total cost at $738,000.

After a closed session meeting Monday night, the council voted unanimously to hire Fleishman, from the firm Richards, Watson and Gershon, for the permanent city attorney job, with the formal contract to be brought back at a future meeting.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.