Two Long Beach City Council members are questioning whether a number of non-union employees should have received the hefty separation payments they recently did, including former City Manager Jack Schnirman, who left in January with a $108,000 payment.
Schnirman earned $173,800 a year as city manager under his most recent contract, and served in the position from 2012 to 2017, until he became county comptroller this year. He received a payout amounting to at least 100 percent of his accrued sick days — or $73,100 — upon his departure from the city, according to a Herald analysis of his payment documents.
The city’s Code of Ordinances states that non-union, or management, employees like Schnirman should be paid 30 percent of total accrued sick days at the time of separation, and can claim up to 50 vacation days. Schnirman’s contract also specifies that he should be paid 30 percent, which would be $21,900.
Councilman John Bendo said he believes Schnirman was entitled to a total payment of $52,000 in sick and vacation days, less than half of what he received.
Councilwoman Anissa Moore joined Bendo in expressing concern about the payments at a council meeting last week, saying that a number of them were made to non-union employees who are still working for the city.
“The resolution that I was handed said this was to authorize the cost of separation payments,” Bendo said at the April 17 council meeting. “There’s a lot of people in here who are not separation payments.”
That is why the two voted against a $2.1 million bond measure to make up for the payments. As a result, the city might have to lay off personnel and cut services, according to council members and city officials.
Schnirman called the separation payouts routine, and said they had decreased “as planned” over the years. Officials said that overall, separation payouts have reduced the city’s payroll because higher-paid employees have been replaced by new, lower-paid ones.
“The earned-leave obligation policy was applied evenly across the board for a number of years,” Schnirman said, adding that he acted on the advice of a previous corporation counsel for the city.
Schnirman declined to comment on specific payments to non-union employees.
According to a knowledgeable source, Schnirman did not sign off on his own separation payment, nor did he calculate his payment amount, though former city Comptroller Kristie Hansen-Hightower recently told the council that individual calculations are made between the city manager’s office and payroll department. Three signatures were required to approve Schnirman’s payout, but the signatures could not immediately be confirmed.
The payment list
A list of employees who received separation payouts in the 2017-18 fiscal year, which the Herald has obtained, showed that a number of them were non-union staff in the city administration. Some of them still work for the city but received the separation payments anyway.
The payouts to 57 employees on the list — the majority of them union police officers and firefighters or members of the Civil Service Employees Association — were for accrued vacation and sick leave, retirement incentives and “other financial commitments and obligations” — during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Most, but not all, of the payments were contractual.
According to the city, non-union employees account for less than 1 percent of its workforce. Three sources with knowledge of the list said the payments were made to non-union staff members in the administration — a number of them supporters or members of the Independent Democratic Club — who had intended to leave the city for positions elsewhere, or who were uncertain about their jobs with the city after last November’s elections.
In addition to Schnirman, several other non-union employees received total or partial payments, including Corporation Counsel Rob Agostisi, who has worked for the city for about 11 years and received $128,000, and Police Commissioner Mike Tangney, who was paid $52,000, the list shows.
Both still work for the city. Tangney, who earns $232,000 a year, remains the police commissioner, and is also the acting city manager until a full-time manager can be hired. He is not receiving additional compensation as the acting city manager.
Others who remain employed with the city include Deputy City Manager Michael Robinson, who received $35,000, and Economic Development Director Patricia Bourne, who received $25,740.
Hansen-Hightower received $61,915 when she left last year, while former Department of Public Works Commissioner Jim LaCarrubba — who resigned in 2016 but continued to serve as a part-time consultant to the city to assist Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts — was paid $20,967.
Shari James, the city’s former acting comptroller, received $44,000, and now works with Schnirman at the county.
Adhering to the process?
Over the past several years, the city has allowed CSEA members and non-union employees to exceed the 30 percent calculation and instead receive 65 percent as part of an early-retirement incentive, including payouts to those who remain on the payroll, according to a city document obtained by the Herald.
Tangney said that the non-union employees on the list earned their accrued time, adding that, at times, the city manager has exercised discretion over the Code of Ordinances and has allowed both union and non-union employees to “cash in” throughout the year for vacation, sick or personal leave, or because of hardships. A number of union workers who received the recent separation payments continue to work for the city as well.
“The practice has been whatever the city manager decides at the time,” Tangney said, adding that making certain payments over time, rather than issuing them as a lump sum, can save the city money.
“I was under the impression that the city was doing well, and there might be some financial reason for [Schnirman] to do this and reduce the city’s debt,” he added. “This exempt argument is political fodder that I’m not going to play with.”
Overall, 15 union and non-union employees on the list still work for the city, one person with knowledge of the payouts told the Herald.
City Council President Anthony Eramo said the council is committed to determining whether the separation payouts were appropriate. “I can tell you, in terms of going forward, that the council wants to reform the process of how earned-leave obligations are calculated and paid,” Eramo said.
“They took liberties, and did what they wanted, anyway,” Bendo said, referring to the city management. “It’s not just an issue of reforming the process. It’s an issue of adhering to the process.”
Zach Gottehrer-Cohen and Scott Brinton contributed to this story.