Politics & Government

Coalinga residents overrule the City Council

Oversight of the Coalinga police chief is back under the authority of the city manager -- for now.

City Council members passed an ordinance last month shifting that power to themselves. But a citizens group has gathered the required number of valid signatures from Coalinga voters to qualify an election referendum seeking to repeal the ordinance.

The group's action puts the council's desire to have the power over hiring and firing the police chief on hold. Police Chief Jerry Galvin's boss is once again City Manager Stephen Julian.

At their next meeting Sept. 20, council members will decide whether to repeal the ordinance or call for an election allowing voters to determine if the ordinance should be repealed, said Coalinga City Attorney Dale Bacigalupi.

That is the latest twist in a story that began in July when Julian was placed on administrative leave with pay. Julian, whose leave was lifted by the council on Aug. 30, said he was not given a reason for the reprimand, but believes it was because he refused to fire Galvin.

Council Member Mike Oxborrow said that is exactly what happened and that the ordinance, which he supported, would not have been adopted if Julian had fired Galvin, as the council instructed him to do.

"City managers are not imperial rulers," he said. "They are hired to work at the will of the majority of the council."

Oxborrow would not say specifically why the council wants to fire Galvin, citing confidentiality of personnel matters. Instead, he said a council majority decided that Galvin is not the right fit for Coalinga.

Mayor Trish Hill and Council Member Tony Garcia said they also still support the ordinance.

However, Council Member Ron Lander, who voted against the ordinance, said he and his council colleagues are not involved in daily city operations and are not qualified to hire and fire department heads.

"That's why you hire city managers," Lander said.

As for residents who spearheaded the referendum petition, they view the ordinance to shift oversight of the police chief from the city manager to the council as a switch in the city's form of government. They see this as a change from a general-law city to a charter city or strong-mayor form of government.

"They were doing this without voter input," said Coalinga resident Linda Balling, who was among 20 people or so circulating petitions.

Council members have "a very easy decision to make" on Sept. 20, Balling said, hoping that the council will repeal the ordinance.

"We don't want the city to be divided over this," Balling said.

If the council votes to put the referendum on the ballot, it can then decide to either hold a special election or combine it with the Feb. 5 primary.

Galvin said he appreciates the efforts of those behind the referendum.

"I'm doing the best job I can and I hope we can put this polarization in the community behind us and move forward," Galvin said.