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Troubled Compton fires third city manager in five years [Updated]

September 28, 2011 |  3:48 pm

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 the council fired his predecessor, Charles Evans, last fall.

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

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

[Updated at 3:48 p.m. Sept. 28:  Ewell, who grew up in Compton, said he sees taking the helm during troubled times as a way 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.]

Compton Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, who voted to fire Norfleet, said the council is bringing in Ewell on a temporary basis in hopes he'll spark a turnaround in the troubled city. Under law, Ewell may only work full time up to a year without sacrificing his pension benefits.

Arceneaux said the council majority was unhappy with the way Norfleet handled the budget, and particularly with his lack of communication with some council members during that 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 over the layoffs and is threatening a lawsuit over alleged Brown Act violations in the way the budget was adopted. The Brown Act is the state statute that defines when government meetings must be public.

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

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," he 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 the city manager for a problem that had been building long before he took over.


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Photo: Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin talks during a long budget discussion last July. The city's financial problems, in part, led to the decision to fire City Manager Willie Norfleet.

Credit:  Gina Ferazzi  / Los Angeles Times