Johnson and Garino

Nogales City Manager Eddie Johnson, left, and Mayor Arturo Garino.

In a recent memo to the city’s elected officials, Nogales City Manager Eddie Johnson asserted that the mayor tried to sideline him, overrule his hiring decisions and sow rumors about a hostile work environment in a municipal department.

Johnson, who started in the position just two months ago, wrote in the March 16 memorandum that Mayor Arturo Garino’s actions violated the city charter and could constitute “criminal activity.”

The NI was given a copy of the memo by an anonymous source, and Johnson shared it via email with a number of department heads on March 17.

The City of Nogales is operated with a city manager form of government, which means the mayor and council hire a city manager, set the budget and enact ordinances, but the day-to-day administration of city affairs is left to the manager. Johnson’s complaints center around the allegation that Garino – the city’s top elected official – tried to meddle in city business.

In a phone call with the NI, Garino denied some of the allegations, said others didn’t constitute anything inappropriate, and discarded the assertion that his actions were criminal or in violation of city rules. “I understand the city charter,” he said.

Garino also sought to assert his authority over Johnson at City Hall.

“He works for the mayor and council, OK?” Garino said. “He works for the mayor and council.”

Johnson’s memo details a series of escalating incidents beginning in February that culminated with Garino appointing Deputy City Manager John Kissinger as temporary manager on March 13.

Johnson wrote that the mayor’s justification for appointing a temporary replacement for him wasn’t clear; Garino asserted that Johnson had been incommunicado during an intense period of activity during the week of March 9 as the city began formulating a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The document highlights a growing rift between Johnson, who started as the new city manager in January after leaving an administrative position at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, and Garino and Kissinger, two City Hall veterans who have largely worked in lockstep since Garino started his second, non-consecutive mayoral term in January 2019.

That divide was on full display in the city’s evolving response to the coronavirus outbreak over the past week.

On March 13, the same day that Garino appointed Kissinger as the temporary city manager, the mayor’s assistant issued a news release related to the outbreak stating that Garino was “taking the lead to protect the community.”

Then, this Wednesday, the city sent a news release stating that Johnson “took action to protect city workers.” The next day, Johnson issued another statement saying that he’d formed an emergency response team consisting of himself, the deputy city manager, the fire and police chiefs and the director of the housing authority – a job filled by someone Johnson had previously worked with and hired recently to the city.

Garino wasn’t named as a member of the team.

During a special meeting on Saturday, the city took its first official action in regard to the pandemic – declaring a state of emergency and enacting an ordinance to fall in line with business restrictions announced Thursday by Gov. Doug Ducey. A follow-up news release announcing the move had Johnson’s and Kissinger’s names at the top, and was issued under the name of the City of Nogales City Manager’s Office and Emergency Response Team.

And while the news release referred to the actions approved by “the mayor and council,” Garino was not mentioned by name.

Growing problems

According to the memorandum, Johnson was only a few weeks into his new role when the issues began.

At a Feb. 14 meeting with the city’s public works team regarding paving and infrastructure, Johnson wrote, he was “surprised” to find Public Works Director Alejandro Barcenas absent and the mayor leading the meeting.

Garino, who once served as the city’s public works director, told the NI he thought Barcenas had been present and said it wasn’t inappropriate for the mayor to be running the session.

“When I have the city manager and the deputy city manager in the meeting, I can be in the meeting and I can be conducting business there,” he said.

Between Feb. 17 and Feb. 21, Johnson wrote, Garino said that two employees in the finance department had asked to speak with him about workplace issues and the mayor later sent a letter indicating that there was a “hostile work environment” in the department. But, according to the memo, when Johnson spoke to one of the finance department employees, the person denied that there was a hostile environment. In fact, they reportedly told Johnson, it was the mayor who had initiated contact with the finance department employees regarding their work environment.

Garino insisted the employees came to him on five different occasions to raise the issues.

And in late February, after Johnson hired a former colleague from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to be the director of the Nogales Housing Authority, Garino pressured him – through City Attorney Mike Massee – to “undo” the hire, the memo alleges.

Johnson asserted that the city charter gives the city manager the sole right to hire and fire city department heads.

Garino said that the new hire, Micah Gaudet, was not qualified for the job and told the NI that Johnson was “doing the good-old-boy thing” by bringing on a former colleague.

Johnson also wrote that Garino had told him “on numerous occasions… that the persons currently in the positions of public works director, finance director and HR director should not be in those positions.”

“At no time did I do that,” Garino said of the allegation that he had told Johnson to remove the directors. The mayor maintained that he told Johnson the directors of those departments, like Gaudet, had been hired without proper qualifications.

Then, beginning March 2, Johnson took a week of sick leave due to a stomach virus, he wrote. The following week, he worked on Monday and Tuesday, March 9-10, then left Nogales to spend time with his daughter, who was on spring break.

During the second half of the week, Johnson wrote in the memo, he was in “constant communication with the deputy city manager,” formulating a city response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Garino asserted that Johnson wasn’t working with the mayor. “He’s not calling me, he’s not doing anything,” he told the NI.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 13, the mayor appointed Kissinger as the temporary city manager, reportedly without telling Johnson.

“I never received any communication of the temporary city manager appointment memo from the Mayor’s Office and only found out when the deputy city manager sent me a copy of the memo,” Johnson wrote.

In a phone conversation on Thursday, Garino said that he hadn’t withdrawn the temporary appointment, but was working under the assumption that Johnson assumed his duties again when he returned to the office on Monday, March 16.

That’s the same date that Johnson penned the memo, which lists the mayor and council, as well as Kissinger and Massee, as recipients. It was later sent by email to the directors of 11 city departments, including public works, finance, human resources and the housing authority.

No confidence

Johnson wrote that the working environment at the city “limits the effectiveness in which I can carry out (the duties of the city manager).”

Asked on Thursday how much trust he had in Johnson as the city manager, Garino was clear: “None.”

It’s a far cry from the praise that the two traded back in January, shortly after Johnson was hired.

At the time, Johnson told the NI that, for him, it would be “an honor to serve the citizens of Nogales and the city council and I really look forward to making a difference.” And Garino said, “I’ve got a good feeling about him (Johnson)… I think he’s going to do well.”

Still, despite their mutual grievances, Johnson and Garino appeared prepared to accept an uneasy peace at City Hall.

Johnson stated in the memo that he’s “confident we can create a positive work environment where we are following the city charter.”

And Garino told the NI he could “of course” keep working with Johnson, adding that he planned to communicate via memos to ensure there is a paper trail recording their interactions.

Going forward, the arrangement may revolve around Kissinger, the deputy city manager.

“I have noticed that the mayor and council communicate more with the deputy city manager and completely understand why this occurs,” Johnson wrote in the memo.

Kissinger is a longtime Garino ally who has carved out a seemingly untouchable role for himself at City Hall. After the council eliminated his job in 2016 – the deputy city manager position was created for and has only been held by Kissinger – he sued the city, walked away with a six-figure settlement and then got his job back.

“We can continue this practice, though not the most ideal, but understand it is likely more familiar and comfortable to everyone,” Johnson wrote of the council’s tendency to communicate through Kissinger. “So no one is pushed out of their comfort zone, I think we can still operate effectively in this manner.”

Johnson also used the memo to issue a warning should Garino or anyone else at City Hall try to force him out.

“Should you (the mayor and council) feel that I am not performing my duties effectively and believe you have decided to release me “for cause” and a 5/7 vote of the council, removal is certainly a decision within your purview,” Johnson wrote. But, he added, “My insistence on everyone following the mandates of the city charter does not constitute ‘cause.’”

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