In 2021, Josh Pinheiro was not included on a list of names compiled by a recruitment firm paid to find Los Banos a new city manager. When two city councilmembers asked that Pinheiro’s name be added, the recruitment firm declined.
“They said if we chose him, they would not be responsible,” said former councilmember Refugio Llamas. “He had no experience with anything. He wasn’t even an executive in any of his previous positions.”
How then did Pinheiro become the city manager of Los Banos not once, but twice?
Pinheiro was first hired as Los Banos city manager on October 6, 2021, as the council decided unanimously that his strong community ties outweighed a complete lack of public-service experience. Eight months later, Mayor Tom Faria and councilmembers Deborah Lewis and Llamas had seen enough, and, despite objections from councilmembers Ken Lambert and Brett Jones, voted 3-2 to terminate Pinheiro’s contract.
Eight months after that, in February 2023, a city council reshaped by an election rehired Pinheiro and gave him a raise. But the periods between Pinheiro’s October 2021 hiring, June 2022 firing and February 2023 rehiring were a whirlwind of intrigue that has continued.
There were: Formal complaints from city employees who dealt directly with Pinheiro. … Abrupt resignations of two of the city’s seven department heads. … The departure of dozens of city employees. … A threatening letter from Pinheiro’s lawyer, but no lawsuit. … An accusation within the letter that someone in city government was guilty of something requiring whistleblower protection for Pinheiro that remains unexplained. … A controversial payment of $1.8 million of taxpayer funds to Pinheiro, on a 4-1 council vote. … An unprecedented 3-1 council decision to require a 5-0 vote to terminate the city manager’s contract. … The imminent departure of two more department heads. … And now, complaints from within city departments that Pinheiro remains unfamiliar with city codes and the requirements of his job.
Pinheiro, 36, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Jones called Pinheiro’s firing “wrongful,” though Pinheiro’s contract plainly stated that his employment was entirely at the discretion of the council majority. He said Pinheiro was “caught in a political crossfire” without explaining the meaning. On social media, Jones said the council majority was “hiding behind” the Brown Act — the 70-year-old state law that prohibits officials from disclosing confidential information, including closed-session personnel discussions.
Lambert posted on his city council Facebook page that the firing was “without cause,” even though Pinheiro’s original contract did not require cause for termination and most city attorneys recommend against providing any reasons for such a dismissal.
Former councilman Llamas said Jones and Lambert were “gaslighting” the public with their comments, adding, “The hypocrisy was astounding.”
Soon after the firing, Lambert went on his city council Facebook page and urged residents to attend the next city council meeting to protest. In response, someone identifying himself as Doug Begonia wrote that it was time to break out the “Tiki torches.” In 2017, hundreds of Tiki torches were carried by white supremacists in what became a deadly “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Suggesting violence, said Llamas, is ugly but unsurprising. “They get personal; they get nasty.”
Why all this emotion over a public-service job?
City managers are the equivalent of Chief Executive Officers, or CEOs, in private business. While all city staff members report to the city manager, the city manager answers only to the council.
Pinheiro presides over an organization with 180 employees (when fully staffed), seven department heads and an annual budget of $110 million. His job includes oversight of everything from labor contracts to sewer systems to public safety and more.
“The city manager in a general law city is one of the most powerful positions in all of government,” said Faria, who served on the council for 15 years before stepping away in September 2022. “No councilman or mayor can give staff direction, only the city manager. He makes all the day-to-day decisions.”
The International City/County Management Association recommends city managers have a minimum of six years full-time experience in “increasingly responsible management” positions within public agencies before being elevated. Normally, that experience comes from working as head of a city department or as an assistant city manager.
For example, in announcing last week that Scott McBride will take over as Merced city manager, the city highlighted his work in the planning, development services and building departments and his “nearly three decades” working in city governments.
In another Valley city, the city manager said it took 15 years to rise to the top job. Asked if there are dangers in turning over a city to someone with no public experience, the city manager replied: “Absolutely. You cannot overestimate the requirements of reporting to state and federal departments —- of understanding government codes, tax-sharing agreements, the Brown Act, all sorts of things.”
Sources inside Los Banos city government report that Pinheiro remains unfamiliar with municipal and state codes, water and environmental regulations and reporting requirements among other things. They say he often resents any effort from staff to explain rules and regulations.
Fearful of retaliation, sources within city government do not want to be identified.
The city manager has “absolute authority to move, fire and hire staff outside of labor contracts,” said Faria. That authority became more significant on Sept. 6 when the council voted 4-1 to make 13 mid-level city jobs “at-will,” meaning the city manager can unilaterally fire those hired into them. Several of those jobs are currently vacant, and many worry they’ll remain vacant under the work conditions.
Being a city manager is a difficult job, which is why it pays well — $217,000 in Pinheiro’s case, with allowances for retirement, a cell phone and a car. That’s not out of line with city managers’ salaries in similar-sized cities — Ceres’ city manager gets $247,282, Atwater’s $222,052 and Turlock’s $203,135.
Because such salaries usually attract highly qualified applicants, most city councils consider it an investment in experience and productivity.
Human resource departments are usually involved in hiring from the start, confirming resumes and running backgrounds checks. But Jones told the Westside Express that in 2021 the council “purposely excluded our HR department from the background details of Josh.” Instead, the council relied on its recruitment firm to review Pinheiro’s background — the same firm that refused to include him on its list of qualified candidates.
Those who saw Pinheiro’s resume in 2021 say it listed jobs at Chipotle, Amazon and Tesla, but none in government.
In February 2023, the current city council got another list of applicants but decided not to interview any. Lambert, Jones, Doug Begonia Jr. and Llanez voted to rehire Pinheiro, with Lewis voting against it.
Pinheiro was reintroduced at a council meeting, where some members of the community and the council majority praised his personality, effectiveness, enthusiasm and local connections.
Mayor Llanez said, “it weighed heavily on me” that candidates suggested by the recruitment firm “were not from here,” even though the city’s interim finance director commutes over 300 miles to attend council meetings.
Others were dismayed over the rehiring, requesting their comments be read into the council minutes: “This entire situation is unethical,” read one. Another called the rehiring “ridiculous.” An anonymous city employee pleaded with the council not to rehire Pinheiro.
In a recent interview, Mayor Llanez brushed aside questions about Pinheiro’s lack of experience. “He’s our city manager now, so I don’t know why that question is even relevant. I’ve been an elected official for only seven months, and I don’t have people questioning me.”
As for Pinheiro’s threats to sue the city last year, Llanez was equally dismissive. “I don’t have concerns about anything he’s done. Those are after-the-fact concerns. I did my due diligence. We made the best decision possible and I’m happy with it.”
But the man who replaced Pinheiro in 2022 and managed Los Banos for nearly seven months remains incredulous that someone with so little public-service experience was hired: “What’s this guy bring to the table?” asked Greg Wellman, who also was city manager in Atwater and Oakdale and served as Merced County CEO.
Wellman said a far more qualified candidate was close at hand.
“They didn’t even need me over there,” said Wellman. “They had a perfectly competent guy in (police chief) Gary Brizzee. They didn’t even give him an interview. I still haven’t reconciled that one. Someone good enough to serve on an interim basis, and he doesn’t even get an interview?”
Llanez said Brizzee wasn’t considered because he didn’t apply in 2023. Brizzee confirmed that, but said he had applied in 2021. On Aug. 2, Brizzee announced he would retire once the new police department building is completed, expected in October. He said his decision is based on his age; he turned 50 in May.
Pinheiro’s rehiring is less disturbing to some than the council’s April 15 decision to repeal the city code that required only a simple council majority to fire the city manager – a process followed by most Valley cities.
Conditions for dismissal were removed from city code and put into Pinheiro’s contract, which now requires a 5-0 vote to fire him.
“What if the public is frustrated with the operations of the city?” asked Faria, who taught music and history in Los Banos for 37 years. “The only thing you have to hold over him is his job. No election can turn over more than three council members at a time because of the staggered elections. So, (residents) vote in two city councilmembers and a mayor, but that leaves two (councilmembers) behind.”
Llamas, who has announced his intention to run for mayor in 2024, called the decision “absolutely asinine” and “contrary to our form of government.”
Others are merely incredulous.
“When it comes to city politics, I steer clear,” said former Los Banos councilman and current Merced County Supervisor Scott Silveira. “I’m here to serve. But the 5-0 vote (to dismiss), that’s something I’ve never seen before. Looking through CSAC (California State Association of Counties), you just don’t see it.”
According to Pinheiro’s friend, councilmember Jones, the rehiring was done “to correct what three lousy officials did.” Requiring a unanimous vote to terminate will “prevent that from happening again.”
Faria, one of those three officials, offered a differing point of view: “With unanimous dismissal, the city manager just has to keep one councilmember happy to keep his job. Just one.”
NEXT: Los Banos a city of broken processes and promises.
Mike Dunbar has worked as a journalist in the San Joaquin Valley for 40 years. Jeff Hood, a former Valley journalist, provided research and editing assistance to this report.