Some 25 to 30 members of the city’s five employee associations — firefighters, dispatchers, public works, police officers and sergeants – filed into the Los Banos city council chambers and lined up along its back wall.
Though none addressed the council, their silent presence at the Oct. 4 city council meeting spoke volumes.
In their statement, read by business owners Ben and then Tia Hudson, the city’s labor associations dramatically detailed their dissatisfaction with city manager Josh Pinheiro.
There were allegations of city employees being sent out on overtime to clean up alleyways behind councilman Ken Lambert’s restaurant and behind the church where the city manager’s father is pastor. Since there were no emergencies, hazards or public safety issues, the work, they say, should have been done through normal channels.
They described Pinheiro trying to insert himself into public-safety situations, though he has no training.
The employees also spoke of Pinheiro’s inability to perform essential duties of a city manager. They asked the council to revoke the requirement for a 5-0 vote to dismiss Pinheiro and to consider his “continued employment,” saying he is “in over his head.”
Why didn’t any of the firefighters, police officers or others read the statement themselves? Citing examples of “egregious” and “unacceptable” acts of retaliation, they did not want to subject one of their coworkers to the anger of Pinheiro or council members.
Many currently working for the city of Los Banos and several who have left say fear of retaliation is a constant.
A former staff member said city hall has become “a very hostile environment” under Pinheiro. More than one staff member reported feeling “belittled” in front of co-workers by the city manager.
Members of the city’s labor associations said they were not consulted before the council voted to reclassify 13 mid-level jobs to “at-will,” meaning the city manager can unilaterally fire the person in those jobs. Councilmember Brett Jones said it will help the city manager “weed out” employees who are “coddling the government time clock,” saying “rarely do we see, sometimes, that enthusiasm to produce well for the city.”
But union members say this approach “seriously jeopardizes” the city’s ability to fill crucial positions with qualified candidates. “Who would risk their livelihood, family and home for the opportunity to be fired at the whim of a city manager?” the union employees’ letter asked.
The Express has found evidence of two applicants withdrawing from consideration for city jobs, one because the job was changed to “at-will” status and another because of concerns about the city manager.
Pinheiro was originally hired in October 2021, fired in June 2022, and rehired in February 2023 by a council with two new members – Mayor Paul Llanez and Doug Begonia Jr.
In speaking with the Express, a city staffer described Pinheiro as “eager to learn” when he was first hired in 2021. But when he returned in February, “he came back in with something to prove and a chip on his shoulder. So, it was guns a-blazing.”
Eight months into Pinheiro’s second tenure, the city’s problems, employee dissatisfaction and unhappiness among residents are mounting as frequently seen at council meetings.
Said resident Harriet Schott at the Oct. 4 meeting, “I work hard for my money, and I don’t appreciate this council taking my tax dollars and giving them to an unqualified city manager. … We’re upset. Very upset.”
Pinheiro gets away with it, said one employee, because he is “empowered to do anything he wants and there are no consequences. There’s no oversight. His bosses are his best friends.”
Refugio Llamas, who plans to run for mayor in 2024, said high-level departures “are leaving a void. They’re taking their knowledge of the city with them. That diminishes the city’s ability to effectively provide services to residents.”
Among those departures are four of six city department heads. Fire chief Mason Hurley was the first to go in 2021; he has not spoken publicly about his reasons. Finance director Sonya Williams was next in June 2022, and she also declined to explain why she left the job “I thought I was never going to leave.”
In August, police chief Gary Brizzee – who served as Los Banos interim city manager three times – announced he would retire upon completion of the city’s new police headquarters, expected this month. Brizzee, 50, is retiring after a 29-year public-safety career. While he declined to discuss his reasons, he confirmed he would not be eligible for his full public-service retirement benefits for another year.
In early September, public works director Nirorn Than – who was overseeing some 62 city projects – submitted his resignation. Last week, Than decided to use sick leave to depart earlier than planned. Pinheiro told many that Than was leaving because he was overworked. But it has been reported by others that Than had no difficulty managing the projects and is leaving to spend more time with his growing family.
From January 2022 through September 2023, there have been 49 departures from a staff of 180 – a 27 percent turnover. More are scheduled through the end of the year, according to information provided by the city under a Public Records Act request.
The public has noticed: “Look at all the good people who are quitting,” said Schott. “And why? Because of him (Pinheiro) … All of you who support him should resign right now.”
When asked if dissatisfaction with the city manager’s approach has contributed to departures, Mayor Llanez said: “I don’t believe that for a minute.”
During the Oct. 4 council meeting, he said he recently talked to members of the police officers and firefighters unions about changing those 13 jobs to at-will – but by then, he had already voted for the change.
During the Feb. 15 council meeting, Llanez said he had polled 96 people and found most were happy. Some employees use that statement as a punchline, unable to identify anyone polled by the mayor – except one who said he told the mayor he didn’t want Pinheiro to return.
What makes Pinheiro, 36, a difficult boss?
Some employees fear his outbursts. Another resented an “immature and unprofessional” approach to co-workers that includes criticism in front of others, loud outbursts and even shouts coming from his office when he is alone.
Since The Westside Express began this series of articles detailing concerns with city government, employees have reported Pinheiro embarking on a “witch hunt” to discover who might be in contact with The Express. Others report he has complained openly about employees he believes are talking to reporters.
Others lament his lack of expertise.
“I feel like I have to explain things at the elementary level,” said one staff member. “I come in with crayons and paper and draw them out – let me draw a picture for you. I shouldn’t have to do that.”
One employee said he lacks knowledge of most basic day-to-day municipal issues – “City Manager 101 stuff,” as the employee put it.
One was asked if there were ever unusual requests coming from the city manager and replied: “It’s constant.”
Another reported that the city manager often asks if city codes apply to everyone in the city or if some could be waived. They cannot.
At least two employees recounted being lectured in their areas of expertise by Pinheiro despite his never having worked in either area.
Pinheiro has failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
Those who support the city manager frequently point to a list of his accomplishments, including an accelerated tree trimming program, work on three important intersections and repainting the fire station.
Said a staff member: “It’s not because (Pinheiro’s) sitting in that chair, and we’ll magically get those projects done.”
But Mayor Llanez is satisfied with Pinheiro’s performance. He has justified the payment to Pinheiro by saying he would gladly pay $1.8 million “to get $50 million worth of projects done.” But the city’s annual capital improvement fund – the budget category for such projects — is only $26 million.
The “$50 million” is a number the mayor “pulled out of the sky,” said one employee.
Said councilwoman Deborah Lewis, “Those are just ridiculous numbers they pull off the top of their heads. And if you look at our state legislators, they have given grants and money to Merced and Madera – everybody but us. I think it’s because, recently, money we’ve received to do projects, we don’t get on it. We don’t start.”
Another staff member contrasted cosmetic fixes such as landscaping and painting with more necessary work that is not being completed. “My concern is that we’re growing exponentially as a city, and we’re having all these master developments coming in. What are we doing to focus on water supply? On waste water? How’s that all going to play out? … We should be looking at the bigger picture. I want somebody in my city to take care of what’s going to be critical for the future and not just the things that look good now.”
Plans for most municipal work is scheduled through a city’s strategic planning process, often a starting point for incoming city managers.
Said one staff member of Pinheiro: “He doesn’t understand master planning … or what it means to make this city better.”
Many staff members have specific knowledge gained over years of experience. But when they have tried to correct Pinheiro, they report he becomes irritable and sometimes berates those trying to provide accurate information. Said one employee: “What he says is always correct. And if you disagree with him, you’re always wrong.”
One employee recalled being told to stop raising objections “and just do what you’re told.” And when staff members correct Pinheiro, “he cuts off communication with you; he just stops talking to you.”
After one discussion, one staff member recalls Pinheiro losing his temper and shouting: “There are no right answers; we’re going to do it (my way), no discussion. That’s final.”
But “if you don’t disagree with him, he’ll treat you fine.”
Like members of the union, many management employees say they work in fear of retaliation, and do not trust city councilmembers to protect their interests. Mayor Llanez spoke of his door “never closing” to employees, but none of the employees who spoke to the Express feel Llanez will stand with them in disagreements with Pinheiro – whom Llanez was instrumental in rehiring.
Several staff members mentioned one thing in particular – Pinheiro’s reluctance to gather or consider community input. City hall staff report they have frequently heard him say the only input he needs is that of the city council.
“He doesn’t understand government; he has zero clue of how government works,” said one staff member. And he has “zero willingness to learn.”
About: Journalist Mike Dunbar formerly worked for The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. Jeff Hood, a former journalist, provided research and editing assistance for this report.