By Alfredo Santana
BELL — The City Council has decided to terminate City Manager Paul Phillips after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed a one-count charge against him of alleged misappropriation of public funds in connection to a botched $20 million solar farm investment paid for by the city of Industry.
In a statement, the City Council said Phillip’s removal is to avoid distraction from the case that may had spilled into city duties, and that the alleged corruption case has nothing to do with his time working in Bell, or involved the municipality in any way.
Bell Police Chief Carlos Islas was picked as interim city manager until the city finalizes a search for a new permanent manager.
Mayor Alicia Romero said the decision to oust Phillips was in the best interest of the city and its residents.
“We are committed to holding public officials to the highest standard of integrity and our citizens should expect that,” she said.
“We were generally happy with Mr. Phillips’ services, but his legal situation is a distraction and creates distrust and controversy in the community which is disruptive to the things we are trying to accomplish,” Romero said. “Our number one priority will always be the important work the city of Bell is doing for our citizens and business.”
Attorney Michael Huston from Aleshire & Wynder, the legal firm that represents the city, said in an email that Islas was selected as the interim city manager because he “was considered the most qualified immediate replacement from staff.”
Huston added that the city has started the process of hiring a permanent city manager, and has not established a deadline for Islas’ replacement.
Islas did not return two phone calls or an email seeking comment about his temporary position.
Although the terms of Phillip’s termination were not immediately disclosed, the Pasadena Star News reported that City Attorney David Aleshire said that the City Council agreed to pay Phillips a severance package of $197,000 in divided payments this year and next to end his five-year contract on the condition that Phillips waived any legal claims pertaining to his dismissal.
Phillips worked as city manager in the city of Industry from 2015 to 2018, when he authorized payments to the San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, the solar company in charge of developing a 450-megawatt solar farm in 2,500 acres of land located near the intersecting borders of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.
The solar farm project never materialized. The district attorney’s office also filed charges against project developer William Barkett for bad accounting practices, embezzlement, altering invoices and stealing public funds.
In addition, former Republican state Sen. Frank Hill and attorney Anthony Bouza are charged with conflicting financial interests by collecting money from the city of Industry and guiding the project while having an undisclosed relationship with Barkett, the developer from San Diego.
Two days after he lost his job, Phillips pleaded not guilty to the misappropriation of public funds charges levied in August.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, Phillips’ defense attorney, said county prosecutors made a mistake filing a corruption charge against his client, and told reporters that it was not possible he was guilty of anything.
Phillips’ removal is particularly sensitive in Bell, a city still reeling from a major corruption scandal in 2010 that saw former City Administrator Robert Rizzo earning $1.5 million in total compensation while he held various jobs after a total of 400 registered voters passed a 2005 proposal that made the municipality a charter city.
The corruption was widespread. Most council members earned nearly $100,000 a year for part-time jobs that usually paid $400 stipends. Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay back nearly $9 million to the city in restitution.