Churchill addressed the City Council and the community, reading a statement at the beginning of the regular meeting of the council.
“The most recent incidents were at the end of official Tracy business where I stayed an extra day and had my family with me,” Churchill said. “When we checked out of the hotel, I should have put the charges on two credit cards.”
Using city cards for personal charges is against city policy. The city manager said he reimbursed the city within days of the charge.
The issue was made public during the regular City Council meeting Jan. 7 by business owner David Helm, who had obtained some financial records about charges in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013.
“This is a community asset. Credit is a community asset. Why is our city manager using a credit card issued by the city of Tracy?” Helm said in an interview Jan. 8.
The Tracy Press filed a public records request with the city in January seeking information about every member of the city staff with a city-issued credit card, including Churchill. The city is still compiling those records, and the Press will report later upon the results of the inquiry, including how Churchill used his card.
The city manager did admit, during an interview Jan. 8 and again Tuesday, that he used the credit card to pay a bill for a hotel stay, a dentist and a veterinarian.
“All those situations were properly reviewed and adjudicated by the City Council, who dealt with me through my evaluation at a personnel level,” Churchill said Jan. 8.
The Press on Friday obtained parts of Churchill’s personnel file relating to the credit card misuse. Mayor Brent Ives confirmed that the material was from the city manager’s personnel records.
In a letter dated Dec. 17, the council reprimanded Churchill for using his card for personal charges at an unspecified time in 2013. Churchill had also received a reprimand Aug. 22, 2012, for credit card misuse after independent auditor Moss, Levy & Hartzheim LLP found personal charges and told the city attorney.
In the December reprimand, council members directed the city manager to take a week of administrative leave, surrender his city-issued credit card for a year and forfeit a salary increase in 2014.
“It was a lapse of judgment not to clearly understand the policy,” Ives said in an interview Wednesday. “That is poor judgment, to have missed such an important part of what the public everywhere is concerned about, in any jurisdiction — the use of public money.”
Ives told Helm during the Jan. 7 council meeting that the city was made financially whole and that Churchill had paid all of the debt from his personal charges. On Wednesday, the mayor reiterated that he believed the matter was not criminal.
“If for one minute we thought there was any deliberate attempt or any truly devious attempt to try and defraud the city, then we would have certainly taken other actions,” Ives said.
In fact, the City Council judged Churchill’s performance as city manager “exceptional” on his 2013 job evaluation. The lowest score in the document was for good judgment, which the council rated “conditional,” defined by the document as requiring improvement.
Ives said the document reflected the body of Churchill’s work on the city’s behalf.
“So we rated him low on judgment. Then we went on to say, ‘Look, in other places, Leon, you are absolutely stellar,’” Ives said. “By virtue of his overall performance, we were willing to not overlook (this lapse), but deal with it with (him). The big performance of Leon, because he’s been able to make us business friendly, we are seeing our way out of this financially difficult time with a bright future ahead.”
Helm remained unconvinced after learning about the performance evaluation and believes the city is trying to sweep wrongdoing under the rug.
“If you were my employee and I gave you a company credit card to use for business and you were running up thousands of dollars’ worth of personal charges, and I found out about it, I’d fire you,” Helm said.
Ives, who said the city coffers and general fund were never put at risk by the charges, added that the level of transparency about what happened was not sinister.
“We’re not trying to hide anything, but we can’t overexpose anything, either, because we have legal boundaries on both sides,” he said.
Ives also said Churchill’s public admission should reassure the community.
“That could not have been easy for a chief executive in a city, to be able to come out and say, ‘Look, here’s what I’ve done.’ That to me speaks to his character,” the mayor said. “The council has done our best to work through and, with a very valuable individual, to fix maybe a blind spot, or lack of judgment, and to move on.”
For his part, Churchill expressed contrition Tuesday and asked the community for forgiveness.
“I hope you will allow me the opportunity to restore and build that faith in me also,” he said. “My work is always in the best interests of the city of Tracy. I try to help this community get better every day. The city of Tracy is poised for continued success, and I work every day on behalf of the people who live and work here.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830-4231.