Riverside leaders have hired Phaedra Norton, who has served as Merced’s city attorney for nearly three years, to handle the legal affairs of the largest parish in the Inland Empire.
She is scheduled to start on July 20, replacing former city attorney Gary Geuss, who was fired in the fall.
Riverside City Council voted 6-0 on Tuesday, June 22, with Councilor Chuck Conder absent during the discussion to hire Norton as city attorney. She will receive an annual salary of $ 286,000 plus benefits, a city report said, and she will oversee 39 employees, including 18 lawyers.
“Phaedra is an exceptional and outstanding lawyer,” said Councilor Jim Perry on Friday June 25th.
Riverside has been without a city attorney since the council fired Geuss in October, who has been on paid administrative leave since June 2, 2020.
Before joining Merced, Norton was Turlock’s city attorney.
There, then-Turlock City manager Gary Hampton accused her and two elected officials of creating a hostile work environment, which he claimed retired six weeks earlier than planned in 2017. Hampton accused Norton of asking him to start the process for choosing a new city manager, a position Norton had applied for, according to The Modesto Bee newspaper.
Turlock officials agreed to pay Hampton $ 39,000 to settle his claim, the Bee reported in March 2018. The settlement was posted in minutes of the February 14, 2018 meeting of Turlock City Council.
Norton was unavailable to comment on the claim late last week. Riverside spokesman Phil Pitchford said she had no intention of commenting on the matter.
“The city of Riverside was made aware of the problem during the recruitment process,” Pitchford wrote in an email. “It did not exclude Mrs. Norton from consideration.”
Perry said the city had done a thorough background research.
At the June 22 meeting, Perry said, “She has a lot of experience.”
Norton began her current position as an attorney with Merced in October 2018, according to a Riverside press release, after serving as an assistant city attorney in Stockton for about seven months. She was Turlock’s city attorney for a decade.
Norton has more than two decades of experience in local law, according to the announcement.
Riverside officials said Norton’s experience at Merced, which, like Riverside, is governed by its own charter, will prove invaluable. Perry said her experience with Central Valley water authorities will be especially helpful for Riverside as it provides water and electricity to its residents.
The Turlock claim, which named Norton and two elected officials, was filed on November 3, 2017.
In the lawsuit, Hampton alleged, “In May 2017, I was asked by an appointed city official to engage in unethical activities designed to undermine the 2017 City Manager recruitment / selection process, asking me to influence the selection of the next City Manager on behalf of the appointed officer who applied for the position. After I refused, I became the subject of constant criticism and character attacks from the officer’s appointed officers and supporters, which amounted to a hostile work environment. “
Hampton wrote that he reported the matter to Turlock’s elected officials in June 2017.
“My action was responded to with immediate bullying and retaliation …” he claimed, writing on the claim that he was “forced” to retire earlier than planned and lost his salary.
The Modesto Bee reported in January 2018 that Norton refused to reach out to Hampton to ask him to use his influence to increase their chances of becoming Turlock’s next city manager and getting revenge on him.
“I categorically and unequivocally deny the allegations set out in the complaint,” Norton told The Modesto Bee. Norton did not return any calls to their office on Friday, June 25th. Hampton, reached by phone on Monday June 28, declined to comment.
Riverside City Councilor Andy Melendrez said he and the other council members were made aware of the claim in an interview a few weeks ago, adding that Turlock officials praised it highly.
“I feel comfortable going forward,” said Melendrez. “She had an excellent interview. She has a good work ethic. And I think she’ll be a good city attorney for the city of Riverside. “
Councilor Chuck Conder said the Turlock claim had been brought to the council’s attention and reportedly dealt with promptly. However, Conder said he was not informed of the specific allegations in the lawsuit.
Riverside’s last city attorney, Geuss, filed a lawsuit against Riverside in November, days after his release.
Such claims are often precursors to legal proceedings. Geuss said Friday that he hadn’t filed a lawsuit because the city agreed to settle the claim and pay him severance pay and legal fees. A city official previously said Geuss received an annual salary of $ 354,888. His employment contract, which was limited to five years, provided for a severance payment in the amount of an annual salary in the event of early termination.
The sacking followed a protracted legal battle between the city and former Mayor Rusty Bailey, which Bailey eventually won over whether he had the opportunity to veto a contract with a top city official. Geuss said in February 2018 that Bailey did not have this authority according to the city charter.
Geuss attorney Bradley Gage said in November that city officials had given Geuss no reason to let him go, but Gage believed the firing was due to the veto battle.