BELEN — A former city manager is suing the city of Belen claiming she was retaliated against after “getting in the mayor’s way” and reporting alleged illegal activity to the city council.
The complaint, filed by Leona Vigil, is seeking damages for emotional distress, lost employment and retirement benefits, attorneys’ fees and other actual damages. Vigil, who left her position as city manager in December, alleges she should have been protected under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act.
Filed on July 6 in the 13th Judicial District Court in Los Lunas by her attorney, Timothy White of the Valdez and White Law Firm, the complaint says Vigil has held various positions during her time with the city, including manager, community services director and deputy clerk — all without any discipline actions against her.
“The city cannot comment on this complaint since it is an ongoing litigation matter, but the city denies former city manager Leona Vigil’s claims in her complaint and will defend its legal position vigorously,” wrote Jun Roh, the city’s attorney, in a statement.
Vigil contends that in the spring of 2019, the city was undergoing an audit for the previous fiscal year. The auditors asked her if she had anything to report, specifically about a proposed project to renovate or repair sidewalks on Fifth Street, and about a birthday celebration for Judy Chicago.
The complaint says Vigil and other employees advised Mayor Jerah Cordova that the sidewalk project could not be done without violating the Americans With Disability Act, and the proposed expenditures for the Chicago event could violate the anti-donation clause.
Cordova allegedly resisted the advise and insisted the projects needed to be done “or someone was going to (be) held to account if they were not completed.”
It was then that Brian McBain, the former community services director, arranged for police and fire personnel support as well as city garbage collection to support the event.
During the audit process, the complaint contends, McBain was questioned by the auditors about the event, and said, “he was sick of the mayor’s unethical demands.” McBain later quit his position, stating he would “no longer violate any more laws.”
Vigil claims when she reported what she knew to the auditors, the mayor asked her to take a leave of absence “so that he could take over as ‘interim’ city manager.” Vigil also reported to the auditors that Cordova reportedly interferes with other city staff beyond the boundaries of his authority, and abused that power.
The auditors later determined the city was in violation of the anti-donation clause for the Judy Chicago event, and wasted public funds regarding the Fifth Street sidewalk project.
The lawsuit claims that as the municipal election was approaching in November 2019, the mayor “made plain he would not seek reappointment of Ms. Vigil as City Manager,” and in October 2019, Cordova confirmed with Vigil that he intended to find another manager. He reportedly told Vigil he had only two years left in office, and that he had a lot to do and she had “been in his way,” and he was “tired of the complaints.”
She alleges Cordova offered to let her resume her old job as the community services director, which, according to the lawsuit, Vigil accepted on the condition that the severance promised in her contract would be paid to her. She says the mayor and the city’s attorney verified several times she would be allowed to transfer to the position.
A day after the election, the lawsuit alleges, Cordova and Andrew DiCamillo, went to city hall and asked Vigil to print an employment contract for DiCamillo. Vigil reportedly told the mayor he couldn’t have two city managers at the same time, and asked for time to look over the contract and get a legal opinion.
Vigil claims the two men continued to discuss the provisions of the contract and both signed it in front of her. Immediately afterward, Vigil said she texted Councilor-elect Robert Noblin and told him about the contract; he then reported it to Councilor Frank Ortega. Later, Vigil notified the mayor the city councilors were upset at his signing the contract in violation of law and behind their back.
The contract was later rescinded, but DiCamillo was later appointed to the position of city manager in January 2020 on a 2-2 vote with Cordova voting in the affirmative to hire.
After the appointment, Vigil returned to the community services director, but a little more than two weeks later, she claims DiCamillo requested all the contracts she was working on be sent to his office. Vigil claims she was also advised that DiCamillo told the city’s IT director that he no longer reported to her, but directly to him.
She then asked the mayor if they were eliminating her position, and alleged Cordova denied it was happening but said DiCamillo was “reorganizing.”
Vigil’s lawsuit further alleges that a little more than a week later, she was sent an email stating there was no documentation that she had held the position of community services director, and the only comparable position would be deputy city clerk.
The demotion to deputy clerk included being stripped of all supervisory duties and her salary slashed from $21.40 to $16.10 per hour. According to the complaint, Vigil told DiCamillo that if the community services director had not been available, and approved by the mayor and city attorney, she would not have left the city manager position.
Vigil alleges the next day, DiCamillo froze all severance payments because of a forensic audit. Less than a week later, Vigil filed a formal complaint about the demotion, but HR director Angela Blake told her that she was not demoted.
A few days later during a meeting with DiCamillo, Vigil asked DiCamillo what happened with her position, to which he replied there was no proof she held the community services director position. Vigil allegedly told him there was proof, which he replied he didn’t see a need to see it.
When Vigil told DiCamillo she filed a complaint that she was being retaliated against by him, he allegedly got upset and asked why, to which she told him about reporting that he and the mayor signed an employment contract behind the councilors’ back, the complaint says.
Vigil claims when she again complained about her demotion and that she wanted to file a grievance, DiCamillo allegedly told her she was on probation and was not able to. According to the complaint, this was contrary to the city’s personnel policies and procedures, and that an “established reclassified employee” is on probation for six months but is entitled to a grievance process.
On Feb. 20, 2020, Blake informed Vigil that her employment had been terminated. When asked why three times, Blake told her she did not need to let her know, and a police officer escorted her out of the building.
DiCamillo resigned from the city manager position in June, stating he couldn’t work remotely from his home in Aztec.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.