By Brianna Vaccari
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Los Banos city leaders have decided to give a strong layer of job security to Joshua Pinheiro, the city manager who was fired last year but then won his job back in February along with a settlement payment of $1.8 million.
The council voted 3-1 on April 5 to approve a measure that means that, should it wish to fire Pinheiro again, doing so would require a unanimous vote. Mayor Paul Llanez was absent from the five-member council.
Pinheiro, 36, returned to the city manager’s role on Feb. 21, eight months after he was fired for reasons that were not disclosed. The 2022 firing was approved on a 3-2 vote but, following November elections, two of the members who voted to terminate his employment left the council.
Councilmember Deborah Lewis, the only one who voted to fire Pinheiro who is still on the council, cast the lone vote Wednesday against the measure. It repeals a municipal code section that said the city manager could be removed or suspended by a simple majority vote. Moving forward, terms for termination will be set in employment agreements — Pinheiro’s agreement requires a unanimous vote for termination.
Lewis said the change could have a sweeping impact on other at-will city employees hired by the city manager, such as directors of public works, parks and economic development.
“I’ve just never seen anything like this before, so I’m thoroughly disgusted,” Lewis said before the vote. “This is a nefarious act as far as I’m concerned.”
Councilmember Brett Jones criticized Pinheiro’s 2022 firing, saying the reason the council needed to change the municipal code was to “correct what three lousy city officials did.”
Pinheiro left the council chambers before the item was discussed and returned shortly before the final vote. He did not comment on the item during Wednesday’s public meeting and he did not respond to a voice message left for him Thursday by CVJC.
Pinheiro now is among the highest-paid city managers for such a small city in the Central Valley. According to his new four-year contract, he earns a base salary of $215,000. That equals that of City Manager Stephanie Dietz in Merced, which is Merced County’s seat and has nearly twice Los Banos’s population of 46,000.
During his previous nine-month stint, Pinheiro’s annual salary was $195,000. Pinheiro’s employment history is unclear: Councilmembers say the longtime Los Banos man has worked for companies such as Amazon and Tesla, but without offering specifics. Pinheiro does not have a listing on LinkedIn and Los Banos has not posted any information about his professional background.
After his termination, an attorney representing Pinheiro sent a demand notice alleging wrongful termination and retaliation, according to a city staff report. However, no records indicate a lawsuit was ever filed. The city council agreed to pay Pinheiro a $1.8 million settlement anyway, Pinheiro agreed not to sue the city, current and former council members or employees in connection with his first stint as city manager.
Over the last decade, Los Banos seemingly has had a revolving door in its city manager’s office, with Pinheiro among six people to have the assignment.