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October 18, 2018

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North Las Vegas council votes to terminate ex-city manager without pay

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Ricardo Torres-Cortez

Former North Las Vegas City Manager Qiong Liu appears at a city council meeting Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 | 11 p.m.

The North Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday terminated embattled former city manager Qiong Liu for cause and denied her proposed severance deal, which would have cost the city $613,000.

Liu has five calendar days to request a public hearing to appeal the decision, officials said. If requested, the hearing must be held 15 to 30 days from Wednesday's council meeting. She was on a self-imposed 30-day paid administrative leave through Feb. 9 to negotiate her departure from the city.

"We're not sure if that's really going to make any difference because they have the vote prefixed," Liu said about requesting a public hearing.

In a contentious back and forth, Liu addressed the city council, denying allegations that she pressured staff to give her a retroactive $30,000 pay raise and that she instructed IT staff not to share her work emails and files with city officials. She is also accused by the city of forging a document in order to get a raise.

She said her severance package was negotiated in “good faith” among Mayor John Lee, Liu and the city attorney.

But Lee said the discussions were informal and that officials never saw a full and formal proposed contract that would authorize the severance stipulations. "I don't have a vote; I only have an opinion," Lee said about the discussions he said he had with Liu.

“I don’t make the decisions here. There’s five other people here,” Lee said. “At this point in time we’re talking about a memorandum that we never saw.”

The allegations against Liu, which led to the resolution votes, surfaced in January when officials were responding to a public records request of her emails, officials said.

Her actions triggered an independent investigation by Fisher Phillips, an independent employment-law firm. She may have also violated state and federal law, and the “appropriate” authorities are investigating, officials said.

The fallout surrounding Liu started during a council meeting Jan. 3 when she was scheduled to receive a performance evaluation. The evaluation was tabled for the Jan. 17 meeting.

“I believe that it can only be explained as the city is irresponsible, unfair and unjustified,” Liu said in a statement regarding the city's actions toward her. “I believe that it can only be explained as recently surfacing retribution toward me for firing Mr. (Ryann) Juden on Jan. 9, 2018.”

On Jan. 9, Liu emailed a memo to members of the city council announcing Juden had been “fired effective immediately.” A day later, Liu rescinded the firing and decided to retire.

Juden, an assistant city manager since August 2015, has since been named acting North Las Vegas city manager.

While accessing Liu’s emails about Jan. 10, officials found a “series of troubling” messages, officials said.

One of the messages allegedly showed that Liu had instructed city IT staff to not allow anyone, including the city attorney’s office staff, to access the emails. On Wednesday night, Liu said there was "snooping around" on her emails, and she only asked to be given a heads-up when "legitimate" requests emerged.

“This was extremely unusual, to say the least,” officials wrote in an outline document. It is city policy that those work emails are public.

On Jan. 4, a day after the performance evaluation had originally been scheduled, an email showed that Liu had directed her staff to award her a retroactive pay raise — dating back to 2015 — of $30,000, increasing her salary from $190,000 to $220,000, officials said.

When staff raised questions about the increase, Liu "raised her voice" and instructed them to follow the order, the law firm's investigation determined. "The employee reported that it was clear to them, based on (her) words, tone and mannerisms, that if they did not press the pay increase and do so quickly, they would be fired."

Liu said she denied bullying employees into pushing this through. “I didn’t force anyone,” Liu said. “I didn’t ask anyone to cut me a check.”

The memorandum provided to her staff, which officials said Liu falsified, never was sent to the city council, the investigation determined. Liu said Wednesday that it "was not intentional" that the email was not sent and that she'd planned on sending it. "It was never an intent to sneak this through."

The raise request “didn’t make any sense,” officials wrote, because she’d received a pay increase in September 2016 that was amended into her contract.

Liu’s contract did not authorize such a raise, and it would have required formal action by the city council. This raise would have factored into her pension as well, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxpayers.

"There have been two outside firms that have looked at this — this is not a city vendetta against her," Lee said. "They both came back and said this is very suspect."

Liu also had ordered her staff to give her a merit raise for 2015, despite the fact that no appointed city employees had received a merit raise that year, an action that was authorized by Liu as a chief contract negotiator, officials said.

Liu had contended that she was owed a severance package that would total about $613,000, which would include: paying for her to stay on the city payroll for a year and the city allowing her to cash out accrued time out, while paying a year's worth of health insurance, officials said.

She started as a North Las Vegas executive in 2004 and was elevated to city manager in late 2014.

Despite being terminated for cause, Liu is still entitled to $231,000 in pay, officials said.