By Paul Hughes
Dispatch Staff Writer
A former Fontana city manager who quit in a scandal involving members of his staff is the top contender to assume the same post here, sources said.
The City Council on Monday is to meet with Jack Ratelle in closed session for the second time since Dec. 20. Although two men were interviewed then, Ratelle is said to be the top choice for the job.
It could not be determined if a vote to appoint him will be taken Monday or delayed for further consideration.
Currently redevelopment director for the city of Hesperia, Ratelle was contacted about the job after talks broke down with former City Manager Wayne Lamoreaux to return to the position he resigned here in 1987.
In talking to different Barstow city staff and council members, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, it was learned that Ratelle is the top choice of at least three members of the panel and possibly more.
Ratelle was Fontana city manager from 1973 until 1987 but was forced to resign after the finance manager was charged with embezzling municipal funds and the motor pool supervisor was charged with stealing city vehicles, embezzlement and smuggling drugs. Both were sentenced to different prison terms.
Ratelle was never convicted or charged with any crime, but according to written reports at the time was held accountable as the top city employee.
The city of Fontana, subsequent to the former manager’s resignation and after paying him a $40,000 settlement for retirement benefits, sued him and a development company, charging that both conspired to take millions of dollars from Fontana through cost over-runs and building fraud during the construction of residential development.
The suit against Ratelle, filed in 1990, is still pending. The development company settled with the city for $32 million.
In a written report, Ratelle’s attorney dismissed the suit as a “witch hunt” against his client.
“Ratelle’s inclusion in this lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to make him a target of private political vendetta,” the attorney said in his response to the lawsuit.
In an interview Friday, Ratelle said he has nothing to hide and that he has welcomed the extensive background investigation done on him by police Chief Bob Sessions. He dismissed the allegations made against him in Fontana, saying they were manufactured by “one individual” he would not identify.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “The deeper they go, the further out they go, the better.”
City Councilwoman Helen Runyon said she does not believe Ratelle is to blame for the scandals the forced him to resign.
“Having had one interview with the so-called notorious Mr. Ratelle and having read every newspaper article published before, during and after the investigation, I find Mr. Ratelle not so notorious,” she said. “I have questions to ask him during a second interview Monday, which should enable me to make my decision by the first meeting in February.”
Runyon would not elaborate on what questions she will ask, or if she harbors any concern that would stand in the way of her supporting the prospective manager.
Another member of the Barstow council also aware of Fontana’s accusations against Ratelle acknowledged that he has no problems with him.
“There were several investigations but no charges were filed,” he said. “If there were charges to be made, they would have been made.”
Mayor Mal Wessel would not identify Ratelle as the top contender for the job, but said “a thorough investigation” is being done on one applicant. He said further that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
“We are presently in the process of conducting an extensive and thorough investigation on an individual to take the city manager position,” he said. “We don’t believe in political innuendos, we don’t believe in conviction prior to trial, we don’t believe in trial in the press.”
Nat Simon, mayor of Fontana from 1982 to 1990, said he was not one of the council members who wanted Ratelle out and added that the city was never able to prove he was responsible for the problems involving the development company or the troubles that befell members of his staff.
“What I hear from city staff is they have not been able to come up with proof that that he did anything wrong,” he said.
Simon called Rattele an experienced manager whose expertise is in redevelopment. He brought in much needed industry and with it jobs that paid better than minimum wage, Simon added.
“His theme song was, ‘What can we do to help you come into the city of Fontana,’” the former mayor said.
Telephone calls to other past and present Fontana City Council members were not returned.
Ratelle came to Fontana as manager in 1973 after earning a law degree from the University of San Diego Law School and serving as assistant city manager in Chula Vista. After his resignation from Fontana, Ratelle served as interim city manager in Blythe before accepting his current position in Hesperia.
Barstow has been without a permanent manager since March 2 of last year when Eric Ziegler resigned under pressure from three council members.
The council conducted a nationwide search for a replacement. Some 59 prospects applied for the job.
Neither Ratelle, nor the other prospect interviewed Dec. 20 were among the initial pool of applicants, but were contacted by City Attorney Henry Kraft about their interest in the job.