WATSONVILLE—Watsonville officials on Tuesday questioned the validity of an anonymous letter sent to various local media outlets and past and present city officials that accused City Manager Matt Huffaker of trying to bury an investigation into Fire Chief Rudy Lopez Sr.
Promoted to the department’s top spot last year, Lopez was recently under investigation after driving into an open trench at a late-night construction site off Freedom Boulevard while off duty.
Huffaker in a prepared statement on Tuesday said the City “completed a thorough investigation of the matter and took appropriate corrective action.”
“The City now considers the matter closed,” Huffaker said.
Lopez in a phone interview on Tuesday also said he did not give any credibility to the letter.
“I owned [the investigation] from the get-go,” he said. “That’s not me. That’s not who I am.”
Lopez, Huffaker and several other city representatives were scheduled to attend a Tuesday night community forum at Watsonville First United Methodist Church to advocate for the renewal of the half-cent sales tax first passed as Measure G in 2014, and now known as Measure Y.
The forum was expected to go on as scheduled.
In the anonymous letter, a person claiming to be a City of Watsonville construction worker said Lopez close to midnight on Nov. 22 rammed his city vehicle into an open trench in a barricaded construction site at the corner of Green Valley Road and Freedom Boulevard.
Lopez, according to the letter, “gunned it” to get out of the trench and sped off.
“One thing we’re always afraid of when working on a construction site especially at that time of night is getting hit by a DUI driver,” the letter read. “You never would expect the fire chief (sic) to be the one to put our (sic) life at risk.”
The letter claimed the incident was reported to Huffaker “immediately,” but that no action was taken for roughly a month.
“We know that if any of us workers or any normal citizen had crashed into a construction site, the police would have been called and we would be fired or arrested,” the letter read. “We feel Huffaker has covered this up to protect the Fire Chief, just because he’s one of the top city execs (sic) and because he’s trying to protect measure (sic) Y and get it passed.”
“It also shows that city management doesn’t care about us workers or our safety.”
Mayor Rebecca Garcia in a phone interview Tuesday called the letter’s claims a “total misconception.”
“It wasn’t a secret, we did not try to hide it,” Garcia said. “It was a personnel issue that had to follow the process and the protocol.”
Garcia said she was “happy” to have Lopez in his current role.
“All my interactions with him have been positive,” she said. “I’ve had one-on-one meetings with him in his office…He has a great vision for the community.”
Huffaker said no one at the site reported the incident to the Watsonville Police Department and that no one was injured. He also said the incident happened on Nov. 23, not Nov. 22 as the letter stated.
He did not answer questions asking for details of the investigation, saying that it was a personnel matter.
First hired by the WFD in 1990, Lopez was named Interim Fire Chief last April after his predecessor, Pablo Barreto, left the department for the same position in Salinas. Three months later he officially took over as Fire Chief and said his goal would be to build trust both with the community and with the department.
“People hold us up pretty high in our society, and we have a responsibility to do the best we can to meet those expectations, and to earn and maintain that trust,” he told this publication last year.
Lopez on Tuesday said the investigation was “behind us.”
“I take great pride in serving this community,” he said.
The news comes just a month before Watsonville voters will make a decision on fate of Measure Y, which will ask the public to continue to give additional funding to Watsonville’s fire and police departments.
Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada, the co-chair of the Measure Y campaign, said he had some worry whether the accusations would have an impact on the election. But he hoped voters would support the measure for all the “amazing things it’s done for the community.”
“I think the measure is greater than whoever it represents,” he said.
This time around the measure will also support the city’s Parks and Community Services Department, as 8 percent of the estimated $4 million raised through the tax will be used to repair and create safe places for young people. Police will receive 54 percent and fire will take the final 38 percent.
If approved, the tax would stay in place until it is repealed by voters.
It needs two-thirds voter approval.