The city of Fresno has settled a wrongful termination claim alleging discrimination made by its longtime city clerk.
Last June, the Fresno City Council fired Yvonne Spence on a 4-3 vote. Spence, who is Black, served as the clerk for nine years, from 2012 to her 2021 dismissal. Per the city charter, the city clerk and city attorney are controlled by the city council. All other department heads report to the city manager.
Spence filed a demand letter, stating her firing was discriminatory and unlawful. The settlement agreement was signed by then-City Council President Luis Chavez, City Attorney Douglas Sloan, and Spence in November 2021.
Usually, settlements of this magnitude are voted on by the entire city council in closed session and publicly announced.
There is no record of a vote on the settlement in the city council’s preceding meetings. Councilmembers last discussed the issue in closed session on Oct. 14, 2021. No announcement was made that day whether the council had settled the matter.
The settlement was for $250,000. In return, Spence agreed not to sue the city. Under the agreement, the city also rescinded Spence’s termination, allowing her to voluntarily retire and collect six months’ severance pay. At the time she was dismissed, Spence earned $140,000 in base salary.
Spence and the city also agreed to a “non-disparagement” agreement where “neither party will not speak adversely about the other party.”
The settlement was made on Nov. 3, 2021, but not revealed until GV Wire recently asked city leaders for an update.
Spence: I Was Embarrassed
Speaking to GV Wire, Spence, 62, says she may never know the reason why she was terminated. No city council member has publicly explained his or her vote.
“The experience was very embarrassing for me. It was very embarrassing for me. I pride myself on doing a good job. So to have that happen was very embarrassing and unexpected,” Spence said.
In the interim, Spence did contract work for a company that helps other cities with its city clerk needs.
Spence is now retired and moving soon to the Phoenix area.
“I’m looking forward to traveling with my family and just relaxing. No stress,” Spence said.
Case never went to court
The settlement happened without Spence filing an action in court.
The city council voted on June 10, 2021, in closed session to fire Spence. Councilmembers Miguel Arias, Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza, and Esmeralda Soria voted to dismiss Spence; Luis Chavez, Mike Karbassi, and Tyler Maxwell opposed the move.
However, the decision wasn’t publicly announced until four days later at the start of a budget hearing.
No reason was given at the time, nor ever revealed about why the city fired Spence. Moreover, the settlement agreement does not discuss why Spence was let go.
According to the settlement, Spence, through her attorney, sent the city a demand letter, alleging discrimination and wrongful termination.
Spence alleged the city “acted improperly in terminating her employment and that the termination was the result of unlawful conduct.” The city countered that Spence was an at-will employee and the city council acted properly.
In July 2021, several members of the community held a news conference at City Hall, criticizing the firing of Spence and questioning whether it was racially motivated.
“It was very touching to me because some of the people didn’t even know me, but they were looking at the big picture of what happened. I was actually very proud that they supported me that way. It was very emotional because it just showed me that the community does care and they see things and they come and support. I was glad to have that support,” Spence said.