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North Las Vegas city manager Qiong Liu fired ‘for cause’

The North Las Vegas City Council voted 4-1 Wednesday night to fire Qiong Liu as city manager, following a heated debate over whether she attempted to give herself a $30,000 retroactive raise just days before her departure.

Liu spent more than 90 minutes explaining how she tried to remedy what she believed was an accounting error, but the council was not swayed. Councilman Richard Cherchio cast the dissenting vote.

“It was fixed. They already had their mind made up before they even came to the council meeting,” Liu said afterward. “I had to tell the truth and get this out in the public, because this has been going on for so long.”

The council also rejected a proposed $613,000 severance package that would have covered a year’s worth of pay, pension payments and health insurance, on top of a $32,125 merit pay and pension increase that would have been retroactive to November 2015.

The council’s move to fire Liu “for cause,” rather than allowing her to resign, means the former city manager is only entitled to cash out $230,000 on accrued vacation, holiday and sick pay.

Liu, who stepped down Jan. 10 as the city’s chief executive, has five days to request a public hearing to appeal the council’s decision.

“You had some problems, and you didn’t know how to work them out, and apparently you decided to take that one your own,” Mayor John Lee told Liu. “I’m very, very sad for that because I wanted to keep moving forward with you.”

While responding to public records requests from the Las Vegas Review-Journal and others, city staffers came across “a series of troubling emails,” Deputy City Attorney Claudia Aguayo said.

The batch of messages included a Jan. 4 directive from Liu to process a form that would have allowed her to receive a $30,000 raise retroactive to November 2015 without the required City Council approval, Aguayo said.

Liu was appointed city manager in 2014 with a starting annual salary of $190,000. It was raised to $220,000 in 2016.

If Liu had succeeded in January, then the $30,000 retroactive raise would have been prorated to run from November 2015 to September 2016, city officials said.

Liu was not eligible for a retroactive raise because she froze pay increases for all appointed employees, including herself, as the city grappled with a $152 million deficit in 2015, Aguayo said.

But Liu said she volunteered to defer her raise to 2016, anticipating that it would be retroactive to November 2015.

Liu said she believed the $30,000 raise awarded in September 2016 included retroactive payments, but she didn’t catch the “administrative error” until recently because her paychecks are directly deposited into her bank account.

City officials noted that Liu prepared and signed the document, which had no mention of “retroactive” raises.

“You are very, very intelligent, and I admire you for that and I know how particular you are with matters like that, so it gives me a perception that something is hidden,” Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown told Liu. “It’s just not common practice for errors like that to occur.”

Law enforcement officials are conducting a separate investigation into the matter.

The council’s decision follows unusual events surrounding Liu’s departure last month and the promotion of interim City Manager Ryann Juden, a friend and associate of the mayor.

An argument over water infrastructure funding at Apex Industrial Park ended when Liu fired Juden on Jan. 9.

Afterward, she sent an email to the City Council stating that hiring Juden was “the biggest mistake that I have made” and characterizing his presence as bringing “widespread fear and damage” to City Hall.

Even though Liu rescinded her statements and reversed Juden’s firing the following day

An argument over water infrastructure funding at Apex Industrial Park ended when Liu fired Juden on Jan. 9.

Afterward, she sent an email to the City Council stating that hiring Juden was “the biggest mistake that I have made” and characterizing his presence as bringing “widespread fear and damage” to City Hall.

Even though Liu rescinded her statements, city officials said her actions violated personnel policies.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the retroactive raise for former North Las Vegas city manager Qiong Liu.

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