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The man in charge of city public works in Napa for a decade is off duty after an unknown complaint lodged by an employee, according to an internal memorandum.

Jacques LaRochelle, who has directed the Public Works department since 2008, is “away from the office” and his deputy Eric Whan will lead the department for the time being, interim City Manager Steve Potter wrote in an email sent to city workers Friday evening.

Late Tuesday, Potter confirmed LaRochelle’s absence and said it stems from “an allegation (into him) we are looking into,” without giving details. His return date is uncertain.

Potter’s Friday memo also announced the upcoming departure of Peter Pirnejad, whom Napa appointed assistant city manager in February. The newly created position placed him in charge of key city projects including the four-story city hall and police station envisioned for downtown First Street. “We have decided that now is a good time for a transition,” wrote Potter about the exit, which he said followed a Thursday discussion between the two men “about the direction of the City.”

After a transition period of one to two months, Pirnejad will remain available as a consultant to the city, Potter said Tuesday.

A message and email left for LaRochelle were not returned by 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.

Reached by telephone Tuesday morning, Pirnejad declined to speak about his job status, calling it “a personnel matter.”

City Council members Peter Mott, Jim Krider and Doris Gentry declined to speak about the reasons for Pirnejad’s exit or for LaRochelle’s leave, although Gentry, speaking earlier Tuesday, described the public works head as simply being “on pause” and expected him to return.

Calls to Mayor Jill Techel and Councilmember Scott Sedgley were not immediately returned. Sedgley and Gentry were traveling to Long Beach to represent Napa at a conference of the League of California Cities this week.

The Public Works department LaRochelle has directed for the past decade includes a maintenance operations wing whose chief Jefferson Folks retired July 30, after an email under the name Napa Watch Group alleged a pattern of bullying, intimidation, and sexually and racially offensive remarks at the city corporation yard he directed. An outside company hired by Napa has started investigating Folks’ workplace behavior and is expected to interview city staff members during the inquiry, a representative for Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said in August.

Pirnejad, a land-use specialist and public administrator for two decades, came to Napa to fill a newly created city post with wide oversight of both public works and development matters. His duties included keeping on track major city improvements such as the downtown civic center – which would unify city departments and create a nearby housing-retail-hotel complex at an estimated cost of $121 million – as well as improving the public parking system and guiding the Napa Pipe community south of town.

According to Potter’s message to staff members, Nancy Weiss, Napa’s former assistant city manager, will return as a contract worker to direct planning of the civic center, which is scheduled to break ground next year.

The downtown city hall project championed by Pirnejad has aimed at unifying city functions in one location on First Street, while converting Napa’s existing City Hall and police block on Second Street into a mixed-use development whose tax revenues would help cover the construction bonds. However, opposition has arisen in recent months from those questioning the plan’s cost and complexity, and some candidates in this November’s City Council election have called on Napa to suspend planning to look at other possible sites, perhaps for separate police and civic buildings.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.