Making the Grade? : Administrator Challenged by Budget Crunch, Mixed Reviews From Council

Times Staff Writer

It's hard not to notice the small statue of Napoleon Bonaparte perched on a coffee table in City Administrator Ora Lampman's office.

The statue itself is not so extraordinary except that the face peering at visitors from the 2-foot-high figurine is not the visage of the legendary general.

Instead, sporting military garb and a telltale hand pressed against the breast, the sculpture bears the unmistakable grin of Lampman himself.

"I've always treasured that," said the 5-foot-5 Lampman, proudly posing next to the miniature general at a photographer's request. "The likeness is so good in the face."

To his supporters, the statuette is merely a joke about Lampman's height and his gregarious approach to managing Los Angeles County's sixth largest city. It was, in fact, a gift from a previous city administrator who used to refer affectionately to Lampman as "Little Napoleon."

But to some critics, displeased with the power they say Lampman has wielded, the statue bears more than just an artistic resemblance.

"Napoleon's philosophy was divide and conquer," said Councilwoman Donna Smith, perhaps Lampman's most vocal critic.

"Whether the statue has anything to do with the way he administers business at City Hall, I don't know, but this council is divided," Smith said. "And sometimes he just runs with the ball without knowing if that's what the council wants him to do or not."

Facing Biggest Challenge

In the wake of Smith's continuing criticism, Pomona's current fiscal crunch and a drunk driving charge to be decided next month, Lampman is facing what could be the biggest challenge in his tenure as city administrator.

Detractors say that Lampman has acted too independently, that he has failed to communicate all his actions to the council and that he has not presented council members with a full range of options for resolving what officials say is the worst financial crisis in Pomona's history.

His supporters, however, argue that Lampman is being unfairly blamed for problems beyond his control, that the criticism has hampered him from performing his duties effectively and that the council should not try to take over administrative functions.

When council members were asked in separate interviews to grade Lampman's performance at the $72,000-a-year job, the evaluations ranged from 'A-' to 'C-'. Councilman E.J. (Jay) Gaulding gave him an 'A-', Councilman Vernon Weigand gave him a 'B+', Mayor G. Stanton Selby gave him a 'B' and Smith and Vice Mayor Mark Nymeyer both gave him 'C-'s.

Those divisions could become particularly critical to Lampman, who faces a Citrus Municipal Court jury trial Aug. 12 on a drunk driving charge. He was arrested last December in a city vehicle.

Lampman, who is given unrestricted use of a city car, said that no matter what happens at his trial he already is "paying a penalty" because of publicity surrounding the incident.

Although most council members have said that the charge is unrelated to Lampman's performance as administrator, Selby said that public criticism could pressure the council into seeking a replacement for Lampman if he is convicted.

"It may become something that will force us to make a decision we don't want to make," Selby said. "If I was pushed into a corner, I might have to do something, because of my position, that professionally I wouldn't want to."

Indeed, the majority of the council considers Lampman to be a capable and competent administrator who too often is used as a scapegoat for problems in this city of 112,000.

Amiable Personality

Co-workers describe him as likable, good-humored and able to easily shrug off the criticism that they say comes with the turf.

"He has the smooth, easy, quiet personality that gets the job done without raising a lot of ruckus," Weigand said. "The greatest problem is he has too many would-be supervisors wanting to see things their own way."

But as the council began grappling several months ago with the 1986-87 budget, both Smith and Nymeyer charged that Lampman had failed to provide them with all the information necessary to resolve a projected $3.9-million shortfall.

"The staff, under the leadership of Mr. Lampman, could have provided us with many more options and alternatives," Nymeyer said. "The City Council is five laymen. . . .In a real sense, we rely on both sides of the coin being presented to us."

Narrow Approval

Divisions among council members may have reached their widest when the City Council, in a meeting interrupted by demands from the audience to oust Lampman, voted 3 to 2 last month to approve a controversial $37.9-million budget that called for a 57% increase in the local utility tax.

Smith, who blamed Lampman during that meeting for an apparent typographical error in the agenda that led her to believe a second vote would be taken on the utility-tax hike, since has made it clear that she has no confidence in Lampman's ability as an administrator.

When the council voted last week to authorize Lampman to sign the city's application for an American Express corporate credit card, Smith cast the lone dissenting vote because she said Lampman could not be trusted with the card.

"I've said it wouldn't bother me if he looked elsewhere for a job," Smith said in a recent interview. "I've told him, 'I don't trust you. The credibility isn't there.' "

Shrugs Off Criticism

However, the 55-year-old Lampman, who lives in Pomona with his wife, Carol, said that it is natural for someone in his position to come under fire.

"Sometimes you just get plain disgusted with some of the pettiness you have to deal with," Lampman said. "But even though you may hear a lot of criticism, there are many more people supportive of the job being done here."

The Pomona Progress Bulletin, a local newspaper, concurred in an editorial last Sunday that called Lampman a "highly competent" city administrator and accused Smith of being "dazzled by the call to battle."

Gaulding, who has seen all of Pomona's city administrators in action since the position was created nearly 40 years ago, said that he has no complaints about Lampman's performance.

Communication Problems

"Ora is a good city administrator," Gaulding said. "He listens well to people. He is a very positive asset to Pomona."

Selby, however, usually a supporter of Lampman's recommendations, said that he gave the city administrator a 'B' grade because had failed to establish a good relationship with the current council.

"There's something missing in Ora's ability to communicate," Selby said. "I have to find out what it is and see if it can be corrected."

Lampman himself lamented the breakdown in communication.

"If there's one area that I haven't met the right goal, it's not having a real close council-managerial relationship," Lampman said. "But I think we all have part of the blame to share on that."

Surrounded By Siblings

A middle child in a family of 11, Lampman found that growing up in Grand Forks, N.D., in the 1930s was no less challenging than his dealings with the council.

"One reason I've been able to weather some of these stormy times is that growing up as one of 11 children during the Depression had a lot to do with negotiating," said Lampman, himself the father of three.

Trained as a civil engineer, Lampman came to California in 1958 to take a job with the state Department of Highways. For four years he designed freeways, including the stretch of U. S. 605 from Whittier Boulevard to the San Bernardino Freeway.

In 1962, he accepted a job in the Pomona city engineer's office, designing all street, sewer and storm drain improvements in the city. Over the next 10 years Lampman received a rapid succession of promotions, from assistant city engineer to city engineer to director of public works, and finally in 1971, to his first term as city administrator.

'Out in the Open'

Fred Sharp, city administrator from 1949 until Lampman succeeded him, commissioned the Napoleon statue as a goodby present when Lampman left the city in 1973 to join his brother's private consulting firm.

"(Lampman) is not what you call just a bureaucrat calling the shots," Sharp said. "He's not just in the background behind the scenes. He's out in the open. Those are the things that make a person quite vulnerable."

After two years in the consulting business, Lampman was hired as public works director by the City of Burbank. Two years later, he was promoted to assistant city manager.

"I think he was a very able administrator," said George Nony, Burbank's current assistant city manager and a former planning director under Lampman's supervision. "He's the kind of person you'd like to work for. The man has the ability to get along with almost anybody."

Returned to Pomona

When Pomona offered him the city administrator's post again in 1978, Lampman, ready for another change, accepted the job.

"If I didn't enjoy it here, I'd be a basket case," he said. "We really are right in the hub of a tremendously livable area. The only thing holding it back is a kind of negativism that prevails among certain individuals."

Clay Bryant, a former councilman and one of Lampman's most persistent critics, for years has accused Lampman of mismanaging the city and manipulating the council.

"Lampman is not a manager," said Bryant, who has run unsuccessfully for mayor on three occasions. "He doesn't know how. He's a boy playing in a man's league."

Members of the administrative staff say that Lampman remains undaunted by such criticism.

"When I'm tense or upset, Ora tells me to relax and take a deep breath and says that it's all part of the challenge of being in the public sector," said Bridget Distelrath, an assistant to Lampman. "And I think he really believes that."

Optimistic thinking says Lampman, is what keeps him going.

"You could say I have somewhat of a rose-colored perspective on the world," Lampman said. "But that's because I know things can be a lot better."

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