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Council Scuttles Redevelopment of Beach Boulevard : City Administrator to Retire but Says Vote Not a Reason

Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach City Administrator Charles Thompson, who engineered redevelopment projects as a financing tool for downtown restoration, retired unexpectedly early Tuesday, immediately after his largest redevelopment proposal was rejected by the City Council.

Thompson said the timing of his retirement might hint that he was frustrated about losing the redevelopment vote, but it was actually pure coincidence.

Thompson, 59, who has served five cities in his 33 years of municipal employment, said that he was simply tired of his work and that the job was no longer a challenge.

On Tuesday, members of the council and his staff said they believed Thompson, whom they hailed as an “able, strong leader” and perhaps the “most knowledgeable city administrator” ever, was sincere about resigning for personal reasons.

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“I really want to get out of the office,” Thompson said. “It’s been a very, very good career, but I’d made up my mind that if I ever got to that point where I got up in the morning and felt, ‘God, I don’t want to go into the office,’ I would quit.

“Frankly, I began to feel that way of late,” he said.

Thompson did not give a specific retirement date, but said he would work for 60-90 days and let the council decide how to best handle the transition. He added that he might be interested in seeking another job as a consultant or doing some professional writing, but said he had not made up his mind.

“The first thing I think I’d like to do is just kind of rest a while,” he said.

Thompson’s admirers on the council credited him with having created an excellent, organized administration and praised his skills in defining the city’s problems and knowing how to resolve them.

“I think he was a great loss for the city,” Councilman Wes Bannister said. “I think he was probably the most knowledgeable city administrator that the city has ever had.”

Councilwoman Grace Winchell added: “He’s been an able strong leader of the city, really. He will probably be remembered for the beginning and strengthening of the redevelopment movement in the city.”

Even opponents of his Beach Boulevard redevelopment plan had kind words for Thompson.

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“I certainly don’t wish any ill to Mr. Thompson,” said Jim Lane, president of the Project Area Committee, which overwhelmingly opposed the redevelopment plan. “In many areas, he appeared to be an effective administrator.”

With Thompson’s departure, his favored but controversial method for financing restoration projects through redevelopment could face an uncertain future, some council members said. Redevelopment is controversial because it often involves cities taking some private property through eminent domain.

Four of the city’s seven council members were elected in November on differing platforms on future development. Some members said the search for a new administrator will force the council into a soul-searching examination of its philosophy on development.

“Whether there will be a change of direction, this is what the council has not really talked about,” said Winchell, who was elected in November on a no-growth campaign.

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“The new council has yet to truly clarify as a whole its position on some of the major decisions facing the city and this, perhaps, will crystallize that necessity.”

However, Bannister, a pro-development candidate who won election in November, said he hoped to avoid philosophical showdowns over Thompson’s replacement. Bannister said he hoped the council’s criteria for an administrator would be managerial skills, not philosophy, and he advocated promoting someone from within city government.

“I’m going to try to keep political goals and objectives out of it,” Bannister said, but added, “There are six other people on the council.”

Mayor Jack Kelly said that four of the seven council members favor redevelopment and that a requirement for the administrator’s job would likely be familiarity with the concept of redevelopment. If the city does not continue downtown restoration through redevelopment, he added, “The city is going to be in purgatory for another 35 years.”

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Assistant City Administrator Rich Barnard said that he had known of Thompson’s desire to retire but that he didn’t know the timing of it. Barnard said he was certain that Thompson’s retirement was not connected to the council’s vote against the Beach Boulevard plan early Tuesday.

“If there was any truth to that . . . he would have been walking around frustrated, but he hasn’t been that way,” Barnard said.

Thompson handed his retirement letter to all seven council members after a marathon council session ended at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday. He said he told the members to read the letter later, but three or four of them opened it right away.

The council had just voted 5-2 to reject his proposal to establish a redevelopment project on Beach Boulevard as a remedy for area traffic problems and to enhance the largely commercial five-mile strip.

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But after hearing strong community opposition, the council decided to try to solve the problems in other ways.

Thompson said Tuesday the vote had no role in his decision. “There are so many ups and downs in management that if you were to take any one of these things as personal losses . . . it would really get the best of you,” he said.

Thompson is the third-highest-paid city manager in Orange County--behind those in Anaheim and Santa Ana--receiving a salary and combination of car and expense allowance that totals about $105,000 a year. When he was hired by the city council in 1981 over about 100 other candidates, Thompson had been city manager of Downey for 11 years.


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