This is not the way Dave Elbaum would have written the script for his new role as city manager of Dana Point.
As Elbaum, 40, took over his new post Friday, he arrived in a city whose controversial year-old General Plan has been challenged by a grass-roots group and is now in the hands of an appellate court; where two council members are facing a recall and a third is concerned that she could be next; where it is no secret his selection was approved by a slim 3-2 council vote.
Is this any way to start a new job?
"The council kept asking me that during my interviews," said a candid Elbaum with a smile. "They kept saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' But I think if you get into city government you have to know it's a tough profession. You have to learn to not take things personally, be as nonpolitical as you can possibly be and hope the community leadership can deal with the issues."
He learned these lessons firsthand as chief administrator of Santa Barbara County from 1985 to 1988. Three years into the stint he became embroiled in a county grand jury investigation after it was revealed county employees had been overcharged more than $800,000 for their health insurance.
Elbaum was accused of failing to report the error for more than a year. Elbaum, however, says he ordered the county auditor early on to rectify the mix-up, but the woman failed to follow up on his request.
Although Elbaum and others were cleared of any wrongdoing and the employees got all their money back, the county employee union called for his resignation and Elbaum left shortly thereafter, in November, 1988.
"That clearly played a major role in his leaving," said Greg Cross, a union spokesman. "The issue raised serious doubts in the employees' minds and made it difficult for him to continue here. The county employees lost any confidence they had in him."
Santa Barbara County Supervisor Bill Wallace disputes Cross' interpretation of Elbaum's departure. Wallace, now the chairman of the board and a 16-year supervisor, praised the work Elbaum did for the county and said he was nicknamed "Magic" for his accounting acumen.
"The policy-makers never lost confidence in Dave, I think anybody would tell you that," Wallace said. "The incident was certainly not a deciding factor in his leaving. There was some duress over it . . . but Mr. Elbaum was not under any pressure to leave and was not being asked to leave."
Elbaum can now shrug off that incident and other squabbles as learning experiences that go with the territory of being a top county administrator.
"I was very young, only 33, when I moved up from assistant to chief administrative officer," Elbaum said. "It's a tough job to cut your teeth on and I learned a lot. I probably should have fired some people faster, but I made this mistake of sticking with them and trying to work with them."
Thinking back, Elbaum said he thinks he could have stayed on that job and "hunkered down," but it finally "got to the point where I didn't want to keep fighting the battles."
When a job in the private sector came along, Elbaum took it and moved his family to Irvine, where they still live. Elbaum has always lived in California, having grown up in Malibu and Santa Monica and graduated from Santa Monica High School and UC Berkeley.
Now he is considering a move to Dana Point after winning former City Manager William O. Talley's job out of a field of 232 applicants. Elbaum said he is not surprised the job as chief administrator in this coastal city of 32,000 people was so coveted.
"Here we have a relatively small staff in a coastal community with no police department and no fire department," Elbaum said. "Plus, this is an upscale community that is still affordable."
With the job comes a salary of $92,000 annually plus benefits (approximately $25,000 a year less than Talley made) and a $450 monthly car allowance. Along with the perks come some high expectations.
"I'm looking for him to hit the ground running," City Councilman Mike Eggers said. "There is no honeymoon for a city manager. If he hits a wall the separation will be quick and the settlement conference short."
Elbaum said he understands what he is up against. He said the troubles Dana Point community leaders are experiencing follow a familiar pattern. After cityhood usually comes a short grace period followed by a time of controversy, he said.
Such has been the case in the nearly 4-year-old city of Dana Point, where recent local battles have boiled over an ill-fated redevelopment agency and the city's first General Plan, often criticized as too resort-oriented for a community that wants to retain its small-town character. A local movement to put the plan up to a citywide vote was rejected by the council and it is now up to the court to determine if a referendum should be held.
Out of that unrest came the election of a new councilman, William Ossenmacher, in June.
"I don't think the council really appreciated the honeymoon they've enjoyed for the first two or three years," Elbaum said. "But once you start making some tough decisions, controversies develop. There are always two sides to every issue."
Elbaum's immediate plans are to get out in the community and "get to know people in different organizations. I want to make them feel comfortable dealing with me," he said.
As for the controversial topic of redevelopment, Elbaum said he understands the threat it poses for some people in the community and he thinks the City Council should take a look at various options.
"I think we should make sure everyone is up on the pros and cons of redevelopment and make a decision to keep (the redevelopment agency) alive or terminate it," Elbaum said.
Dana Point's New City Manager
Name: Dave Elbaum
Home: Irvine, but considering a move to Dana Point.
Salary: $92,000 a year, plus benefits and $450-a-month car allowance.
Background: Grew up in Malibu and Santa Monica, graduated from Santa Monica High School and UC Berkeley.
Experience: Santa Barbara County chief administrator, 1985-88. Since then, has worked in private sector.
Future: Selected by a divided City Council from 232 applicants, Elbaum begins work as Dana Point comes down from the heady days of incorporation in 1988. Two council members and perhaps a third face a recall and the year-old General Plan has been bedeviled by controversy.
Source: Times staff reports