Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole resigned Friday, citing divisions over drastic budget cuts as the novel coronavirus decimates the wealthy beach city’s tax revenue.
With restaurants, bars and stores closed since mid-March to prevent the spread of the virus, city officials are projecting a $72-million shortfall through the end of June and an additional $154-million shortfall for the following year.
Cole has been under fire by some residents who accuse him of rushing to cut programs and city staff. A petition demanding the removal of Cole and Assistant City Manager Katie Lichtig received more than 2,800 signatures.
“Rick and Katie are abusing power while the city is in a state of emergency and also are exploiting the emergency to blame the coronavirus for the dire financial situation we are in,” the petition states.
In a farewell message on the city’s website, Cole said the huge budget shortfall created by the need for social distancing “puts us all in a nearly impossible situation.”
“It almost certainly will result in personnel reductions that will be devastating to the livelihoods of colleagues I’ve been proud to lead — and devastating to community services I’ve been committed to enhancing,” he wrote.
He said he was recognizing his own limits and offering to step down to facilitate the necessary top-to-bottom restructuring in city government.
He also cited the stress of serving as the city’s emergency service director during the coronavirus pandemic, which he said “has put me squarely in the line of fire for anyone dissatisfied with any aspect of the city’s response to the emergency.”
On Tuesday, the City Council approved an incentive plan for city workers to leave their jobs, with payouts of $10,000 or $15,000, depending on tenure.
Cole, who made more than $340,000 a year, had agreed to take a 20% pay cut.
The council scheduled a special meeting for Saturday afternoon to consider Cole’s resignation and appoint an interim city manager.
Mayor Kevin McKeown said he was grateful for Cole’s “steady hand” and guidance on issues including the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica and the closure of the city’s airport.
“He’s put his heart and soul into making Santa Monica a model of 21st century city government, data-driven, focused and collaborative,” McKeown said in a written statement. “I can only imagine how painful it is for him now to demonstrate, through his own action, how the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic collapse have made agonizing sacrifices inevitable, right up to the top office in City Hall.”
Cole has decades of experience in government, beginning as a city councilman in Pasadena and city manager in Azusa and Ventura. He was appointed Santa Monica city manager in 2015 after serving as a Los Angeles deputy mayor overseeing budget, innovation and technology.
In cities like Santa Monica, the city manager wields enormous power as the chief day-to-day administrator in charge of implementing the policies set by the elected city council.
Many residents have written to city officials, urging them not to cut programs such as youth sports and the city’s environmental sustainability office.
“It is hard to believe that a city as wealthy as Santa Monica has to make these cuts so abruptly,” wrote one resident, Amy Bentz. “Once the COVID-19 recession has passed we will still need these valuable programs to support our youth.”
At the Tuesday City Council meeting, held remotely, Cole warned of the financial hardship ahead. He noted that residents have creative ideas for avoiding cuts to popular programs, when many of those solutions are not possible due to bureaucratic constraints.
“If I have to be the scapegoat for this, if I have to be the teller of bad news, I am prepared to do that, because that’s my job under the charter,” he said. “That’s what you hired me to do.”