On-the-job training counted when it came to choosing a successor to Ken Frank, Laguna's longtime city manager who retired in 2010.
John Pietig was selected from a field of more than 100 applicants, none of whom could match his record of achievement on behalf of Laguna Beach. He had spent almost 10 years as Frank's chief assistant when Frank announced his retirement. That experience was a determining factor in the council's decision to hire him, despite rumblings from some quarters that a complete change was in order.
"It only made sense to hire John after 10 years on the job," said Councilman Kelly Boyd, who announced his support for Pietig even before a national search was underway. "It made for a smoother transition. John knew the management, the personnel and who he is dealing with on the City Council.
"He has done a great job, considering everything that was thrown at him in this first year."
Councilwoman Toni Iseman has joked that Pietig was city manager for about 12 minutes when Laguna was hit hard by winter rains on Dec. 22, 2010.
Actually, it was 22 days.
Laguna Canyon resident Ann Quilter remembers it well.
"I can't believe how incredible it felt to walk down my driveway and there was our brand-new city manager slogging through the mud, supervising Caltrans and listening to people," said Quilter. "He was very hands-on and most impressive. It was most comforting."
Boyd said Pietig's commitment to the community was also a factor in his selection to succeed Frank.
"Laguna Beach has always been a special place for [my wife] Peggy and me, so when the opportunity for the job of assistant city manager came, we were happy to take it," Pietig said.
"When I first came here, it was a lateral career move, but it was to a special community, and that was what we wanted."
Many insiders believe that Frank groomed Pietig to be his replacement, handing him some of the city's trickiest projects, not the least of which was working with the California Coastal Commission — whose relationship with Laguna has been strained in the past — on the construction of the lifeguard headquarters and replacement of the sewage lift station on Main Beach.
Pietig appears to have built a bridge over the rift with the commission. His efforts were rewarded with approval this year of the Main Beach project. The commission also approved the city's updated land use element, for which Pietig declined to take much credit.
"Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours have been spent on this project," Pietig said. "A lot of credit goes to Norm Grossman and Linda Dietrich, the Planning Commission subcommittee chairs, and the city staff."
However, Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger praised Pietig, as well as the city staff, for taking the initiative to resolve issues before the updated element went before the commission.
Other significant hot potatoes lobbed by Frank into Pietig's lap:
•Negotiations to keep a critical-care hospital with 24-hour emergency service in town, which has earned him the frequently expressed admiration of Mayor Jane Egly.
•Development of a master plan to improve the city's sewer system.
•The contentious relocation of the city corporation yard to ACT V and its construction in conjunction with refurbished public parking — with the Village Entrance project still in limbo.
•Reconstruction of Laguna's iconic Heisler Park.
•Establishment of the Alternative Sleeping Location for Laguna's homeless population.
•Renovation of the Animal Shelter.
"One of the benefits of hiring from within is that you get someone with experience with disasters like the Bluebird Canyon landslide and the major sewer spill on Glenneyre," Frank said. "He hit the ground running."
In his first year, Pietig has managed to negotiate contracts with Laguna Beach firefighters and Police Department employees, which reduced expenditures by a hefty amount.
He prepared a $67-million budget that neither tapped into the city's untouched recession-smoothing account nor a mandated 10% reserve fund.
He also oversaw the transition of daytime services at the Alternative Sleeping Location to the Friendship Shelter when the Laguna Relief and Resource Center pulled out.
When the search for Frank's successor was underway, voices were raised in favor of a complete disconnect from the previous leadership.
"I think John's conduct this year has allayed those concerns," said Arnold Hano, founder of Village Laguna. "Everyone is more or less on board. I don't see much, if any, discontent."
Boyd said Pietig is open to listening to opposing opinions.
"John is good with people," Iseman said. "I don't always agree with him, but he has a good heart."