Who should be the new city manager?

Coastline Pilot

Bob Murray got an earful Wednesday night.

Murray is president of the company selected by the City Council to recruit a successor to City Manager Ken Frank, who will retire at the end of November. He hosted a public meeting at City Hall to hear what the community thinks would make an ideal successor, attended by about 30 folks, disappointing to some.

"We are here because we love this community," said Village Laguna founder and longtime resident Arnold Hano. "The people who are not here are not here because they love this community."

Hano said that the absentees were more perhaps more contented with the status quo than those at meeting.

"This is a great little town," Hano said. "We would like it to remain as little as we can. We would like it to remain as great as we can."

Hano also paid homage to Frank's ability to juggle conflicting interests in Laguna, considering the limits imposed by counting to three — the majority of the council.

Hano was among the last of 26 speakers — some who spoke more than once at the freewheeling discussions.

"I don't know verbatim what was said, but what is of tremendous value is the flavor of what you are about," Murray said. "It is of particular value when I talk to candidates. They need to get it."

Plus, he has access to the tape of the meeting, which was televised and can be viewed on the city's website www.lagunabeachcity.net.

Murray acknowledged that not all factions of the city were equally or at all represented at the meeting, but he said the information and impressions he gathered would aid in his discussions with the council, when he met with the council individually and collectively the next day.

One recurring theme was the implementation of the 2030 Vision Committee recommendations.

"Two thousand people participated," committee member Marion Jacobs said. "The council loved the report. Everything was fine until implementation. Then it went off into the ether."

The public meeting was held at the council's request to solicit input from the community on three questions framed by Murray.

"I am interested in your perceptions of the issues, challenges and opportunities facing Laguna, not just today, but as you look to the future," Murray said. "The new city manager will be key in terms of implementing policies that the council establishes as it addresses those issues whatever they may be.

"The second thing is the personal characteristics that the council should be looking for and how they relate to the community, the council and the staff.

"Thirdly, what kind of background do you think is appropriated for the position? That can include education, but typically there is always a bit of debate about what kind of position the person has held. Should he have been a city manager, an assistant city manager, a department head? Should he be from a similar size community or a coastal community?"

Murray asked for different opinions to be respected without commenting on their value and what he didn't want to hear was lobbying for a particular candidate, but that was practically the first comment from the public.

"This is a waste of money," Dennis Taylor said. "Ken has been here for ever. John Pietig [assistant city manager] has been here nine years. He knows the city. "

Taylor said collecting resumes was ridiculous

"It is an insult to John and an insult to Ken," Taylor said.

Bookstore owner Tom Ahern did not share Taylor's opinion.

"We need fresh blood to change the way the city government treats city businesses," said Ahern, the only member of the audience to identify himself as a business owner.

"The business community is irate about the hostility of City Hall."

One member of the audience suggested that the city manager should be elected just as council is, but that raised the question of stability.

With council seats subject to election every four years, the only constant at City Hall is the city manager.

Glenna Matthews said she believed that a search committee was the usual practice, particularly when a faction is interested in a change in direction.

Village Laguna member Charlotte Masarik read a letter to the editor written by James Dorf, which she said reflected the views of many in the community.

In his letter, Dorf wrote: "For those who share my views, the goal is not to turn Forest Avenue downtown into our own beachfront Rodeo Drive, nor is it our goal to make Laguna a tourist destination to the detriment of those of us who call it home year round.

"I long for the days before the Montage, when mostly regular people lived in this town. Successful but not arrogant. Artists (starving or not), young gays, teachers, police and firefighters…..We want peace, beauty, comfort and a balanced city budget that is not in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year."

The proposed 2010-11 budget is $65 million with a general fund of $46 million for discretionary spending, 39% of which funds public safety services: the police, fire and marine safety departments.

"Should you interview [candidates] from out of state, they should be obliged to read six months of our local papers — especially the letters to the editors," Masarik said.

One member of the audience suggested that the city manager should be elected just as the council is, but that raised the question of stability. With council seats subject to election every four years, the only constant at City Hall is the city manager.

Hano said he had personal experience of short-term city managers when he first came to Laguna in the 1950s and wouldn't care to repeat it.

"Councils come and go, but the city manager is the holder of information," Jacobs said. "It is a powerful position."

The average term of a city manager is 5.6 years. Frank will have served more than 30 years when he retires.

Longtime resident Barbara Painter said the city manager serves at the pleasure of the council, so the voters should pay attention for whom they cast their ballots.

No question the city manager has a lot of power. The city manager is the only employee hired or fired by the council. All other staff are employees of the city manager, whose job can be likened to the chief executive of a large corporation. He executes the policies and decisions of the council, which operates like a board of directors.

Murray said the city manager form of government started in the 1920s with the idea of running cities in a more business-like manner.

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