From Canyon To Cove: A frank and funny sendoff for the city manager

Those seeking a glimpse into the future of Laguna Beach under incoming city manager John Pietig might want to take a clue from outgoing City Manager Ken Frank's taste in music.

On Monday night, John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" rang out as several hundred people — nothing less than a "Who's Who of Laguna Beach" — crowded into [seven degrees] to wish Frank well and thank him for his 30-plus years of service. That is apparently one of Frank's favorite all-time tunes, and Denver, an early environmentalist and conservationist, is one of his heroes, according to those who know him well.

Since Pietig is Frank's personal choice as successor, it could be surmised that the two shared some John Denver over a glass of their favorite beverage at some point or other. But whether Pietig — who isn't part of the John Denver generation, after all — is more of a Garth Brooks man, or maybe favors Faith Hill or opera, remains to be seen.

During the evening, which drew almost all the heavy-hitters from city hall to development to the arts, Frank greeted guests warmly. Organizers Councilwoman Jane Egly and Mayor Elizabeth Pearson put together a display of snapshots and photos from Frank's early years as Laguna Beach's youngest-ever city manager, at the tender age of 35. Some snapshots showed the young city manager in hiking togs out in the wilderness. One showed a grinning Frank wearing a baseball cap with the words "Bite Me." We sensed a theme, and we were right.

Most agreed that, to succeed as city manager in Laguna Beach, one needs a tough skin — horsehide would not be too thick to protect the chief executive from the slings and arrows of critics.

Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, never shy about taking Frank to task, was the first to offer her thanks "for all the open space you brought to Laguna Beach and for your wonderful taste in music." At least John Denver is something they can agree on.

Egly asked, "Why has Ken Frank been city manager for 30 years? Because he's the best."

Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman acknowledged that Frank had been in the target sights of more than one City Council candidate.

"Half the people on this council got elected to fire Ken, and 30 years later we say 'We're not worthy,'" she said.

Mayor Pearson, a longtime friend, gave him credit for having a sparkling personality.

"He's really funny, a very bright wit," she said. "He always has our back, not just the council's but the town's."

Councilman Kelly Boyd got emotional when he recalled that, in his first stint on the council years ago, he was part of the panel that voted in the young city manager from Northern California.

"Thirty years ago I was on the council that hired Ken, and now I'm on the council saying goodbye to Ken," Boyd said. "It's phenomenal, there's been an election every two years, 15 elections, and Wayne Baglin never got him." Boyd was referring to the former councilman who ran on a "dump Frank" ticket more than once.

Then it was time for the man of the hour to speak, and speak he did, saying he was "overwhelmed" by the outpouring of appreciation. He also gave a glimpse into what has kept him going all these years.

"I love my job, I have a great office, they pay me well, and I have a good staff, but two things have made this job unique," he said. "Working with the council and staff to accomplish projects, a new community center, Alta Laguna Park, Lang Park, the renovated animal shelter, even a sewer system that's almost under control, all these dovetail with my personal goals. I will miss doing projects and going to ground-breakings.

"When I first came here, I wanted to do something environmentally [significant], and $50 million later we have 3,000 acres of open space."

He didn't mention the fact that he helped the city recover from several major disasters: a killer mudslide; a devastating firestorm that incinerated his own home and more than 350 others; and a landslide that took out a Bluebird Canyon neighborhood. It might be said that the quiet and unassuming city official is at his best in a crisis.

Frank showed his self-deprecating side when he added that, as a young government employee in San Francisco, he had "made a mistake" for which he could have been fired, but instead was able to move on in his career.

"Everybody makes mistakes and that's one reason I never wanted to retire," he joked. Why? Because his own mistakes might be found out after he's gone. Pietig, take note.

Frank then was presented with a Lagunatics glitter jacket, presumably one worn by his doppelganger, Randy Hatfield, who will be put out to pasture along with Frank (but impresario Bree Burgess Rosen promises to bring him back as a "ghost" in future productions). Donning the gold lame, Frank was sent to the audience and we trust enjoyed Hatfield's rendition of a "City Manager" version of the Gilbert & Sullivan classic, "Major General," penned by Lagunatic Chris Quilter for the 2007 production.

To top off the proceedings, Frank was presented with a huge quarter with the words "In Frank We Trust" emblazoned on it.

We hear he was still blushing at Tuesday's City Council meeting, his last.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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