For more than 20 years, Ernesto Munoz has had a front-row seat to the development of Costa Mesa.
Given his work as a city engineer and most recently as public services director, it might be more accurate to say he’s been in the driver’s seat when it comes to how the city has changed.
But after two decades of helping shape the city through public works projects, he has tendered his resignation. His last day on the job will be June 10.
“It’s been a very difficult decision for me to make,” Munoz said Monday. “I’ve been here upward of 22 years and I’ve created a lot of relationships in the community with residents and businesses alike.”
Munoz joined the city in 1994 and has acted as its public services director since late 2011. In that role, he’s overseen a department responsible for providing services from facilities maintenance to transportation to engineering. Costa Mesa has more than $500 million in assets that fall under public services, the city says.
“Everywhere I drive in the community I see something that I’ve had something to do with,” said Munoz, 59. “I know every inch of this community, and everywhere I go I see people I know.”
It’s that connection to Costa Mesa, and to the people who call it home, that makes the step Munoz is about to take so difficult. He said he plans to join a private asset management firm in south Orange County, though he declined to elaborate.
“I think it’s a good time for me to move on and reinvent myself,” he said during an interview in his City Hall office. “I believe that change is good and energizing.”
Everywhere I drive in the community I see something that I’ve had something to do with. I know every inch of this community, and everywhere I go I see people I know.
Mayor Steve Mensinger said Munoz’s leadership and experience will be sorely missed.
“He just has so much institutional knowledge,” Mensinger said. “It’s heartbreaking to see him leave.”
As long as Munoz can remember he’s been interested in how things work — “a very curiosity-driven lifestyle,” he calls it.
Growing up in Managua, Nicaragua, Munoz took apart and reassembled electronic equipment and even his bicycle — often to the chagrin of his parents.
“I love to build things,” he said. “I have a keen curiosity for what works and what doesn’t work. I’m a very technically driven person and I love math and science.”
Becoming an engineer, then, was a no-brainer.
Munoz came to the United States in 1978, settling in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
So what made him want to move to California? The warm weather, of course.
“I loved Chicago,” he said with a smile. “I loved metropolitan living, but the weather is pretty atrocious there.”
After making his way to the Golden State, he earned a master’s degree from Cal State Long Beach and later landed a gig as a city engineer for Cypress.
A few years later, he came to Costa Mesa.
“As you drive through the city, the street conditions have improved dramatically,” Munoz said of how Costa Mesa has changed since he arrived. “We have many new facilities that we’re now using. We have sports complexes that have been constructed.”
One of his favorite projects over the years was creating the wetlands and riparian habitat at Fairview Park.
The “outside of the box project,” as Munoz puts it, features a series of ponds and streams that work collectively to naturally treat urban runoff. On top of that, he said, it created a “beautiful space” for the community to enjoy.
Munoz credits successes during his tenure to many people.
Recent city councils, he said, deserve credit for dedicating money for infrastructure maintenance and repair. And he appreciates the close relationship he’s built with his “great boss,” city Chief Executive Tom Hatch.
“Ernesto is one of the top engineers I have worked with in my 28-year career in government service,” Hatch said in a statement. “His contributions to the Costa Mesa community are far-reaching, and we benefited immensely from his vision and expertise.”
Munoz was effusive in his praise for his staff, which he called a “close-knit family”
“They’re just an incredible, talented group of people … that’s always been a point of pride for me,” he said.
Munoz will be kept busy over the next few weeks, both with his job and helping set the stage for someone to take over for him after he leaves. There’s also the “emotional strain of saying goodbye,” he said.
Still, Munoz said he feels the department and the city will benefit from bringing in someone who offers a different frame of mind.
Whoever steps into the role will have big shoes to fill, Mensinger said.
“I’m happy for him. I’m thrilled for him,” Mensinger said of Munoz. “But I’m going to miss him dearly.”