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The city manager and the Carpenter 

Accusations fly from the council dais following a series of departures from SLO city government, but is anybody to blame?

Following the announcement from San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig that Fire Chief Charlie Hines would be retiring after less than three years on the job, many residents and some council members were quick to point out that the city seems to have experienced quite a bit of department head turnover recently.

The fact that Hines was a pivotal voice in the highly controversial decision to reinstate a firefighter originally terminated for his involvement in a brutal, one-sided bar fight only fueled speculation about the reason behind the chief’s departure.

Add to that the fact that the city had, only about a month prior, lost its city clerk, who moved on to take a similar post in Oregon—after less than a year with the city.

What’s the cause of this sudden turnover? Is City Hall a hostile environment for city staffers, as some have alleged, or is this a natural phenomenon that’s bound to occur every few years?

What is certain is the issue isn’t going away, and the remaining terms of two members of the City Council—two very vocal members of the council, who tend to make up a voting minority—may be largely defined by their campaign against the city’s chief administrator.

Playing out in public

click to enlarge ‘IN THE CROSSHAIRS’:  Following the departure of two department heads in the last month, San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig has taken criticism on her management style from certain council members. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ‘IN THE CROSSHAIRS’: Following the departure of two department heads in the last month, San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig has taken criticism on her management style from certain council members.

Tensions among members of the council and city administration have been simmering for some time. But when Lichtig made the announcement of Hines’ impending departure at 9:58 a.m. on July 23, in an e-mail to the council and members of her staff, those tensions went public.

“Charlie and I have been discussing his desire to spend more time with his family for a number of months and he has decided for the first time in 38 years to put his family first,” Lichtig wrote.

“Nice.....he rehires Mason and then retires. Once again, we get left the horrid remnants of your ineffective decision making and management style,” Councilman Dan Carpenter wrote back.

Carpenter was referring to John Ryan Mason, the embattled city firefighter who was terminated then reinstated on appeal following his acquittal on charges of assault. Carpenter was the sole council member opposed to the reinstatement.

“Since you speak of management style, as one of my supervisors I would like the opportunity to discuss this with you instead of you communicating your opinions via emails to me and the media. I stand ready to have that conversation with you or with the entire council if that is your preference,” Lichtig responded.

“You seem to do fine ‘spinning’ the truth to the media when it works in your favor. How about giving the media the truth on this latest blunder?” Carpenter wrote. “Something like, ‘Charlie retired because of ‘gently applied’ pressure from the city manager, or he was under extreme pressure from the community, or the pressure came from his own staff who didn’t support his decision????????’ Which one was it?”

Carpenter added: “While you’re at it, why don’t you tell the public the ‘real truth’ about why two city clerks, our economic development manager, previous finance director, and many other management staff have walked out the door since your arrival. It’s apparent that the high turnover is attributed to either an unfavorable work environment or questionable recruitment choices.”

The e-mail thread was forwarded to a New Times reporter from a third party, though both Lichtig and Carpenter discussed the exchanges on the record.

Strong accusations

Following Carpenter’s accusations, New Times filed requests with cities across SLO County, as well as with neighboring counties, in an effort to see how San Luis Obispo really stacks up in regard to department director turnover. All data was obtained from local governments in late July to early August.

Of the seven cities in the county, SLO did have the highest number of departmental heads depart since January 2003—seven years before Lichtig was hired—with 15. Arroyo Grande was second highest, with 11; and Morro Bay and Pismo Beach each saw 10 directors leave. Neighboring cities Monterey, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara had 14, 12, and 11, respectively, depart in the same period.

In the seven years preceding Lichtig’s hiring, the city saw seven department directors exit. Since her hire in 2010, eight department heads—not including former fire chief John Callahan, who passed away in August 2010—have left the city. However, this figure also includes two city clerks, a position that was reclassified as a manager prior to Lichtig’s arrival.

click to enlarge OUTSPOKEN:  SLO city councilman Dan Carpenter has publicly feuded with Katie Lichtig in a series of e-mails leaked to the media. Other members of the council and a few past city employees blame Carpenter for a contentious atmosphere on the council. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • OUTSPOKEN: SLO city councilman Dan Carpenter has publicly feuded with Katie Lichtig in a series of e-mails leaked to the media. Other members of the council and a few past city employees blame Carpenter for a contentious atmosphere on the council.

Responding to a request from New Times, Carpenter sat down for two interviews, one via phone while he was out of town on vacation and a follow-up at the New Times office. He said, after discussions with a number of third parties—whom he declined to reveal by name due to what he called his pledge of confidentiality—a number have revealed to him contentions over Lichtig’s management of city affairs. The recent turnover, he believes, is a direct result.

“As someone who’s run a business, I understand turnover when new management comes in,” he told New Times.

The problem as he understands it, he said, is not that the city manager isn’t competent, but that she’s spent most of her career in public service in larger communities, and that brand of management isn’t compatible with the SLO life.

“It’s almost like an overreach, almost overachieving. She doesn’t seem to understand what makes this community different,” he said. “There’s no genuine-ness; I don’t feel that genuine commitment to the community ... there’s already this sense of elitism in this city.”

Carpenter’s contention is that Lichtig essentially runs the council, the majority of whom he said rarely challenge her staff’s recommendations. Rather, he said, over the past few years the City Council has become “babysat figureheads” providing rubber stamps when the staff really runs the machine.

“I don’t think [Lichtig’s] a bad person. The council that hired her wanted the best, but you don’t always hire the best qualified person on paper, you hire the most compatible,” he said. “I think the five council members who hired her missed the boat completely.”

In the last few months, both Carpenter and Councilwoman Kathy Smith have refused to meet with Lichtig and her staff to discuss issues that will be coming before them on the council. This tactic has been cited to counter Carpenter’s allegations, but he said it was something he needed to do. Many times, Carpenter explained, city staffers will meet with council members individually to “poll” them on issues to gauge the support or opposition level. As part of what’s seen as the voting minority, Carpenter said when those issues make it before the council, there’s a sense that the staff and the council majority have already inked the deal, and any time there’s any push back in front of the public, it’s met with apathy.

Case in point, Carpenter said, was the council decision in mid-July to solicit a citizen advisory board to workshop either the possible renewal of the half-cent sales tax known as Measure Y or “alternative” sources of funding. Namely, he took issue with the $30,000 price tag to conduct a public poll he said would only solicit a favorable response, and questioned who would be selected for the appointment. According to him, residents can see that the decision was already made long ago, that the city will try to put the measure back on the ballot, and statements made by officials have already tipped their hand on the issue.

Carpenter called the process a “charade.” He ultimately lost the vote 4-1.

“I serve at the pleasure of the people, not at the pleasure of Katie or the mayor. This is a point I make very clear to Katie,” he said. “There’s far too many communications occurring outside of the public arena.”

Carpenter’s not alone in his criticism. Though he and Smith don’t always vote the same—as proven by the Measure Y vote—both agree that the relationship between the council and staff has become too cliquish.

“I think Kathy and I are the two most critical thinkers on the council. We know how to look around the corner on things, not just look at that narrow focus that staff is presenting us,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, ‘Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ That’s a non-answer.”

Smith told New Times via e-mail that she agrees with Carpenter’s decision to publicly question Lichtig’s performance.

“In corporate America, it’s not unusual for new CEOs to move in and ‘clean house.’ Such changes did not occur in any number when [Lichtig’s predecessor] Ken Hampian took over from [former city manager] John Dunn,” Smith wrote. “It is my concern that our current city administrator’s style and the culture she has created is one that was discomforting to the professionals who departed.”

She said one department head who recently left, she believes, wasn’t appropriately qualified for the job in the first place, and another key position, which has turned over twice since Lichtig’s arrival, she knows came as a result of Lichtig’s approach to management.

However, Smith told New Times she hasn’t heard this directly from disgruntled employees.

“I would not make such queries to staff but have heard from third parties that a number of employees (down the line) are looking forward to retiring, etc.” she said, adding that an employee wouldn’t likely take the risk of complaining to a sitting council member.

As a council member during the Dunn and Hampian years, Smith said she’s not supportive of Lichtig’s “rah, rah- cheerleading” style.

“The SLO City staff style offers little room for sincere discussion of issues that need improvement. For employees, it might be joyful to have a work ‘mother’ cheering you on. For me, as a council member, it is superficial and manipulative. It doesn’t build trust,” Smith wrote.

But both Carpenter and Smith acknowledged, however, that there’s no support from their colleagues to secure that third vote necessary to get a re-examination of Lichtig’s contract placed on an agenda. Both noted that, should the city continue to be supportive of the current culture, it’s unclear if they’ll seek to remain on the council beyond their current terms.

Staff support

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the political dynamic of the council knows well that city staff has traditionally enjoyed strong support from at least two of its members: Mayor Jan Marx and Councilman John Ashbaugh. Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson, who won a June special election, is still relatively new to the council and hasn’t spoken on the issue.

So what do the former (and soon-to-be former) employees have to say about their time working with Lichtig?

“Katie is the reason I came here, not the reason I’m leaving,” fire chief Hines told New Times in a recent interview. “She’s the best boss I’ve ever had.”

Hines denied that there’s a harsh environment for city department heads, and echoed the mayor’s sentiment that this is a manufactured conflict from a few very vocal officials. On the contrary, he explained, the truth of the matter is that he’s leaving for personal reasons, though he acknowledged that may be a common out when public employees choose to depart.

“It’s time for me to move on and do something else while I still can. I’m 57 years old, I’ve got two grandkids who are 2 and 3 years old, and I want to spend more time with the people I love and care about,” he said.

As for the odd timing of his decision, given the very public backlash over the reinstatement of Mason less than two months prior, Hines said taking Mason back was the best option for the city.

“John Ryan Mason had no bearing at all on my decision to leave. Terminating him was the right decision, and bringing him back was the right decision, too,” Hines said. “We could have rolled the dice, and this thing could have dragged on for another a year and a half, and it could have been overturned. We said, you know what, let’s end this right now and impose these disciplines and sanctions and hire him back. No regrets.”

Hines did acknowledge that there are plenty of hard feelings around City Hall right now, but he differs with Carpenter as to the source.

“One of the things I find frustrating is dealing with some members of the City Council. It’s unfortunate that some of them choose to hide behind the keyboard, spew venom, and refuse to meet with us,” he said, without mentioning names. “It’s unhealthy that they will not meet with staff [and] only communicate through e-mail. I believe they manufacture mistrust of the city staff to the community. It’s unfortunate that their legacy is going to be seen as a missed opportunity. I feel sorry for them.

“That hostility is certainly not the only reason I’m leaving,” he added. “But it’s a factor.”

Former city clerk Elaina Cano, who left SLO for the same position in Pismo Beach in March 2012, told New Times the clerk position was reclassified before her appointment as no longer being under the city administration department, meaning Lichtig wasn’t her direct boss. However, she said she didn’t experience any of the alleged problems, and instead chose to leave the city after six years in the position because of a better opportunity for advancement in Pismo Beach.

Charles Bourbeau, who served as director of finance for a little more than a year before leaving in November 2012, similarly had only nice things to say about working at the city.

Maeve Grimes, the city’s most recent clerk, who left last month, couldn’t be reached for comment as of press time.

But it was Marx who had perhaps the harshest words of anyone on the matter.

“I believe this brouhaha over the turnover rate of city department heads is a manufactured controversy, and not an issue at all,” the mayor told New Times. “It would have been great if Councilmember Carpenter had done his research first and had a basis for his allegations.”

She said Lichtig, on the other hand, has done a “really extraordinary job” as city manager, adding that the city went through a period of relative stability over the last decade and, for that reason, “some people within the city might not be used to turnover within the city staff.”

“Carpenter’s attack in the press puts Katie in a very difficult position, and I frankly feel it’s an embarrassment to the city and council. It’s important that council members treat all city employees fairly and with civility,” she said.

She added: “Carpenter’s actions are reprehensible, in my opinion.”

“Strong words are not foreign to me,” Carpenter said. “[Marx is] more about appearance and I believe based on their personalities they prefer the appearance of a more supportive, cohesive council. But we don’t live in a community where we all think the same. People need to have their voices heard to represent all sides.”

‘Exceptional service’

Sitting in Lichtig’s office is a pillow that reads “Defy Mediocrity.” Even her critics will admit that those two words seem to sum up just about everything in her professional background. Her walls are strung with honorary plaques and framed pictures of her posing or shaking hands with big names such as former President Bill Clinton.

She spent more than 25 years in various public service roles prior to her arrival in SLO, beginning her career in the Department of Treasury Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., later becoming a special agent with the departments of Treasury and Education, where she investigated fraud and other white collar crimes. She made the transition to municipal government, filling roles as city manager in Malibu, assistant to the city manager in Santa Monica, and assistant city manager and chief operating officer in Beverly Hills.

In other words, Carpenter’s right in at least one respect. She does look very good on paper. And that quality comes with a price tag: $221,520 in annual salary, plus benefits, which bring her total compensation to just more than $313,000, according to the city’s latest figures. She’s the highest paid public employee in the county.

“There has been a fair amount of change in the employment culture that has come on,” Lichtig told New Times. “The public service profession has periodically been in the crosshairs of the public, and this is one of those cycles. We need to be proving to people, day in and day out, that we’ve been providing exceptional service. We can’t discount what people might criticize city officials for, but they can’t decide whether they come or go.”

Lichtig declined to address her critics by name, and though she characterizes her management style as tough but fair, she explained that turnover in recent years has come about for a variety of reasons.

“The high turnover rate we’ve seen is what other organizations are facing too right now. We have been blessed with stability in SLO for a long time,” she said. “There are pluses and minuses to every transition. At the end of the day, I would say that the transitions that we’ve faced—many of which were anticipated—have provided the opportunity for the city to continue to provide exceptional service.”

She said that while there’s a learning curve for every job, a new city manager requires two years to get his or her sea legs. The International City-County Management Association, of which she’s a member, has a standard that requires a two-year commitment for city managers.

For department heads, Lichtig said that, ideally, you’ll have someone who will stay with you for three to five years, at a minimum.

“Yes, we have the conversation about how long they’re going to stay, but you can’t have any hard and fast rules, because circumstances are so variable,” she explained.

Of course, nobody likes to have to defend his or her job. But when asked how the recent criticism has affected how she views the job, Lichtig says she doesn’t take it personally—though she wishes her critics would agree to meet and discuss the issues face to face.

“I don’t know why people have different opinions of me. I don’t think anybody is universally loved or hated. I wouldn’t characterize the detractors as haters, but I don’t know how people come to the conclusions that they come to,” she said. “Ultimately, I would benefit from being able to understand those detractors. Sad that I can’t.”

On a final note, Lichtig said she feels the recent furor has been overblown and doesn’t reflect a reality experienced by her employees and the public as a whole.

“I really believe in the concept of service to the community. Whether people like or dislike me, or respect or don’t respect me, there’s an absolute commitment to this community, by the [department head] team and city staff. I hope that is what’s most prevalent,” she said. “I think it’s exceptional, and appreciated by the vast majority of people in the community.”

 

News Editor Matt Fountain and Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.commfountain@newtimesslo.com and rheyden@newtimesslo.com.
 

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