Employees fleeing San Luis Obispo
November 6, 2013
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
The city of San Luis Obispo pays its workers about $100,000 a year on average and boasts a reputation as “the happiest city in America,” yet it struggles to retain employees, particularly high-ranking ones.
Since January 2010, when City Manager Katie Lichtig took over as the city’s executive, 96 full-time employees have left the city, according to Human Resources Director Monica Irons. Of those, eight were department heads and two were city clerks.
Under Lichtig’s leadership, about a third of the city’s employees have moved on for a variety of reasons including complaints of a hostile work environment.
Lichtig contends the city’s attrition rate is lower than average and that the work environment in the city is “respectful, enjoyable and collaborative.”
“The reason why people make transitions in their professional lives varies from person to person,” Lichtig said. “Many of the people who left the city retired after long, demanding and distinguished careers in public service.”
San Luis Obispo pays full-time employees an average salary of $80,300 a year, according to Irons. Including benefits, average compensation for full-time employees is $122,300. Department heads each make more than $196,000 in total compensation, according to city compensation charts.
The city has a total nine department heads, excluding the positions of city manager and city attorney, both of which the city council is responsible for hiring. The responsibility for hiring department heads rests in the hands of the city manager.
While eight department heads have left the city since Lichtig took over as city manager, only one did so in the four years leading up to her tenure. San Luis Obispo has the highest rate of attrition for management staff among cities in San Luis Obispo County.
Several high-ranking employees who left the city under Lichtig’s leadership have since made lateral career moves, often accepting pay cuts and/or making long moves.
Former city clerk Elaina Cano left her position in February 2012 after a little more than two years on the job. Cano’s replacement Maeve Grimes lasted less than a year, leaving in July of this year.
Cano left San Luis Obispo to become city clerk of Pismo Beach, where she received a slight raise in base salary from $74,906 to $77,500. However, less than two years later, San Luis Obispo is paying its city clerk a base salary of $98,800.
Grimes left her position of Clatsop County Clerk in Oregon to become city clerk of San Luis Obispo in August 2012. Grimes was making a base salary of $82,914 as the city’s clerk. In July 2013, she moved back to Oregon and took a pay cut of nearly $6,000 to reclaim her position of Clatsop County Clerk.
As of this year, employees leaving San Luis Obispo for jobs with other California cities will have lower pensions because of the state pension reform law, which took effect January 1.
Former public works director Jay Walter left San Luis Obispo in 2012 for the same position in San Carlos. And though Walter received a 13 percent increase in pay, Walter also took a decrease to his pension.
Walter’s pension formula is now 2 percent at 55, meaning at age 55 he is eligible to receive annually 2 percent of his highest year’s salary multiplied by the total number of years he has worked. In San Luis Obispo, Walter had a pension formula of 2.7 percent at 55.
Nevertheless, San Luis Obispo is projected to have an overall attrition rate of above 8 percent for 2013, according to Lichtig. The 2013 attrition rate would mark the highest of her tenure.
Some former employees have opted to take jobs with long commutes, rather than continuing to work for the city, sources said.
A former mid-level manager who worked for the city for almost two decades, said he left because of the contentious work environment and took a job in Monterey County. He spends his weekdays up north and drives home to be with his family on the weekends. He asked not to be named because he fears retribution if he speaks publicly about the city’s work environment.
Cano, Grimes and Walter did not respond when asked why they left San Luis Obispo.
Before coming to San Luis Obispo, Lichtig served as assistant city manager in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills and as city manager in Malibu. Employee turnover rates were high and a point of contention during Lichtig’s tenure in Malibu.
“Lichtig’s tenure has been marked by constant staff turnover,” Malibu Times reporter Jonathan Friedman wrote in a December 2005 article after Lichtig announced she took the Beverly Hills job.
In less than four years as city manager of Malibu, Lichtig went through four planning directors and three public works directors. An interim public works director also left the city suddenly due to friction with Lichtig, according to the Malibu Times report.
Lichtig also replaced Malibu’s administrative services and left the city without both a permanent parks and recreation director and city treasurer, the article said.
When asked about employee turnover in San Luis Obispo, Lichtig said overall attrition in the city has decreased since she became city manager. She also said that the city’s attrition rate is lower than that of the average local government.
“Overall the city of San Luis Obispo has been able to attract and retain experienced and highly professional staff who are committed to serving the public,” Lichtig wrote in an email to CalCoastNews. “These folks leave the city’s employment at a rate that is similar to our historical rate and lower than the average of other local government.”
In the past two months, the administration executive assistant and the fire chief left the city. Longtime administrative assistant April Richardson announced her resignation on a day in which three city employees quit, sources said.
One of those employees, an experienced police officer from the Fresno area, quit after less than two months on the job.
Former fire chief Charlie Hines announced his resignation in July after the city rehired recently acquitted firefighter John Mason, who in 2011, broke 17 bones in a man’s face during a San Luis Obispo bar fight.
Hines, who moved to San Luis Obispo from Washington state, spent less than three years on the job. In a memo to council members announcing his departure, Lichtig said Hines wanted to spend more time with his family.
Councilman Dan Carpenter, who has publicly criticized Lichtig, responded to the email by reprimanding Lichtig’s leadership style.
“Once again, we get left the horrid remnants of your ineffective decision making and management style,” Carpenter wrote. “The residents of SLO deserve better.”