Employees fleeing San Luis Obispo

November 6, 2013
Katie Lichtig

Katie Lichtig


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.”



I continue to be shocked at the high salaries and huge pensions given to government employees around California. I know someone who retired from the SLO County at age 57 because she would make more from her pension than her current salary! What the….is going on?

I suspect we have a bunch a spoiled brats here if they quit over silly disputes and management “styles”. How wimpy is that. They’re just chasing the money.


QUOTING ARTICLE: “Lichtig contends the city’s attrition rate is lower than average and that the work environment in the city is “respectful, enjoyable and collaborative.”


What “average” is City Manager Lichtig referencing?

Mr. Holly

Perfect opportunity for Lichtig to pack up and gather all of her benefits and payoffs and move down to Indian Wells and take up residency where McKinney went with his $141,000 payoff. You just have to love government especially when they complain about it.


As long as Katy Lichtig doesn’t end up in Morro Bay I don’t care where she goes.

Does anyone else find it disturbing that Jamie Irons and Katy Lichtig are great friends and that his wife, Monica Irons, is the one who hired Councilwoman

Christine Johnson’s husband for a SLO City position? His job it is to bring business to SLO. So, we have a mayor, with the help of his wife helping the husband of a currently sitting Councilperson get a job in SLO with the stated purpose of getting businesses to move to San Luis Obispo. Conflict of interest anyone?

Mr. Holly

Has anyone considered maybe Morro Bay may be the first ones to clean house of these abusers? Just because someone is nice doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not taking advantage of the self serving government.

slo Fact Finder

So why did it take so long to rediscover the “wheel” is truly round anyway.

What happens in Malibu or Beverly Hills doesn’t necessarily stay in Malibu or Beverly Hills!


I for one thought that the episode of John Ryan Mason and Chief Hines really do not belong in this reporting if the focus is on those who have left due to the iron fist of Lichtig; I seem to remember that it was Chief Hines that wanted to hire Mason back to the fire department and that after Mason was reinstated that Hines announced his retirement. Perhaps I got that wrong? Was Mason “pushed” back into the department against the wishes of Chief Hines? And if so, was Lichtig behind that push?


Ah yes….thanks for reminding me…..San Luis Obispo’s Human Resources Director, Monica Irons is the WIFE of Morro Bay’s Mayor Jamie Irons who is firing the town’s loyal city attorney for no cause….and possibly next the city manager for no cause……

Strange all this…..


family values rule.


I have always thought it to be very telling that some city managers choose not to reside in the city that they manage. And where does Lichtig live? Not even in SLO county!


How do you know where she lives? Just curious.


Privileged information! I cannot reveal my sources….


Lichtig is a cancer on the City of San Luis Obispo. Her troubled employment background was well outlined on the Internet before she was ever interviewed here in SLO. Had the city council been doing their job at the time, she should never have been hired. Hiring her was unfortunately a product of sexism — ensuring a female in that position (even if a truly qualified one could not be hired) no matter what the cost. A cost that has become truly horrific — even when one does not consider Lichtig’s outlandish employment contract that was agreed to by the SLO City Council.

Jan Marx and John Ashbaugh were both members of the city council that hired Lichtig. Both (it would require only one of them) lack the humility and integrity to remove Lichtig. Both are Democratic Central Committee sock puppets. Both are political sexists. City council newcomer Carlyn Christianson shares these same flaws allowing Lichtig to remain and do further damage.

Marx’s public attacks on Councilman Dan Carpenter have been repulsive yet not unexpected. Her ad hominem attacks do nothing but underscore the fact she knows she made a huge mistake in voting to hire Lichtig. I hope both she and Ashbaugh (and Christianson) realize their actions aren’t fooling anyone. They’re only doing further damage to the City of San Luis Obispo.


Your inflated rhetoric does your cause no good. Get over it. Ashbaugh is a world class A-hole — you could focus on demonstrating that (very easy) if you want to make your case. Christianson is a curve ball and you never know what wall she’ll bounce off of and wham you — you could also focus on that. Marx is sweet, and her heart really is in the right place, but she’s badly in need of a spinal transplant; if she had one, she’d be fine. You talk about ad hominem attacks, but isn’t that exactly what you’re doing? Carpenter’s rudeness was totally uncalled for and undignified — it was childish and boorish. She was right to call him on it. Maybe she’s getting that transplant, one vertebra at a time. Have you bothered to explain to her why Lichtig needs to go? Thought so.


Your response is an attempt at parody, correct? It’s inconceivable that anyone could be ignorant and nasty enough to post such sewage with even a hint of actual sincerity.

Marx, Ashbaugh and Christianson will never move against Lichtig for the reasons I listed above. That makes all three of them losers when it comes to doing what’s best for the City of San Luis Obispo and to best serving those who live here.

Marx’s attack on Carpenter was hardly spineless. It was abominable and strongly highlighted the shame she must feel at putting her demands and those of other special interests ahead of SLO and its citizenry.

While I realize that Marx isn’t the sharpest tool in the tool shed, I really shouldn’t have to explain to the Mayor of SLO why Lichtig needs to be canned. Someone should calculate the cost involved in recruiting new hires; the cost to taxpayers while they “ramp-up” in their new positions; the cost of their productivity drop once Lichtig gets her hooks into them and they begin looking for a new employer; the monetary impact of not being able to attract the best and brightest because such employees don’t want to work for people like Lichtig; the increase in compensation packages in an attempt to hire anyone desperate enough to brave someone like Lichtig; the long term costs associated when crap rises up the employee food chain in the absence of any real competition and the truly monstrous pension and healthcare costs associated with revolving door human resources. Is that enough? “Thought so.”


Now THERE’S a City manager who needs to be fired! Where’s Mayor Irons when you need him? Oh wait, he and his wife are probably having dinner with her later…..

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