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 hope that everyone sees the irony in what’s going on with the SLO and Morro Bay situations. In SLO, you have a City Manager with precious little public support, who has a highly questionable track record as a City Manager, who lives outside of the area she’s responsible for, who seems to be incapable of securing long-term Department Head staff, and who is supported by 3 City Council members who are determined to keep her on the job come hell or high water. In Morro Bay, you have a City Manager who has garnered an abundance of public support, who has had favorable reviews given to her by the present and past City Councils, who lives in the area she is responsible for, who has assembled a hard-working, functional Department Head staff, and yet has been put on the chopping block by 3 City Council members who are determined to remove her come hell or high (sewer plant) water. Talk about a bizarre story line….


Excellent comment!


And you forgot the linkage of SLO Manager living with the Irons’s. Just plan weird to say the least.

I would like to ask the important question missed in this article:

What was the tenure of SLO employees under John Dunn and Ken Hampien, two smart leaders and managers? I bet it was close to 10 years and the pension plan was 2% at 60 (means you get 2% of your salary for each year worked at the age of 60). Goes to show that money is not the leading factor.

Interesting considering that the front page of the fish wrap today has an article about SLO and a study for compensation. Do it now and plan for the raises that will be given as soon as the sales tax initiative is passed. We are suckers for sure!

Human Reason

Keep following the trail and it all leads back to Katie. Anybody want to explain why Katie lived at Monica Irons and Mayor Irons house for two months and then Katie hired Council Member Christine Johnson!s husband for a $100k. A Job that he was not even qualified for. If you work for the City and even attempt to bring up improper going ons you get fired or they create a hostile work environment.


If what you say is true it should be reported to the Grand Jury and the County District Attorney. Was Christine Johnson’s husband’s lucrative job for the City of San Luis Obispo payback for living for free at the Iron’s house? More backroom deals from the Irons, Smukler, Christine Johnson majority. Something definitely smell fishy here.


So much for any morals, values or ethics for the Morro Bay 3-irons, christine and smuckler. I still don’t get how they sleep at night based on what they have done to ruin the careers and lives of Schultz and Leuker. Wonder when the defamation of character lawsuits will be submitted? I am SO sorry for the residents of Morro Bay, me included. Maybe the DA will look into the irons/johnson/lichtig connection.


Schultz will be fine getting a job, he has had several job opportunities while working at Morro Bay come up and has turned them down to stay in SLO county.

It sucks that he will be moving and it sucks that it had to go down in such a horrible way. In due time the truth will come out that this firing was indeed only due to Irons not liking the legal advice he was getting from Schultz. If the legal counsel informs you your making a bad decision the best route is not to fire him for an attorney that will tell you otherwise.


Hmmmmmmmm……this is truly troublesome….but in all honesty with what is happening to Morro Bay……it just seems credible……….if this is true….there is just too too much in the way of troubles and connections…so to speak. Dare we speak?

As to our situation in Morro Bay….I do support the recall of Irons….

And some of these other positions in SLO should be questioned as well…….

House cleaning perhaps is in order in both towns.


So….then Christine Johnson agrees with everything Jamie Irons wishes as payback for the job his friend Katie in SLO gave her husband. Also…she needs to make sure he KEEPS his job…..thus she can not disagree with what Mayor Irons wishes on the Morro Bay City Council. It is all starting to make since. Isn’t there something illegal in all of this?


Only for honest people, not politicians!


The trail you mention leads back to the people who elected the city council who hired Katie and the rest of the cartel that runs our city. We need to educate the electorate on how to elect good representatives. I am really beginning to question the term “public servant”.


slojustice said: We need to educate the electorate on how to elect good representatives.”

Never going to happen, Justice.

Look at the President we re-elected and his track record of extremism, arrogance, malfeasance and incompetence. He’s really ONLY skillful at campaigning, and he’s brilliant at that. Lotsa luck enlightening the local Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo electorate. It’s a subset of the U.S.A. Never gonna happen, sorry to say.


I still hear people say how Obama is doing a great job and it is “other people” who are working against him. Even though the evidence is right there, from his own lips, in front of them. If people cannot see how bad their president and his administration are at everything they attempt, they’ll definitely NEVER see how bad the local screwups are.


Hostile work environment? It’s been that way for many years. There is a long history of stuff

that happens behind the scenes. Katie is not the first nor will be the last. As long as the people of SLO keep turning a blind eye and keep voting in the bozos that run your city, then the same old, same old stuff will continue on. San Luis City has a history and it is not a pretty one.


The electorate always seems to beg for an outsider to run, but when one does shows up, everyone appears quick to demonize and bemoan the lack of a proper pedigree with which to run things.

Remember how Adam Hill was just the perfect candidate? Oh he’s so learned, he hung out in academia and got degrees… and worked other people’s campaigns… oh, and is from Jersey! So sophisticated! We must have HIM…

And not just Hill, but Mulhulland, Marx, Gibson… take your pick. See the pattern.

Niles Q

You know what would be a very interesting exercise for maybe a Poly business student or statistics student, is to do a demographic study on salaries of ALL government employees in SLO County.

I mean the average salaries of everyone at CMC, ASH, Camps SLO and Roberts, SLO County, state and federal agencies, cities and on down to the lowly CSDs.

I’d love to see a breakdown of each agency and then an averaging of ALL of them, I bet the overall average would be well over $130K a year.

Included in that would be the actual budgets for employees for each agency and facility and the grand total of money pumped into the local economy by government agencies and the total number of jobs.

In turn we’d have a better understanding of what the taxes that we pay for all these servants of the public actually buys us.

The county did that study for Diablo Canyon, maybe they’d fund this stiudy to show where the true economic engine of this county resides.

Tourism? Bah! We should be trying to attract federal agencies and state agencies to open offices here in SLO County. That’s where the real money is. Look at the area around Washington or Sacramento. Those are very affluent places.

Yes, they told me when I moved here in 1985 to go back to Cuesta — you want to get rich in this county, get a government job.

Stupid me, I always figured I’d never pass the drug test…:-)


When Lichtig first arrived I fully expected her to use SLO as a “resume recovery” job and as a steppingstone for a new job in SoCal just soon as one opened up. Her hideous performance in SLO and the publicity it has generated now makes her totally unemployable in public administration at least in CA.

That means she is going to do whatever it takes to “hang on” so that she can suck a pension out of SLO before engineering a way to collect the enormous severance guaranteed by her employment contract. In her wake she will leave a ruined city government.

Nice job Marx, Ashbaugh, Christianson. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Mr. Holly

Don’t worry McKinney will mentor her thru this.


Ah, but we can all feel better that the City hired back “knock-out” Mason, kept Ron Faria who engaged in self dealing acts according to the news articles on this site, kept Bud Nance after he intentionally dumped hazardous waste at the back of the city yard, retained the services of Christine Wallace after she went postal on a website and told other employees to go *%$#@ themselves with a long standing history of going off on the public and other staff, and retained the expert services of Bob Nicholson who according to this website charges members of the community for the very same services he is paid to perform under his job. I think the article has missed the mark, Katie has run off decent employees and retains the services of those mentioned above, thus Katie doesn’t look so bad in comparison. When will the City hire back officer McDow and Limon? The surprising thing is that the City terminated the drug dealing, extortionist cop, oh that was only because he is incarcerated out of the area, otherwise he would still get his bi-weekly check.


The problem many seem to forget is that these “fleeing” employees are still collecting close to their regular salaries, plus benefits, the only difference is they no longer need to go into the office, plus the taxpayers not only have to foot this bill they have to pay for the people hired to replace them.


Katie did manage to keep Ryan Mason….

Always look on the bright side of life!…


I have a theory about our County management, starting at the beginning; none of them would ever hire someone who was smarter than they were. Down through the years the ever shrinking abilities of these people have led us to what we have now. I worked at the County Airport for years and I know of which I speak.


Amazing how apathetic the public has become that all branches of government are full of corrupt, self serving pension minded beaurocrats whose best efforts only seem to make us miserable and impoverished. We deserve what they are doing to us. We allow it.


Not everyone allows it, just a voting majority… which is nowhere near an actual majority, judging election participation rates. Still, your point is no less valid.


speaking for yourself