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New Era of Collaboration at City Hall?

With outgoing City Manager Ken Frank known as the wizard of all things Laguna, city officials as well as community and business leaders hope his successor, John Pietig, will be more democratic than autocratic.

“We’re supposed to be the captain of the ship,” said City Council member Verna Rollinger about the role of elected officials. Even so, because the state’s Brown Act prohibits a council majority from meeting privately, council members must rely heavily on the city manager’s direction rather than consulting with each other, Rollinger said.

In interviews with 100 candidates for the city’s top administrative post, Rollinger said a promise by Pietig, the current assistant city manager, to take a more cooperative approach proved persuasive. The council will review his contract at next week’s City Council meeting, Nov. 16. He will administer a city with $65 million in revenues and more than 100 employees.

“I probably have a little bit more of a collaborative management style,” agreed Pietig, who recently navigated establishing a temporary homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon as well as renovations at Heisler Park and nearly final plans to replace and upgrade lifeguard headquarters at Main Beach.  His focus, he said, will be keeping the city’s budget balanced and improving customer service at City Hall to ease labyrinthine approval procedures.

“I think it’s important to work with the council, the community and staff to determine the next steps rather than coming in and saying I know exactly what they are,” said Pietig, who also has the advantage of living in town, in the Top of the World neighborhood with his wife Peggy and two young sons.  “It’s not about maintaining the status quo and it’s not just about making change.  It’s about making the right changes.”

Some community members, however, say they know exactly which direction a cooperative approach should take.

“We need a new city manager,” said Gary Decker, owner of the Pizza Lounge at Laguna Avenue and Coast Highway. “We need people who are more progressive and friendly. It’s very difficult to do business in this town.”

Decker, who’s owned businesses elsewhere, rates Laguna as the most problematic city he’s encountered. City planners deemed his summertime outdoor window benches impermissible. Now he’s been informed that dine-in seating at his shop requires a $60,000 “in lieu of parking” fee and a change in his use permit.

“They don’t give business owners the freedom to run their businesses as they see it,” he said.  “The city needs to stop all this craziness and help merchants.” Decker took his concerns to the city’s Planning Commission this past Wednesday.

More common sense is needed, agreed Ivan Spiers, who has stirred neighborhood controversy by adding live music to the fare at his Mozambique Steakhouse. “What’s good for Laguna is what’s going to bring people here,” Spiers maintained.  “Do the math.  Other cities come out and basically kiss your toes today. I’m working with two other cities right now, and what a welcome mat.”

In contrast to the success of insurgents in the national elections last week, Laguna’s re-elected incumbents turned to a known quantity in hiring an in-house successor. “We certainly want to give John free reign to establish his own style,” said Council member Toni Iseman.

For nearly a third of Frank’s 31-year tenure, Pietig served as his second in command. “There’s no doubt Ken groomed him,” said Anne Johnson, city planning commissioner. Pietig’s mentor was trained in the vertical management style of the 1970s, when there was only one boss at the top.  “The whole management approach today is more cooperative and collaborative.  We’ll see, won’t we? Anybody who takes on that kind of a position in this town is like herding chickens. He’s got a lot on his plate.”

Resident Jim Keegan, who initiated the since-settled 2008 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city for discriminating against the homeless, said he and Pietig have different “constituencies” but similar goals.

“If anyone had said three years ago that we would effectively have a 365-day-a-year cold-weather shelter, they would have been scoffed at, and John has accomplished that,” Keegan said. “I think he should get the highest praise for that.”

Even so, others on the homeless front think a shelter falls short of a real solution and say the city manager plays a crucial role in guaranteeing a more permanent solution. “This was a commitment of the council and the city manager needs to work on those things the City Council committed to,” said Jean Raun, who was among a group of residents who urged that the city seek job applicants who were attentive to community culture and long-term goals.

Instead of one boss, Pietig gave up coaching his son’s soccer team after four years in anticipation of answering to several. “I figured I’d have some additional things to do this season,” he said.

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