John Montgomery, Laguna Beach’s community development director for the last decade, credited by some for improving the department’s responsiveness, will retire at the end of June, the city manager announced Monday.
Also departing will be one of the three people who are the department’s second in command, zoning administrator Liane Schuller, who will retire in March.
A 22-year city employee, Montgomery joined the city as assistant department director in 1991 and was promoted 12 years later to the department’s top job. He oversees planning and development in a town of less than 10 square miles, but one where land use guided by the city’s general plan is complicated by overlaying coastal development rules overseen by the state Coastal Commission.
Montgomery previously held planning jobs in Montana and Colorado and worked as a principal planner in San Bernardino, a city of 60 square miles with a population then of 180,000, before taking a position in Laguna.
Schuller worked in Laguna’s community development department for more than 24 years and as the zoning administrator since 2004. She previously held positions in the cities of Newport Beach and Santa Ana.
At the helm of the $4.1 million, 27-person department, Montgomery keeps the city on course at both the macro
and micro levels. Montgomery’s team in zoning, building and planning oversees compliance with the city’s general plan, which dictates parameters of land use, and the local coastal program, which sets policies on the issuance of coastal development permits. At a project level, the department’s staff evaluates projects requiring review by the city’s appointed Planning Commission and the Design Review Board, processes building permits, conducts inspections and enforces municipal codes not enforced by safety departments. They also man the customer service counters at City Hall.
Montgomery often is called on to testify before the City Council about the staff’s rationale for approving permits for various proposals, such as a new day care. He and his team also work with the state Coastal Commission’s staff to apply an overlapping set of criteria on ocean-adjacent land within the commission’s jurisdiction, such as a floodplain ordinance that includes a sea-level rising element.
“The city will truly miss the leadership John and Liane have provided to guide a very technical and complex department,” said City Manager John Pietig, who has started a selection process to find replacements for the two employees he called “consummate professionals.”
Montgomery will earn $172,000 in salary in the fiscal year ending June 31; Schuller and two others are the department’s second highest paid employees, and will receive $136,400 in salary for the year, according to the city’s adopted budget. Montgomery is the fifth-highest paid city department head.
Montgomery’s promotion to lead the department came at a time when stability and confidence needed to be rebuilt, said Steve Kawaratani, a local resident and land use consultant. He credits Montgomery with doing just that, as well as improving customer service, during his tenure.
As for Schuller, she “brought a strong work ethic, competence and a willingness to be customer friendly” to a job that may be “one of the most difficult in the city,” Kawaratani said. He added that both employees “were always looking for ways to help applicants.”
Pietig said the city will conduct an open recruitment for Montgomery’s position, allowing both internal and external candidates to apply, but he has not yet determined the process for hiring a new zoning administrator.