Laguna Beach City Council under pressure to open recruitment for next city manager

City Manager John Pietig is set to retire in June. Courtesy of Laguna Beach

A growing number of Laguna Beach residents are advocating for the City Council to conduct a nationwide search for candidates to succeed John Pietig as city manager.

City Manager John Pietig announced earlier this month that he plans to retire in June after serving for Laguna Beach for 20 years. Pietig’s successor would be city hall’s third chief executive in over four decades.

Assistant city manager Shohreh Dupuis later confirmed in a statement to the Independent that she’s interested in the city’s top job. Mayor Bob Whalen and Pietig have both publicly said they believe Dupuis would be a strong candidate.

Councilmember Peter Blake defended Dupuis’ possible accession after hearing public comments critical of the City Council’s indecision on hiring an executive search firm and that Laguna Beach residents deserve the best candidates in the country based on the position’s compensation package.

“For the two years I’ve been on this city council, the best of the best signifies Shohreh Dupuis,” Blake said. “I look forward to the day she’ll replace our extremely competent city manager John Pietig and we will have the first female city manager in this city’s history.”

This comment riled many residents who believe an open recruitment is essential to good governance. Advocacy to launch the nationwide search for a new city manager has been a rare bright spot for unity in Laguna Beach, bringing together liberal, moderate and conservative voices.

Laguna Beach resident MJ Abraham has been among the vocal proponents of an open recruitment process.

“If we want to achieve harmony in our City, we must have public officials that listen and who strive for inclusiveness,” Abraham wrote in an email.

Laguna Beach native Carolyn Smith Burris, whose family built and operated the Coast Inn from 1929 to 1978, said she can’t support an automatic internal appointment of Dupuis.

“My main concern is for the city to look for a qualified candidate who posses the skills Laguna needs, especially the skill to listen and appropriately delegate,” she said.

Organizations often recruit new chief executives to foster culture changes sought by employees and constituents, Burris said. After years of talking with city leaders about the future of Coast Inn and traffic mitigation for a popular bike trail near her Top of the World home, she feels there is often a disconnect between the will of the people and local public policy.

“The City Council is supposed to be working for the people not for the leader,” she said.

Councilmember George Weiss said he’ll support a nationwide search for candidates, adding that Blake’s prejudicial comment was unfortunate.

“It’s a great time to interview candidates to see what candidates are out there and who is available,” he said. “We have to make the best choice possible for the future of Laguna Beach whether that’s Shohreh or someone else.”

Laguna Beach resident Nancy Meyer recommended that the City Council establish a committee of councilmembers and residents to prioritize the qualities and experience they want in the next city manager. As a 12-year board member of United Way Orange County, Meyer said she saw value in such an inclusive process for executive recruitment. She acknowledged Dupuis could still be selected as the best candidate even if Laguna Beach pursues this track.

“It’s a high-paying job and the city has some important issues,” Meyer said. “The city should have the most qualified [city manager] and she may end up being the most qualified.”

In light of the pandemic’s economic fallout, Pietig agreed to forgo a previously agreed 2.5% raise that was scheduled to take effect in July 2020 and would have increased his base salary to $293,825. He also receives health and retirement benefits as well as a $500 per month car allowance, according to his contract.

In July 2019, Pietig said at a city council meeting that Dupuis would be a serious candidate for city manager. At that time, councilmembers approved a 10% salary increase totaling $25,000 per year to retain Dupuis after other cities tried to recruit her for city manager positions. It’s important for an incoming city manager to be familiar with Laguna Beach’s unusual characteristics as a city of 23,000 residents with its own public safety agencies, unique geography, and a passionate constituency, Pietig said.

Laguna Beach resident Jerome Pudwill disagrees with the suggestion that only long-time city staffers should be considered for the city manager role.

“You got to say it’s helpful but my god it shouldn’t be the only criteria,” he said. “I want to put people before profits around here for a change or at least give them an equal footing.”

The City Council’s process for reviewing and voting the Promenade at Forest Avenue, which was spearheaded by Dupuis, was “extremely disingenuous to the residents,” Pudwill said.

“The populace was totally unaware that this was in the works,” he said. “To my recollection, it was presented … and approved in one meeting.”

The Laguna Beach Human Resources Department referred questions regarding the next steps for city manager recruitment to Pietig.

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  1. As an incredible coastal habitat, Laguna Beach needs City staff and City Council to become more educated on local ocean conditions and dynamics. The Laguna Bluebelt is often referred to as an underwater “Serengeti” for it’s diversity of marine life. Unfortunately, the massive die-off of Laguna’s kelp forests signals serious problems in the ecology but this remains invisible to most leaders and residents. We continue to discharge all of Laguna’s 2 million gallons per day of secondary sewage to our underwater national park. A new City Manager must understand Laguna’s unique ocean ecology to be an effective manager of this most precious resource and the foundation of the eco-nomy.


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