There has been a lot of noise about the departure of former Laguna Beach City Manager Shoreh Dupuis (such as Fried’s screed a couple of weeks ago). Most of it expresses sympathy for Dupuis or hostility to council members. I suggest taking a breath. Here is the core reality: in every city, a city manager serves “at the pleasure” of the majority of city councilmembers. An effective city manager attempts to implement the agenda of the council majority while meeting the essential goal of efficiently running the city staff. Ideally, the city manager also has generally positive interactions with citizens. Many city managers are terminated or leave when they no longer have the support of the council majority, for any reason, even “without cause.”
And here is a slightly more contested reality: Although a hard worker, Dupuis’ brief 2-year regime as city manager was characterized by serious problems. A few examples: promoting the unwise purchase of Ti Amo for a fire station; bungling the Hotel Laguna remodel and ownership control disputes; uncommunicative and even hostile responses to citizen information requests; unwillingness to manage staff to ensure adequate lead time in publishing staff reports before council meetings; low morale among many staff; less transparency and more frequent closed session decisions and actions than previous administrations; and many more. There’s no question Dupuis’ management style and actions generated considerable frustration and criticism from many people who were involved with or paying attention to our community’s governance, certainly not just from George Weiss.
In a generous severance agreement, Dupuis was given not only the required multi-month salary compensation and multiple benefits that she is entitled to at retirement or resignation or termination by council, but also a continuing great deal on her housing costs, plus an additional $223,000 if she agrees to drop the filing (she made?) which claims, according to the press release, that she experienced a “hostile workplace” and a “period of conflict with a city councilmember.”
Serving as Laguna’s city manager is not an easy job. But in many years on the job, and despite splits on the council and controversies in the community, Ken Frank and John Pietig managed staff, worked with council, and dealt with the public far more effectively than Dupuis has during only two years. In every city, city managers face occasional work environment tensions, staff issues, citizen complaints and even open disagreements with councilmembers. Their highly compensated job requires that city managers consistently exercise the skills to manage that work environment well and to deal with councilmembers, staff and citizens in a collegial and responsive manner. If they do not, city managers are replaced.
Because so much in our city happens in “closed sessions,” we will probably never fully know what was happening in this case. Perhaps the council blinked at the threat of a legal proceeding and/or the council did what the majority has the right to do – make a cost-benefit analysis to terminate a flawed city manager. Let’s hope our next city manager is more effective than Dupuis.
Jim Danziger, emeritus professor of political science