Imagine you’re a young girl growing up in a country that suddenly undergoes an extremist revolution. Your family’s business is confiscated, your bank accounts closed, and as a woman, you are stripped of your freedoms. So, your family emigrates 7,600 miles to California to start over from scratch, and you are taught that with hard work, you could make a better life for yourself.
Your older brother Sunny recognizes your gift for math and counsels a career in engineering. So you graduate from UC Irvine with a degree in applied mathematics. You score your first job as a transportation planner for the County of Orange and spend the next five years on the rise. Then the Orange County Transportation Authority comes a knockin’, and you spend the next 10 years managing large transportation and commuter rail projects. Along the way, you marry your soulmate and have a baby girl. Life is sweet, but Sunny never gets to see his younger sister thrive. He dies tragically in a car accident three years after moving here.
Then tragedy strikes again just after you land a new job with the City of Anaheim as their Transportation Manager. First, your father dies, then your beloved husband – and father of your then 12-year-old daughter Sunnyjoy (named after your brother) – slips into a coma after suffering cardiac arrest. Your choices are limited: leave him hooked up and in a vegetative state indefinitely, or take him somewhere serene to live out his days in hospice with family by his side. So you rent a home in Laguna Beach to care for him, a place near and dear to him and your family’s heart. Soon after, your mom passes too.
You take a year off to recover, but you have a daughter to raise. So you score a job with the City of Irvine, where you work for seven years and win numerous awards as the deputy public works director, managing more than 100 employees. Along the way, your daughter graduates from Cal Poly, which leads to a doctorate she’s now completing in microbiology from UC Berkeley. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And you find a new soulmate and get married. Your life is coming together again.
Then, over the 2015 Christmas holidays, you learn of a job opening in Laguna Beach for public works director and assistant city manager – your forever dream job in your dream community. You leap for joy and announce to your husband and daughter that you will all be moving to Laguna soon.
Which, of course, you manifest because who in their right mind wouldn’t hire someone with that deep a resume of relevant experience? You excel over the next five years, overseeing public works, community services, cultural arts and the public communications team; hiring senior staff; developing legislative platforms, working with government affairs, and navigating the shoals of the COVID pandemic, including implementing the first-ever dining and retail promenade to ensure businesses can continue operating.
You’re so good at your job, and it’s a slam dunk that on the retirement of your boss, you’ll succeed him. Which happens in 2021. Wow, what a trajectory, from an Iranian immigrant to the first female CEO of Laguna Beach, California! We are, of course, talking about Shohreh Dupuis.
But now imagine, just at the pinnacle of your success, when life seems so good, a small group of residents come after you with a torrent of mendacious accusations about corruption and incompetence. They paint you as pro-business and anti-resident as if a city manager could in any way act political when, in fact, you serve at the will of three council votes. They accuse you of colluding with a fellow Persian developer, of working too closely with a councilman they don’t like and, most egregiously, of helping defeat their ballot initiative Measure Q, which would put development approvals on projects large and small in the hands of residents, essentially derailing projects before they began.
The ringleader was the perpetually outraged and out-voted councilman George Weiss, grandstanding for his constituency of anti-development fabulists by finding a scapegoat to bully and harass. City staff witnessed episodes of him unhinged in Shohreh’s office, screaming and banging his fists on her desk in a somewhat terrifying fit of rage.
We all know about the despicable campaign of harassment that followed: her home was vandalized, George and his acolytes produced a mountain of debunked conspiracy theories of her trying to get out of a traffic ticket, and they shamed her in every public forum they could. Yet they could never come up with a single material breach of her responsibilities because there simply weren’t any. In fact, these privileged, armchair cowboys and girls don’t even know what she does and how hard she works to preside over a staff of 300. We have wonderful department heads who Shohreh hired and empowered to do their best work. She overhauled and modernized systems and equipment, and the city has never run better.
What these antagonists also didn’t know was that these groundless public attacks and smears were sending her into panic attacks so severe that, in one staff meeting, she had to be transported to the hospital. And since Shohreh is a human being – with real feelings – she finally said, “Who needs this?” And resigned. What a sorry, heartless end to a brilliant success story.
We are the real victims as we will lose far more than a talented administrator who agreed to a paltry settlement because she couldn’t get out soon enough. We lose opportunity costs, with months and maybe years sacrificed while we select and groom a new city manager to pick up where Shohreh left off. We also shrink the talent pool because what qualified applicant wants to be vulnerable to public attacks and shaming?
Thank you, Shohreh, for the incredibly hard work you put into making our fair city better. I applaud you for having the courage to walk away from this toxic soup of a town. Everyone who knows you knows you were married to the job. Especially your husband. Now he gets you back, and may you finally find some peace. I apologize for the cruelty of our community. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that, instead of celebrating an amazing immigrant success story, we chose to tear you down. You are truly an embodiment of the American dream.
Maybe after some time off you will be motivated to apply your considerable talents to another city. Their community would be lucky to have you. Just as we were.
Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected].