String of Laguna Beach public safety retirements sparks questions

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The announced retirements of three senior public safety employees in the last month have raised questions among some community members about what else Laguna Beach can do to retain senior staff.

Fire marshal James Brown, 56, said he will retire on June 1 after five years with the Laguna Beach Fire Department. Brown’s retirement announcement follows the announcement by Laguna Beach fire chief Mike Garcia that he plans to retire July 1.

After nearly 28 years on the force, former police Lt. Jim Cota retired on April 1 following a tribute by police and fire employees outside the Laguna Beach Police Department. Former Capt. Richard Rocchi and special projects coordinator Jason Kravetz also retired April 1, coinciding with CalPers reinstating post-retirement requirements suspended after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Clarification: After the Independent went to print, a city spokesperson clarified that Rocchi and Kravetz officially retired years ago and had been working temporary positions while the City filled vacancies.

Lt. Jim Cota of the Laguna Beach Police Department enjoys a cup of coffee at Zinc Cafe. Photo courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

Councilmember George Weiss said he’s heard no discussion among his elected colleagues on whether they’re concerned about these exits.

“We have to do more because our role is oversight. The City Manager reports to us and should be sharing why this is happening and what we can do to mitigate it,” Councilmember George Weiss said.

According to CalPERS, the state agency managing retiree benefits, members previously employed by public agencies average 21 years of service at retirement, Assistant City Manager Ken Domer said in a prepared statement.

“We are proud to have such longevity in our ranks and thank all of our retiring staff members for going above and beyond to serve our community,” Domer said.

In a city council-sponsored survey of city staffers, 85% of respondents said the overall staff morale in their work group was excellent, good, or fair. In the survey, 75% of respondents said the organization does an excellent, good, or fair job at showing employee appreciation.

“Overall, we had a high percentage of employees who expressed satisfaction with working for the City of Laguna Beach,” Mayor Sue Kempf said in a press release. “As always, we strive to improve in all facets of City government. Using this data, we can take action and create a better work environment for staff based on the information received.”

A city employee task force has been working to implement new programs based on the survey’s results. The Human Resources division is looking at new training and professional development programs, employee recognition and health and wellness programs.

Brown came to Laguna Beach in 2017 after serving as a fire protection analyst with Huntington Beach for eight years.

“The City and Department have a rich and proud history, and being the Fire Marshal has been the pinnacle of my public service career,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “There have been many challenges, and it has been very rewarding to face each as part of the Fire Department team, and find solutions that benefit the City and residents.”

Last year, Brown and Garcia endured their share of criticism from community members as city officials sought to create local guidelines to blunt the impacts of a new state law requiring homeowners to provide defensible space in neighborhoods with very high fire risk.

Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mark Garcia speaks during an aerial firefighting demonstration in November 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Some homeowners questioned the fairness of a fire department directive to tear up landscaping plans already approved by city officials. Tree advocates also voiced concerns that removing mature trees would undermine the historic urban forest, warm-up public streets, and stymie efforts to mitigate climate change. This lobbying effort didn’t deter the City Council from adopting the defensible space guidelines.

“One of the primary focuses of my tenure in the Fire Department has been to make significant improvement in is wildland fire prevention,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

Senior staffers had also tasked Brown with speeding up building plan review turnaround, consistent interpretations of city building law, and timely responses to the public’s questions.

“All of these have been achieved during my time here with the Department. I am proud to have been the team lead in providing the best fire / life safety protection service to the City,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

Brown noted Laguna Beach hired fire safety inspector Justin Day last year to oversee wildfire mitigation efforts for the Fire Department, including the creation of a drone program.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said Brown was important in helping implement the 2019 Wildfire Safety and Mitigation plan spearheaded by a council subcommittee he served on with Mayor Sue Kempf.

“James really helped us get a new focus on fire safety, particularly his work on defensible space around homes. He really moved the needle on this,” Whalen said.

The Emerald Fire has reinvigorated the public’s interest in seeing expeditious action at city hall to shore-up wildfire defenses.

“It’s pretty clear things are getting more severe. When you have an event like the one we had a month ago, it’s a wake-up call,” Whalen said.

Employers in both the private and public sectors have coped with what some economists have coined “The Great Resignation”. After more than two years of COVID-19, particularly frontline public safety employees have shared experiences with burnout and fears of bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members—some have opted to retire early, forgoing their full pension.

Unforeseen events have also played a role. Cota was a close friend of a Huntington Beach police officer who died in a recent helicopter crash. He said the loss forced him to reevaluate his life-work balance.

The City Council needs to take a second look at the internal employee survey it commissioned and exercise more oversight, otherwise, the public can expect continuous employee turnover, Laguna Beach resident MJ Abraham said.

“These three recent resignations do cause some concern. There is every reason to be concerned and ask why are our upper-level staff leaving and maybe look at city management style,” Abraham said.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. A lot of people, myself included, think Shohreh is highly qualified and doing a good job despite constant criticism from a subset of citizens who can’t elect enough like-minded people to the City Council. Even if you could, Nancee, as someone with a 30 year memory, you may recall how many Council members ran on an anti-Ken Frank platform, only to discover they didn’t have a clue what it took to be a competent city manager.

  2. Political Opinions don’t count, unless you can site specific incompetences, but this is Laguna so what the heck, diareah of the mouth is pretty significant.

  3. Nancee, what do you know about the role of our City Manager? What do you know about her accomplishments? How are you gauging the trajectory that she’s on? Is your skewed opinion informed by idiots like Toni Iseman, George Weiss, Michelle Monda, MJ Abraham, and others who are focused on gaining control over City Hall? Please educate us on your valued sources, or better yet, professional experience with her. (Nextdoor doesnt count)

    BTW, the loose with the facts article you’re responding to incorrectly states that 5 safety employees are retiring when it’s actually 3. The other two were previously retired Police Captains who left the City after the end of short term temporary assignments. It’s no secret that most government employees go to other jobs to raise their salaries and they tend to retire in their 50s when they’ve reached full pension eligability.

    Shohreh Dupuis is on course to be the best City Manager in our history and that says a lot given our previous ones. Maybe you should educate yourself before slandering our highest-level employee and making a fool out of yourself.

    Peter

  4. Gee Chris Quilter. Can you give me any of her qualifications to be City Manager? Because when she was selected by the developer friendly troika of Blake/Whalen/Kempf she had zero City Manager experience. And you don’t find it interesting that all these qualified employees are leaving now??? Just like those of us, you know, that “subset of citizens” you love to disparage for pointing out facts, predicted would happen starting with the HR woman who saw the handwriting on the wall with Shohreh. And her lovely statement about how she conducts all the exit interviews personally to find out why people are leaving is a joke. As if anyone would tell her to her face that she is a horrible manager with a dictatorial style that everyone wants to get away from. At least that’s what I hear from staff who I talk to. Anonymous of course because she is a tyrant who would punish them. It’s a sad day when our city is being led by an incompetent manager who terrifies the people who work for her. I’m still trying to figure out what Shohreh’s agenda is unless it is to create a whole group of people she favors who will push whatever crazy thing she wants to do with our town. Like $10k for a city seal in Council chambers. Seriously????

  5. Thank you INDY for addressing this issue and allowing me to weigh in. I care about our City and try to educate voters about our local government and leadership selection through my blog Lagunabeachchat.com. CHAT stands for city hall accountability and transparency. I worked in city government and understand the challenges on both sides.

    Re: Recent city employee resignations topic. Fact is, high employee turnovers and rumors of low morale and a lack of satisfaction with City management in City departments and primarily the public safety depts. were extensively expressed by a substantial number of residents to the recruitment firm and City Council members directly during the City Manager search. Much of the discussion was centered around the internal candidate Shohreh Dupuis. The Council chose to completely ignore the input and requests to conduct an outside employee survey before filling the position. Since then, as predicted, employee resignations/separations have continued at all levels and it appears no progress has been made. The recent five top-level resignations noted here in just one month period after Ms. Dupuis has been on the job less than a year IMO are indicative of a systemic management and retention problem. Highly-paid expert staff like Garcia and Brown only lasted 4-5 years here. Why? In addition, we had the still mysterious and abrupt resignation of our well-respected Police Chief Thompson after only 5 months on the job citing management style differences. We also had a non-city sponsored public safety survey that clearly disagreed with the internal city created survey. And the private grumblings by City employees continue no matter what our city leaders suggest.

    Re: Facts vs opinion. I find it’s the same city insiders (who probably have never worked in a city government job so have no idea about the culture issues) trying to discount constituents input by suggesting that only a small group offer political input and no facts. Simply not true. I do see that no facts are offered here by such commenters.

    I suggest the City Council take an in-depth objective look at why we are not retaining employees especially top-level staff. This isn’t going away. And this should be part of Ms. Dupuis one year performance evaluation. Not just how good she is at catering to only three voting Councilman members. This attitude isn’t acceptable. It’s her job to hire the right staff, grow and keep them. Constant turnovers cost us millions in time, training and salaries. Let’s take a look at our employee hires and separations over the last 5-6 years and compared it to a like City our size for the same period. Not a national employee average as our city does. It’s the prudent thing to do. IMO- City leaders who continue to ignore such costly City services problems should not be allowed to represent us. Thank you. Elections are in November. Vett wisely.

  6. Nancee, please share your thoughts, reasoning and facts with council members as they are the ones responsible for hiring and overseeing CM Shohreh Dupuis. FYI – the sentiment you express isn’t new. City Council members and the recruitment firm received extensive constituent feedback personally and publicly about the concerns over high employee turn-overs and the rumors of serious discontent and morale within city depts. and especially the public safety depts. and the dictator management style of Ms.Dupuis. It appears there has been no improvement as we regularly keep losing talented and capable staff. Responsible city leaders will welcome all constituents input, Those that don’t do not belong in public office and should not be serving stakeholders of Laguna Beach. Thank you for speaking up.

  7. Let me get this straight: the Indy writes a story about a few senior public safety officers retiring after years of service to activate their fat pensions (and later prints a retraction saying that 2 had retired years ago). This sparks outrage from the weekly Frothing Few that all is not right in the State of Denmark. Michele, I know it must be exhausting “trying to figure out what Shohreh’s agenda is.” Well, MJ spelled it out right below you: “Catering to only three voting Councilman members.” Bingo. The same nefarious agenda that Ken Frank, John Pietig, and City managers around the world have. Don’t like it? Vote them out.

  8. B Fried. Thanks for your sharing your perspective. This isn’t just about a few public safety officers retiring. It’s about the overall employee turnover, the lack of employee retention and the morale concerns expressed by many employees who work for us and/or have left our city for reasons other than more money in the last dacade. Even those who retire under the “retiree separation category” can leave and go work elsewhere. Anyone in business is well aware of why employees leave a well-paying job and what constant employee turnover results in. Not usually positive.

    Sorry but I don’t agree with our city managers approach to hiring top-level city employees near the end of their work careers at higher level salaries so they can stay 3-5 years and then retire from our city. Experienced and effective city managers hire, train and retain employees. That would be in employee and taxpayers best interests.

    FYI – I have worked under numerous city managers and can assure voters that this managers approach is wrong and will cost us taxpayers more money and our city services will deteriorate. We’re already hearing constant pleas from this manager for more staff. IMO – this is due to her inexperience and inability to retain employees. Fact is, high turnover cost us time and money. I am in total agreement that we need to vote out public officials who accept such myopic management of our employees. Hopefully, this will accomplished in November.

    Finally, I’m not sure why you feel the need to be so sarcastic towards other locals who voice their personal opinions to make your points. Not necessary. Thanks.

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