Retiring City Manager Ken Frank warns elected officials to be leery of getting cozy with employee unions lobbying for higher pensions.
“Because our council members haven’t run for higher office and haven’t needed big money for campaigns, they haven’t gotten into bed as much with the police and fire unions,” said Frank, in a candid farewell interview with local reporters Monday that included rarely publicly voiced assessments about some of the town’s entrenched issues.
Labor relation contracts for both police and fire are expected to become a controversial issue for the City Council within the next six months. Frank said the council, as part of a statewide trend to reduce city expenses, could likely extend retirement age from 50 to 55 years of age and require new public safety employees to contribute to their retirement pay rather than it coming exclusively from public funds.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank, 66, who retires on Dec. 10 and will receive 80 percent of his outgoing annual salary of $247,000 as pension pay. “I’m paid well and I’ve been in the system a long time,” he commented.
Substance abuse, particularly among the city’s younger generation, is another controversial concern Frank feels the community has denied rather than considered serious solutions. “That’s more of a problem in the community than I think people would like to realize,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s almost socially acceptable in some households.” He said police citing younger people for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as marijuana and LSD is increasing.
“You lose them at that stage and they become the homeless population of tomorrow,” he conjectured, adding that the city’s homeless population was also ignored until camping in parks and on beaches became more visible and contentious. He predicted substance abuse would also remain unaddressed until a tragedy trigger’s interest.
Frank also feels the homeless issue requires a better solution than the existing overnight shelter in the canyon. “Rather than having them come into town every day and get drunk and steal and start fights, is there a way we can find where they could be someplace in the daytime and have some supervision? Where they’re not going to cause problems for everybody else?”
In assessing his own 31-year tenure, Frank feels his greatest contribution was in encouraging the expansion of the city’s greenbelt. “The hills are pretty much here today as they were 30 years ago,” said Frank, who thinks few people knew he was an advocate for open-space preservation when he was hired. “I’ve been able to spend $40 to $50 million of city money buying open space; what a deal,” he said, making a similar claim at a well-attended retirement party that night.
Fiscally, the Montage resort has also assisted in keeping the town in the green. “It used to be that I prayed to the Surf and Sand (Resort) each night,” Frank jested, “but the Montage has exceeded my estimates of what it would generate.”
Estimated taxes from the hotel have added more than $3 million annually to city coffers. Property taxes from houses and condominiums on the Montage’s property, which sell for up to $15 million and $6 million respectively, inject another $1 million annually to the city’s capital improvement fund.
The biggest change in Laguna, according to Frank, is the escalation of residential property values. While he’s benefited as a homeowner, soaring home costs have permanently altered the town’s demographics. “You don’t see our employees being able to live here,” he said. “They’ve had to move out.” The city provides housing subsidies for two fire department battalion chiefs, the assistant city manager and the sewer services supervisor so they can live in Laguna. The city also subsidizes four on-call sewer employees at $1,000 a month for rent. “Otherwise we’d have nobody left in town,” Frank said.
Conceding that he’s been criticized for his monarchial managerial style, impatience and “need to control,” Frank characterized himself as pragmatic, flexible and moderate.
In retrospect, Frank admitted the job might have been easier had he started as assistant city manager. “I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew,” he said, adding that incoming City Manager John Pietig, who has been assistant city manager here for nine years, has an advantage. “He’s really much better prepared than I was when I started and we pay a lot more than we did when I started.”