A noticeable rate of employee turn-over has occurred at Laguna Beach City Hall in recent years, prompting questions about competitive pay, benefits and parting expertise.
Since 2012, 16 senior-level employees have either resigned or retired. One of the most noticeable was Ben Siegel, who left Laguna as deputy city manager in January to become city manager for San Juan Capistrano. “Did I cause all this?” Siegel quipped this week. Siegel had been tagged by Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig to fill retiring Steve May’s position as director of public works.
“To become city manager was a professional goal of mine,” said Siegel. “It was a chance I really couldn’t pass up. It’s certainly not a reflection on Laguna. I loved working there.” Siegel, who still resides in town, was hired by San Juan Capistrano last November. He started his new job in February.
Siegel said there were no permanent department heads in San Juan when he arrived there, mostly due to promotions elsewhere. He recruited May to join him. May, who had retired from Laguna Beach, was rehired as as acting interim public works director until a replacement was found. As San Juan’s new director of public works and utilities, May is now eligible for a second pension in San Juan Capistrano. He earned $317,000 in salary and benefits annually in Laguna Beach, commensurate to the city manager.
Tom Toman, Laguna’s deputy public works director, worked for both Siegel and May in Laguna. He resigns today, Friday, May 6, to join them in San Juan next week as assistant director of public works and utilities. The promotion, he said, brings greater pay.
Pietig, who took his post as city manager six years ago, attributes the exodus to the convergence of several retirement-age employees who had accumulated attractive pensions. “Three-quarters or more simply reached retirement age after long careers,” said Pietig, who was assistant to former City Manager Ken Frank for nine years.
Salary, commute time and cost of housing are factors that also contribute to labor turnover, said Pietig. In the case of Toman, it was partly personal preference. “He enjoyed working for Ben and for Steve and he is again,” said Pietig. “We’re a small organization and there’s only so many things I can do to help people promote.”
Some people can make more money going than staying, said Mayor Steve Dicterow, and they retire so they can essentially receive two incomes, a pension payout and a salary. “It’s often very financially beneficial for people to take their full retirement and then, if they still want to be working, they can do independent contractor work or take another job,” said Dicterow.
May said he was planning on consulting in retirement but “jumped at” the opportunity in San Juan Capistrano. “Sometimes you decide it’s time to move on and do something different,” he said.
Verna Rollinger, a former city clerk for Laguna Beach for 35 years, said there are concerns about the loss of historical knowledge, particularly in the community development department.
Several long-time employees left the city’s planning department, which oversees compliance with a range of development regulation. Ann Larson, assistant director of community development and liaison to the city’s Planning Commission, retires in June. In 2014, Carolyn Martin and Monica Tuchser, both principal planners, retired. So did their boss, John Montgomery, and his top deputy and zoning administrator, Liane Schuller.
“On the planning and community development side,” said Pietig, “we’ve had a combination of retirements and we’ve added staff to address a higher level of service. We’ve been trying to improve our service in that department and more detail in design review reports and those things have resulted in the need for some additional positions.”
Siegel, who was hired by Laguna Beach in 2012, disagrees with the assertion that employee turnover reflects a loss of expertise. “Honestly, just because you don’t have people who’ve been there for 20 or 30 years doesn’t mean you can’t have an effectively run and effectively managed organization,” he said. “And there still are plenty of long-tenure employees there.”