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Exodus at Top Has Oceanside in a Quandary : New Council Is Blamed as Paid Staffers Leave

September 20, 1987|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

A decade ago, the future looked bleak for Oceanside. The city was saddled with a woebegone image as a haven for Marines from Camp Pendleton next door. Seedy bars and tattoo parlors dotted the downtown area. Crime was skyrocketing, commerce was on a downward slide.

In recent years, however, Oceanside's fortunes seemed to be changing. A long-dormant downtown redevelopment program began to make progress. New businesses started to trickle into town. Projects that had been on the municipal wish list for years--from solutions to the city's beach erosion problems to money for vital highway improvements--suddenly were being realized.

As council members saw it, the chief reason for such welcomed progress was the solid efforts of a top-notch administrative staff, which city leaders began piecing together in the early 1980s.

"I look at assembling that staff as one of our major accomplishments," said Ted Marioncelli, a former councilman. "You can be the best leader in the world, but you're in trouble if you don't have someone to carry it out."

Beginning to Crumble

Now, however, that staff is beginning to crumble.

Since a new council came into power late last year, five top city administrators have either left voluntarily or been forced out. The flurry of departures culminated during the past month with the announced resignations of City Manager Suzanne Foucault and Assistant City Manager William Workman. Both will leave before the month is out.

Some City Hall insiders blame the loss of the city's executive brain trust on the new council.

Since two new members were seated after the November election, they say, the council has gone on a binge of "staff bashing," lashing out at top administrators during the city's twice-monthly public meetings.

Moreover, the council's meddling has at times crossed the strict legal limits separating the administrative responsibilities of the city staff and the policy-making role of elected leaders, some employees say. Staff morale is down and some department heads are looking for other jobs, they say.

While a majority of the council insists the municipal ship of state is steaming forward on a steady course, other elected leaders suggest that the city has run aground. They worry that Oceanside is on the verge of losing the momentum that has been gained in recent years.

Headed for 'Real Trouble'

"If we lose one or two more key staff members, then we're in real trouble," said Mayor Larry Bagley. "We built a solid staff and accomplished a lot--a new City Hall, restoration of the waterfront, a new pier.

"But now I think we're on the brink of going back to where we were as far as dissension at the top. The only reason we've been able to make some progress recently was because of a lack of dissension."

Indeed, Bagley remembers well the way it was.

Back then, political infighting had become almost a way of life in Oceanside. At one juncture in 1980, Bagley donned a referee's striped shirt and a whistle at a council meeting to make a point with his squabbling colleagues. A return to such times, Bagley said, could dramatically restrict the city's ability to recruit high-quality candidates for the current staff openings.

Several other council members, however, insist that the city is not even close to sliding down the muddy path of its past.

Deputy Mayor Sam Williamson said he sees no pattern in the departures of key staff members, suggesting instead that the various resignations or firings are simply part of the natural process of change that occurs in government every few years.

Moreover, Williamson and his chief council allies, Ben Ramsey and Lucy Chavez, contend that Oceanside will continue to make progress despite the gaps in the executive flow chart.

"It's going to be a change and there's going to be movement, but I think we've got a good staff and I think people here will carry on like professionals," Williamson said. "I see it just as a change. On any normal city or corporation, there are changes like this. I don't think there will be a slowdown of any projects."

Many Shoes to Fill

Nonetheless, when Foucault cleans out her office and departs Sept. 30, the council will have several jobs to fill.

Since Community Development Director Doug Spickard was fired in February, his post has remained vacant; Workman filled in as acting director of the department in addition to his duties as assistant city manager.

When Police Chief Larry Marshall decided to take early retirement, the position was filled in March by Cmdr. Robert Smith. Since then, however, Smith has been stricken by cancer and has spent little time on the job.

The only post that has been filled on a permanent basis is that of redevelopment director, where former assistant Patricia Hightman was selected to fill the vacancy created when Margueretta Gulati left in February to take a similar job in Riverside.

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