Planning Director Thomas G. Merrell, who announced his resignation Monday, became the fifth top city staff member do so in the past few months.
Merrell, 48, who had held his post for 14 years, said in a letter to City Manager Stephen B. Julian that he had been waiting for "quite some time" for the right moment to announce his resignation. He will remain at his $75,312-a-year post until another planning director is selected.
"It is clear that this is the best timing, for me and the city, to retire from full-time public service and begin to pursue other personal goals I have held for a lifetime," Merrell said in his letter.
Merrell's retirement comes in the midst of a restructuring of city staff by Julian. Merrell said the restructuring has been needed for some time and he will remain with the city until it is complete.
"What we're doing is creating a more appropriate organizational structure for those who work in the city," Merrell said. "I'm expected to play a key role in implementing it."
Along with Merrell, the city's public works director, city clerk, an assistant to the city manager and the director of community services all have left city service recently. Mary Ann Hanover, the former city clerk, and William Murphy, the former director of public works, also retired. Tom Baker, the former director of community services, now has his own photography business.
Some in the community see the departures as evidence of lack of confidence in the city's leadership.
"That's a clean sweep, five out of five department heads," said Carolyn Nash, a planning commissioner who also resigned last month. "I think it's due to a lack of proper management."
Nash, whose husband is a former San Juan Capistrano mayor, quit after charging that the city was offering special treatment to some people, although she did not specify. She also claimed that the city's system of reviewing development was being circumvented by members of the City Council and the city manager.
Merrell said there was little basis for Nash's criticism.
"Some of the members of city commissions and boards are often forced to deal with issues at arm's length and are not able to be integrally involved with projects or with issues," Merrell said. "So it's easy to understand how a member of a commission can look at a decision and wonder how it came about."
City Councilman Phillip R. Schwartze, a former member of the planning staff who worked for Merrell, also disagreed that the resignations are signs of disgruntlement.
"Tom has talked about this for some time and he was just waiting for the appropriate moment," Schwartze said. "He's been at the city for 14 years and was feeling stymied in his career. He knows he can make a lot more money as a consultant."
Schwartze, the owner of the PRS Group, a real estate consulting firm, and a former member of the county Local Agency Formation Commission, also denied that the staff has been hit by undue turnover.
"Our staff has been together longer than any other staff in Orange County," Schwartze said.