Two department heads have announced within the last 10 days that they will resign, bringing to four the number of top-ranking bureaucrats to leave the city in eight months.
Some officials blame the exodus of nearly half the city's nine department heads on City Manager Mark Lewis, who they say has created a difficult work environment. Lewis' backers, however, say political tensions in Monterey Park, including those generated by the City Council, may be at fault.
Mayor Betty Couch and Councilwoman Marie Purvis, longtime foes of the city manager, said the two department heads who resigned most recently--Personnel Director Mario Beas and City Librarian Elizabeth Minter--are only the latest high-ranking employees to leave because of Lewis. Over the past year, Couch and Purvis have assailed Lewis on a wide range of matters, and twice have unsuccessfully called for his resignation.
Beas, who will resign July 26, and Minter, who leaves Aug. 16, both refused to state on the record their reasons for leaving. They would not say whether they were unhappy working for Lewis.
But Couch said: "When (Minter) came to Monterey Park, she said this is where she's going to retire from. She loves her employees. That only leaves one other reason why she's not going to stay--Mark (Lewis)."
But Lewis and two other council members--Fred Balderrama and Sam Kiang--steadfastly rejected the notion that the city manager had driven Beas and Minter to look for employment elsewhere. Lewis blamed Monterey Park's "history of political turmoil" for the tense atmosphere in City Hall.
"Mario and I have an excellent relationship," Lewis said Tuesday. "With Elizabeth, the relationship's been fine. Two department heads are leaving and going on to better jobs."
Beas and Minter's resignations appeared to shock all five council members, who said Beas and Minter were valuable, hard-working employees. Beas, who has been with the city only 14 months, will become deputy director of Long Beach's Civil Service Department. Minter, Monterey Park's librarian for more than three years, will become director of the Placentia Library District in Orange County.
Assistant City Manager Susan Chow will be acting personnel director until the city finds a permanent replacement for Beas. The Board of Directors of Bruggemeyer Memorial Library--which Minter heads--will meet at 8:30 tonight to discuss hiring a successor.
The departure of four of Monterey Park's nine department directors since December represents a turnover rate of 44%. Beas, who worked for 10 years in personnel departments in Long Beach and Santa Ana, said the rate seemed unusually high. A generally accepted annual turnover for city employees, he said, is 8%. Overall, Monterey Park's employee turnover rate was 7% in fiscal year 1990-91, although it was 21% the year before, Beas said.
Balderrama said that if there is low morale among employees, City Council members may be partly at fault. Last week, Balderrama said, he turned on his television set to watch the end of a council meeting he was unable to attend. And he didn't like what he saw.
"They were bickering and fighting, belittling each other, belittling the staff," Balderrama said. "I'm not going to say Betty and Marie were, but they certainly are the more vocal. They've been pointing the finger at Mark for over a year and a half now."
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Judy Chu, who has supported Lewis in the past, said Beas and Minter have never complained about Lewis to her, and it still is "too premature" to determine the reasons they are leaving.
"The resignation of these two people is a serious matter," she said. "I really want to get to the bottom of this."
In recent months, Monterey Park has lost two other department heads--former Urban Planning and Design Director Margo Wheeler and former Parks and Recreation Director Susan Hunt. Wheeler resigned Dec. 30 and Hunt left on May 5.
In addition, Support Services Manager Warren Funk, who was not a department head, left April 5. Wheeler and Hunt's positions have been filled, but Funk's job is being performed by an acting manager.
In the midst of all the resignations, Fire Chief Allen McComb told city officials Friday that he will retire in 13 months, when he will be eligible for his maximum retirement benefits.
Purvis said she knows of three more employees with "significant positions" who plan to resign soon, but would not name them. She said many employees in Monterey Park "don't want to be part of a team that has a bad reputation," but won't speak out because they fear retaliation.
"This is not going to stop," Purvis said.
But Kiang said Purvis and Couch are unfairly using the resignations to bolster their long-running complaints that Lewis is a poor manager.
"If there are witnesses (to mismanagement), let them speak," Kiang said. "If not, I'd wish they'd shut up. They're doing the city a big disservice."