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As Council Bickers, Some Key Staffers in Dana Point Quit

Government: High-ranking employees cite benefit cuts, power struggle. Mayor sees transition as healthy.


DANA POINT — City Atty. Jerry Patterson resigned two weeks ago. The city clerk left in January. The city manager quit last summer. The economic development manager has said goodbye. A code enforcement officer split. The community development secretary changed jobs. And the senior planner has given notice.

Six of the city's key employees have abandoned their positions in the last nine months. Although the community development secretary received a promotion, the others have left, or are leaving, Dana Point municipal government.

"There's no coincidence here," Councilwoman Karen Lloreda said. "I'm very concerned that the really good quality employees are leaving because the working conditions at City Hall are so bad."

City employees, past and present, say the exodus is no surprise after benefit reductions last year, a recall campaign that left many uneasy and an ongoing power struggle between the new so-called pro-resident council majority and the two minority council members whom critics say are pro-development--a contention they deny.

While some in city government say the political tension has cost the city talented public servants, others see the transition as healthy for Dana Point.

"It's an indication that the city is reorganizing itself and getting more efficient to operate more like a business," said Mayor Bill Ossenmacher, who is part of the new majority. "We are trying to determine which positions are essential and filling those. Usually things move quicker with less bureaucracy."

The city is interviewing applicants for two of the vacated positions. A new city attorney is scheduled to be introduced Tuesday. Meanwhile, council members are weeding through 62 city manager candidates and 20 potential city clerks.

Interim City Manager Dayle Keller, who did not apply for the full-time position but would like to stay on in Dana Point, tries to be circumspect.

"I know the council is moving forward," she said. "I think new cities just have a little more growing pains than more established cities."

Former clerk Sharon Dawson, who left Dana Point for Santa Clarita, offered a bit of advice for her replacement: "Keep your sense of humor."

During an average Tuesday night meeting, council members have been known to be tough on staff members.

"No one wants to go forth with a recommendation because they don't want to get their head bitten off," said Mike Eggers, Dana Point's first mayor. "Too many things have been personalized. That's where you lose."

Stinging comments also are tossed back and forth between Ossenmacher and "the two council members to [his] left," as he refers to minority members Lloreda and Harold R. Kaufman, instead of by name.

"The open expression of hostility in the public meetings is difficult on anybody who is trying to do their job," Lloreda said. "It's denigrating, humiliating, and they sit there, and they pretty much have to take it.

"Everybody has to be asking, 'Why in the world am I staying here?' "

During the last public meeting, Lloreda turned to the mayor and said: "Bill, you're full of it."

"You're right, Karen," Ossenmacher replied.

At that same meeting, a resident who frequents the meetings stood nose to nose with Kaufman during a recess and yelled, "I've had enough of this lying, cheating, malarkey around here!" as she marched out the door.

When the council returned, Ossenmacher quipped: "Welcome back to the Dana Point City Council show."

That was a tame meeting.

"There was still battling going on when I was there," said John Sherwood, former economic development manager, who now works for a landscape architect firm. "I'm not sure the staff has a clear understanding of where they stand with the council. There is not the highest level of comfort among the staff. They're dropping like flies."

Eggers said last year's recall caused uncertainty to spread throughout City Hall. The recall was issued against Lloreda and Kaufman in an unsuccessful effort to oust the two council members whom critics contended were endangering the small beach town atmosphere by supporting development, particularly on the Dana Point Headlands, a 121-acre peninsula near Dana Point Harbor.

"I think all sides need to go back to the idea that you respect the office, even if you don't respect the person in that office," Eggers said.

Ossenmacher said he too would like to see less political posturing among council members but added that bitter feelings are inevitable.

"We would all like to have peace and harmony in our lives," he said. "However, when we look at government . . . you tend to see that things get emotional sometimes based on people's differing beliefs."

After a controversial discussion earlier this month that caused Lloreda and Kaufman to abruptly leave the meeting, the council axed the all-volunteer community services, economic development and traffic commissions, telling 17 people who wanted to keep their positions that the council doesn't need their help.

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