PORT HUENEME — After backing off from retirement plans twice in the last three years, Police Chief John Hopkins has told officials in this bedroom community he definitely intends to step down next Jan. 1.
Hopkins was appointed chief of the 21-member department, the county's smallest, in 1993. Before that, he was the department's top lieutenant for more than 15 years.
His retirement announcement comes about a month after Hopkins' new 18-month contract took effect. However, the well-respected chief said the time will be right for him to leave in eight months, because several recently instituted programs will be well underway and the department is on sound financial footing after the passage in November of a 4% utility tax.
"It sounds like every time I turn around, I'm getting ready to go," Hopkins conceded, adding that this time he is serious about leaving his $98,000-a-year post. "I got talked into staying a little longer and it really wasn't in my plan . . . I bought myself a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It's part of my retirement."
Hopkins, as were his two predecessors, was promoted from within to the department's top administrative job. City Manager Dick Velthoen said he isn't ruling that out again, although a statewide search will be conducted.
Lt. Fernie Estrella, Hopkins' second in command the past two years and a 27-year department veteran, said he will apply for the job if he meets the qualifications.
"We're looking for a person who has upper-level management experience," Velthoen said. "We'll tailor our requirements to accommodate Fernie's experience . . . It would be nice to have some people from Ventura County interested in the job and apply because they're familiar with the system and familiar with each other."
Velthoen said the city will begin looking for Hopkins' successor within the next couple of months.
Hopkins, 53, a 1962 graduate of Fillmore High School who joined the Port Hueneme Police Department in 1966 as a reserve officer, said he always intended to retire at 50.
But the city's financial problems, which raised the possibility that the department might be disbanded and replaced by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, prompted him to remain. In 1994, the city went as far as advertising for Hopkins' replacement before officials persuaded him to stay.
Now, however, Hopkins said his family is urging him to quit and he will receive 75% of his salary in retirement, the maximum possible.
"After 35 years in the work force, and the past 31 years spent here in Port Hueneme, I feel a need to move on and do something else in life--maybe nothing," Hopkins wrote in a memo to the City Council last month. "It seems like I have been with the Port Hueneme Police Department my entire life, when actually I have been here more than half of it. I have seen some extremely difficult times here, and I have seen some of the best times of my life here. I'll miss both experiences very much."
In addition to taking it easy, Hopkins is a recognized fingerprint expert and anticipates teaching and working as a consultant in that field.
Hopkins' replacement will face significant challenges.
The city is due to lose $300,000 in the next fiscal year from assessment and lighting districts that are expected to be disbanded because of Proposition 218. However, Velthoen said that development won't endanger the Police Department again.
Moreover, last month the City Council imposed a 2.2% pay increase this year on its officers after the two sides reached an impasse over a new contract for the first time ever. The police union had sought an increase that worked out to 4.2% annually, President Ken Dobbe said.
Some officers are unhappy with the council's hard-line, unilateral decision, especially because the union campaigned hard for the passage of the utility tax.
"Now they get all that money and we don't get any of it," said Officer John Brisslinger.
Within the close-knit department, reaction to Hopkins' decision was mixed, Dobbe said. Some officers favor recruiting a replacement chief from outside, in an effort to inject new ideas.
"Hopkins has a lot of loyalty and respect, so people don't say anything derogatory," he said. "For someone to say something against him, it would be like saying something against one of their own family members."
Replacing Hopkins, a self-described "grouchy old man" who has a penchant for wearing Mickey Mouse ties and--unlike most police chiefs--still packs a pistol, will be difficult, Velthoen said.
"John is an extraordinary guy, he's a good law enforcement officer and good manager, but he also has a lot broader perspective than just that," Velthoen said. "He's a good team player and that's really important in a department head and sometimes that's uncommon in a police chief."