PORT HUENEME — This is not the way Dick Velthoen wanted to go out.
After 25 years at the helm of this seaside city, Ventura County's most-experienced and highest-paid city manager is retiring under a cloud, his image tarnished by the allegations of a colleague.
Velthoen, 62, will step down in February, leaving a legacy that includes the dramatic reconstruction of this old Navy town, but also the bitter taste of a recent lawsuit by a Latina administrator who alleges she was sexually harassed and subjected to ethnic slurs.
"All I can do is deny it," Velthoen said in a recent interview. "[But] I've really been a lucky guy. I've been a city manager here for so long and been able to do so many neat things with so many neat people.
"So that's the way," he said, his voice cracking with emotion, "I wanted it to end."
Not that Velthoen is asking anybody to feel sorry for him. That would be out of character for this former college football tight end who still rides horses and motorcycles and loves to challenge opponents to debate.
"You're in my face," he said recently when questioned about an issue. "I like that."
That is the way the strapping 6-foot-2, 220-pound Velthoen has always been, say those who know him well--a straightforward, often friendly city manager who for better or worse wears his emotions on his sleeve.
He is a former jock who brought the relaxed camaraderie of the playing field to City Hall. He is a guy who is quick to react to criticism and to compliments, who is both combative and affectionate. He may sometimes seem superior and dismissive, but he can begin and end a conversation with a smile and a hug.
Mayor Toni Young has seen both sides of Velthoen, first as a critic calling for his removal, but now as a supporter who thinks he is one of the best things that ever happened to Port Hueneme.
"From 1992 to 1994 he was like, 'Oh, God, where did we get her?' " said Young, the only woman on the City Council in four decades. "But as soon as I was mayor, he learned that he and I could get along real well. And we do. We've become good friends."
While Velthoen's self-confidence can rub people the wrong way, colleagues say he wears well over the long run. That is why it seemed that Velthoen--a small-boat sailor--would cruise calmly into retirement after a remarkably long run in a profession marked by rapid turnover.
More than anyone, he is credited with bringing Port Hueneme--a World War II Navy town of prostitutes and low-living--into the modern era.
Former city administrator Walter Moranda began to reshape this small city, using then-new redevelopment law to rebuild nearly from the ground up. But Velthoen took Moranda's broad strokes and transformed Port Hueneme into the pretty little town it is today.
"I don't think the city had a well-defined vision for itself until Dick took over," former community development boss Tom Figg said. "He crafted a vision. Dick put the meat on the bones of redevelopment."
Abandoned lots became city parks, modern condos sprang up along beachfront streets and a new business district developed along Channel Islands Boulevard. Trees were planted and medians landscaped. City sewer and water systems were improved. A library and community center were built.
When Proposition 13 undercut city finances and a state tax grab emptied the city general fund, a procession of city leaders praised Velthoen for finding clever ways to pay the municipal bill.
But two money-making schemes--a "view tax" on residents living near the ocean and a proposed coastal recreational vehicle park--bitterly divided city residents in the early 1990s. And Velthoen took the heat for those council policies, meant to add $400,000 to city coffers. He was "King Richard" to critics who said he led the City Council, and not the other way around.
With the election of Young in 1992 and Jon Sharkey and Robert Turner in 1994, however, the new council killed the R.V. park and the angry debate subsided.
Velthoen rebounded with new ways for the city to make money. It now provides sewer and rubbish service to the Navy Seabee base on its western flank, it makes money on its $16-million water system and it rents out a 90-unit city-owned apartment house. All the while, Velthoen and other officials negotiated an increased share of revenue on cargo at the fast-growing Port of Hueneme.
City reserves were $2 million when Velthoen arrived; now they are $34 million.
"He got the city in good shape, and he's leaving it in good shape," Moranda said. "That's his legacy."
Worries Over Controversy
But as Velthoen finds himself near the end of his career, he is worried that his deeds may be overshadowed by the controversy accompanying a federal lawsuit by former Housing and Facilities Maintenance Director Ester Esparza.