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Weary San Diego City Manager Resigns

Lamont Ewell, who took the job amid a fiscal crisis, will take a similar post in Santa Monica.

November 24, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — City Manager Lamont Ewell, who sought to provide stability and leadership during an unprecedented period of fiscal upheaval and political bickering at City Hall, announced his resignation Wednesday to become city manager in Santa Monica.

Ewell, 52, a former Compton firefighter, was named to the post 19 months ago, after City Manager Michael Uberuaga was forced to resign amid complaints about his role in the city's pension debacle. Ewell was assistant city manager at the time.

As Ewell leaves, the municipal government remains gripped by controversy over a $2-billion pension deficit, investigations by the U.S. attorney's office and Securities and Exchange Commission, criminal charges against six pension board members and an inability to sell bonds until a long-awaited audit is completed.

Weary of the controversy, Ewell had considered resigning in June but changed his mind after business leaders and others urged him to stay until a new mayor was elected.

San Diego is moving toward a strong mayor system of governance. Until voters endorsed the switch in 2004, San Diego was one of the few big cities in the nation in which the city manager wielded more executive power than the mayor.

Starting in January, Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders will have power to veto City Council actions, hire and fire department directors, and manage the city's budget.

Sanders, who was elected Nov. 8, has chosen Ronnie Froman, a retired Navy admiral, to act as his chief administrative officer.

In an interview Wednesday, Ewell pledged to work with Sanders and Froman and expressed optimism that the audit would soon be finished and the city's financial condition would improve.

He declined to revisit his fights with City Atty. Michael Aguirre over the disclosure of documents and the hiring of consultants or discuss whether the combative Aguirre is a help or hindrance to solving the city's problems.

"I think history will be able to clarify that," he said. "I'm going to leave without throwing rocks."

Aguirre, at a news conference, took a different approach.

"This is good news for the people of San Diego," he said of Ewell's resignation. "It removes a major obstacle to solving the city's financial issues."

In April, when former Mayor Dick Murphy announced his resignation, much of the responsibility for handling the city's fiscal problems, and explaining them to the public, fell to the soft-spoken, non-confrontational Ewell. He held a series of community meetings to explain the need for service cutbacks.

Councilman Jim Madaffer praised Ewell as "someone who always did the right thing and someone who always put the best interests of the taxpayers and the city of San Diego first."

Ewell said, "I won't suggest it hasn't been difficult.

"I've probably slept less than I have in many years. "I find myself waking up in the middle of the night and making notes on a pad beside my bed," he added.

Ewell, who was born in San Diego, graduated from the University of Phoenix and the University of Maryland. He was a firefighter, arson investigator, fire captain and deputy fire marshal in Compton from 1975 to 1989.

He managed the bureau of emergency medical services at Prince George's County, Md., from 1989 to 1990 and was deputy fire chief from 1990 to 1991.

In Oakland, he was fire chief from 1991 to 1995, and interim deputy city manager, assistant city manager and acting city manager from 1995 to 1997. He became city manager of Durham, N.C. in 1997 and assistant city manager of San Diego in 2001.

As city manager in San Diego, he was responsible for a government with 11,000 employees and a $2.4-billion annual budget.

Under a strong city manager system, Santa Monica has 1,900 employees and a $397-million budget.

Ewell will receive $245,000 a year and financial assistance in buying a home in Santa Monica. He is married and has two grown children.

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