ENCINITAS — The city of Encinitas’ top employee has resigned.
City Manager Gus Vina, who was hired in July 2011 to replace former City Manager Phil Cotton, informed the City Council on Monday that he would leave his post to take a position in Northern California, so he can be closer to family, he said in a prepared statement.
Later on Tuesday, Vina told The Coast News that he is taking a city manager position and is currently in contract negotiations, but would not name the city until the city was prepared to announce the higher.
No end date has been set for his employment, according to a city news release.
“Encinitas is a wonderful city. My experience here has been very rewarding and I have enjoyed the many things that we have been able to accomplish,” Vina said. “I am extremely excited about my opportunity to work again in Northern California, where I have deep roots in public service.”
Vina was seen Tuesday morning meeting with councilwoman-elect Catherine Blakespear. He informed city staff of his departure Tuesday morning in an email.
Per his contract, Vina will submit his formal letter of resignation to the mayor this evening, city spokeswoman Marlena Medford said. His informal announcement took place the day before the city was to swear in Kristin Gaspar to the city’s first elected mayor post and Blakespear to the City Council.
Vina has not announced the location of his new position, but it is believed to be near the Sacramento area.
Two sources that spoke on background confirmed Vina’s resignation to the Coast News on Monday night.
When asked Tuesday morning about Vina’s performance and resignation, City Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said he had done a “pretty good job” in the city’s top administrative post, given the turnover he faced during his first year on the job.
Only one of the council members who hired Vina is still on the dais: Gaspar. Several of the department heads retired shortly after he took the job.
“I think Gus overall has done a pretty good job, this is a really tough job,” Shaffer said. “I know there have been a lot of changes since he arrived, both in staff and on the council, and I think he worked through those changes.
“There is a lot going on in the city right now, especially with the housing element update, and I was looking forward to working with Gus on those things. Now I will look forward to working with whoever comes in next,” Shaffer added.
Vina said that turnover is part of the life span of any city manager, and that it is the job of the city manager to adapt and forge good working relationships with their new bosses, which he felt he had done with the new council.
The City Council most recently conducted a post-election “check in” with Vina in November, in which they provided him with general feedback in advance of his scheduled semi-annual evaluation in January.
Under Vina’s stewardship, the city has completed the $40 million Encinitas Community Park and the redesign of Moonlight Beach, a fire station in Olivenhain and the financing for a new lifeguard tower at Moonlight Beach and the purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School site.
Vina said an important initiative that often goes overlooked during his tenure was the creation of a two-year strategic plan model, which allows the council to map out its spending priorities two years in advance.
One of his biggest regrets of leaving is not seeing the realization of several of the initiatives spawned from the strategic plan.
“I am sure I will be reading about them in the newspapers,” Vina said.
Vina’s resignation comes at a critical juncture for a city that recently completed its public outreach efforts for the highly anticipated proposed update to the city’s housing element, which is scheduled to be on the 2016 ballot. A new city manager would quickly have to get caught up to speed on the details of the plan, and there is also the potential that Vina’s resignation could trigger the departure of other city employees, which could further complicate the process, Councilman Tony Kranz said.
“There are a lot of variables that have to be considered, but I am sure that the council will discuss those things and develop a plan of action to make a decision on how to proceed,” Kranz said.
Additionally, the city is set to begin the interim and long-term planning for the Pacific View site, a process that the next city manager will play an integral role in bringing to fruition.
The City Council could choose to hire someone with managerial experience or promote a current employee on an interim basis to run the city while it embarks on a nationwide search to find Vina’s replacement.
While city officials have not speculated on potential interim replacements, former city manager Cotton and Solana Beach City Manager David Ott, who recently retired, are possibilities due to their familiarity with the city and experience.
Vina’s tenure, which began with thunderous applause in City Hall when his hiring was finalized in 2011, has become rocky of late. Critics, including former mayoral candidate Sheila Cameron, council candidate Julie Graboi and others, had called on the council to fire Vina and City Attorney Glenn Sabine during the election.
They point to several actions by Vina as reasons to dismiss the city manager: his hiring of a communications specialist in the wake of unfunded pension liabilities and millions in deferred infrastructure maintenance costs; his 11th hour announcement that the city would likely have to spend thousands more annually on debt costs associated with the purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School site because the city would have to pursue taxable bonds rather than tax-exempt bonds; as well as a perceived low morale among rank-and-file employees.
Graboi, in a Coast News interview, said that she had watched Vina convince the council to make numerous “bad decisions” over the months leading up to the election.
“When council asks them to a specific task, they return to the council with something completely different,” Graboi said. “When something is due, the city manager invariably says that it is an emergency and that council must approve something that evening.
“Several candidates have called for the city manager and the city attorney to be fired. I am starting to agree with that opinion and will keep a close eye on their actions if elected,” Graboi said.
While other officials have not called on Vina to resign, several have expressed frustration with city staff at times for their unpreparedness at meetings or the increasing amount of bureaucratic red tape in city processes, most notably the planning department, helmed by Jeff Murphy, one of Vina’s most high-profile hirings.
Along the campaign trail, new Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear called on the city to reform the planning department to reduce the red tape residents face when they deal with the city.
“As a member of the public who is not privy to the behind-the-scenes workings of the city government, I don’t have a fully formed opinion on this question,” Blakespear wrote in a Coast News feature when asked should Vina be fired. “However, I do believe the planning department needs reform. A striking number of residents have touched our city government through the planning department and walked away enraged. I want to change this.”
Vina said in his prepared statement that the criticisms did not play a role in his decision to return to Northern California.
“Despite some inaccurate media reports, I am not running from anything,” Vina said. “Rather, I am running towards a new opportunity.”
Before Encinitas, Vina served as the interim city manager in Sacramento from February 2009 to March 2011, when he resigned after five of the nine city council members there voted to conduct a national search to find a permanent city manager, rather than hire Vina outright.
The city manager in the weak-mayor form of city governance is the city’s administrative head who oversees the day-to-day operations of a city and administers policies adopted by the city council.