Inside Oceanside: Proceeding with a matter of trust

The city manager runs our city. While it is the elected city council that sets the policy, it’s their handpicked leader who carries out their policies and is supposed to do what’s best for his city.

We must trust that he will truly try to make the best decisions on our behalf.

Steve Jepsen is back in the saddle as our returning city manager. He ran our town from 2000-06.

Political changes (meaning he lost his council majority) led to his separation from Oceanside and his lateral transfer to manager of Yuba City.

A new political reality (meaning he now has a majority of support with council members Jack Feller, Gary Felien and Jerry Kern) has called him back to run Oceanside where he has maintained a home for years.

But Jepsen is not without his detractors. Mayor Jim Wood voted against his return. Councilwoman Esther Sanchez not only voted no, but said he couldn’t be trusted.

Nevertheless, a majority of the council has decided he should be back in the saddle and they get to make that call.

I would maintain that the best way forward is to support him as our leader and allow him to lead while also allowing councilwoman Sanchez to maintain her (hopeful) civil skepticism.

In a recent interview with me, Mr. Jepsen did not shy away from admitting to grave errors that happened in his previous tenure as city manager. More on those mistakes later.

Let’s look at one glaring reality: he hires the department heads that actually run our city. Jepsen didn’t seem to do so bad when he hired our current police chief, Frank McCoy. The OPD has generally done well under McCoy’s eight-year stewardship; I think it is safe to say.

McCoy is retiring and as it turns out, Jepsen gets to hire our next chief. It may be his most important decision.

When he hired McCoy he went outside the department for his selection, even though there were applicants from within the OPD.

There are at least two OPD captains who want to get the nod this time.

Jepsen says that having been a chief already would certainly be a plus for a prospective candidate, but he also said that an in-house candidate “may have an advantage” in that he would know the lay of the land.

I always thought that one of the major decisions he makes is to decide which outside company gets awarded those lucrative and sought after contracts to do project work for the city.

Jepsen informed me that those decisions are generally made by his department heads.

All contract decisions are ultimately approved by the council. “We make sure the work gets spread around,” he said.

Jepsen says local companies also get “every opportunity” to win the contracts over outside companies.

I was pleased to be told that he agreed with me that our town could use a well-connected, magic man (or woman) who could successfully bring bigger and better businesses to town — someone who could envision and then affect a more robust, booming economy. But he added that such a position would have to come after something he calls “budget restoration.”

In other words, we need to get areas of public safety and facility maintenance (potholes, etc.) refunded first before any new positions are created.

“We need to focus on outreach. There needs to be a go-to person at a high level with established contacts who can focus on the big picture.”

Regarding economic development, he predictably said that jobs, job retention, small businesses and tourism are his major priority.

Jepsen’s fingerprints will be all over upcoming major capital improvement projects including new downtown infrastructure, El Corazon completion and the La Salina water treatment facility.

I noted that at a recent planning commission meeting regarding the new Mission Cove low-income development at Mission Avenue and Airport Road, that there was a concern about what type of on-site businesses would be allowed to open up within the 288 apartment complex.

Jepsen explained that it was the developer who, as prescribed in the original agreement, gets to decide which new businesses get the leases.

I was pleased that he agreed in principle with two other needs I brought up.

One is that some kind of traffic calming desperately needs to be installed on Loretta Street.

Jepsen says he knows about that problem but that it is part of a cataloged backlog of needs.

Also, that it would be a good idea to install “parklets” as Carlsbad has done. Parklets are small extensions of the sidewalk into the street, often in front of restaurants, that allows seating and landscaping so that local businesses can in fact expand their footprint and the community gets a visual streetside enhancement. Jepsen says he thought the concept was a “great idea.”

Mr. Jepsen was not as bullish on my contention that we should charge fair market rates for harbor slip rentals and airport hangar fees. But on the other hand, it must be remembered that these are policy concepts that need to be prescribed by the city council. Jepsen can champion ideas, but it’s the council that must sign off on them.

But the elephant in the room was his vocal non-support by Councilwoman Sanchez. He says his relationship with her is “fine,” and that they have been “cordial” towards each other.

Maybe Councilwoman Sanchez was too harsh with regards to Jepsen’s suitability to be city manager.

But her concerns need to be addressed.

In 2006 Jepsen’s transportation director Frank Watanabe intervened on behalf of a developer who sought for and got approval for his development, even though the approval was essentially illegal.

Because that developer was a major contributor to then-Mayor Terry Johnson, some people drew dots that connected Jepsen who was, in fact, under Johnson and over Watanabe.

Jepsen says he was not connected with any of Watanabe’s actions. “You trust people to do the right things. When mistakes happen, you deal with them.”

Watanabe resigned his position and disappeared, leaving Jepsen with a black eye.

Fair enough. People you hire can do corrupt things. These things happen in government and in business. And there was no proof that Jepsen was directly involved with the developer’s scam.

But what I told Jepsen that I thought was even more provocative than that Watanabe indiscretion was that Watanabe was allowed to pay $491,000 in city money to a consultant (Cynthia Watson) who was not qualified or trained to do the traffic control work she was hired to do. Her shoddy work had to be redone by the city. (See Union-Tribune, Lola Sherman article, Sept. 26, 2006).

Jepsen said he trusted Watanabe, who was apparently allowed to hire who he wanted.

“If people want to break the rules, the rules will get broken,” Jepsen explains. “Nothing like that had ever happened before or since.”

We must trust that such a freewheeling, anything culture simply does not exist in Mr. Jepsen’s second tenure as Oceanside city manager. While his hands-off approach may have been negligent, we must support him and trust that he will not allow the same mistakes to be made again.

Oceanside born and raised, Ken Leighton is an Oceanside business owner. He may be reached at 


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