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Timeline for new Del Mar city manager still to be determined

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

Emails show rifts that preceded former manager’s departure

Four months after suddenly firing the city manager, Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland said the city doesn’t have a firm timeline or process in place to find her replacement.

“That’s mostly because things are running swimmingly well right now,” she said. “Our city team has stepped up.”

She credited interim City Manager Ashley Jones and Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane for filling the void.

“I think we’re in a time right now where we can use this as an opportunity to ask how best to structure the departments and the high-level management of the city’s activities, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Gaasterland said.

The current plan is for Jones to serve as interim city manager through October, which could be extended through February.

Gaasterland added that the city is evaluating “how the staff is working together in their current paradigm and the degree to which we would need an additional person in the city manager’s office versus additional junior people in some of the other offices.”

The city gave no reasons for Johnson’s dismissal in February, almost exactly one year after she started the job. A joint statement from both sides said there would be no further comment. But emails obtained through a public records request show that there had been disagreements between Johnson and council members over resuming the utility undergrounding project, as well as a plan to hire a special counsel for housing issues.

It’s unclear how much those conflicts might have factored into her firing, if at all.

From Jan. 12-13, Gaasterland and Johnson exchanged emails about options to resume utility undergrounding, which had been placed on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The original plan approved by the council almost two years ago called for the city to start with two sections: one along Stratford Court South and a second at Crest Canyon, known as areas 1A and X1A, respectively.

Gaasterland and Johnson had discussed the possibility of first completing “a limited project” to underground a small section of the city before areas 1A and X1A. The purpose was to give the city a less expensive segment that it could quickly complete while accumulating data that could be used to nail down a more specific estimate of the citywide project, which is currently $32-42 million.

They discussed an initial cost estimate of $550,000 to do a small pilot project.

Johnson replied, “There is absolutely no way I am going to recommend spending $550,000 to do a demonstration project with an unrealistic March deadline for City Council to make a decision.”

She also said that the city’s Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee had already recommended starting with 1A and X1A, and expressed concern that a small pilot project would be a “gift of public funds to a handful of property owners.”

But after firing Johnson weeks later, council members did make that decision. By a 4-1 vote on March 15, they decided to proceed with a demonstration project around Tewa Court. (Deputy Mayor Dwight Worden was the lone no vote, and he raised the same concerns that Johnson mentioned in the email.) The estimated cost to complete the Tewa undergrounding is $760,000.

On Jan. 24, Gaasterland and City Councilwoman Tracy Martinez prepared an agenda item to hire land use attorney Barbara E. Kautz to help the city navigate state-mandated housing requirements. Johnson took issue with the way the proposed agenda item had been brought to her attention on relatively short notice.

“I handle the operations of the City,” Johnson emailed Gaasterland and Martinez in response. “It is not appropriate for you to write agenda reports that include specific operational issues such as contracts and specific appropriations. In addition, you are submitting this item (after not having discussed any of it with me) three days before the agenda packet is distributed.”

She continued, “I would really appreciate the opportunity to discuss your interests before I receive documents via email without any context, that you obviously spent a lot of time working on.”

During their Feb. 1 meeting, council members unanimously approved the hiring of Kautz for up to $20,000 from the General Fund contingency.

The council held closed-session performance evaluations for Johnson on Jan. 27, Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, followed by a decision to place her on paid administrative leave on Feb. 5. The council unanimously voted to fire her on Feb. 16.

Because Johnson’s contract was terminated with no cause, she received a lump sum payment equal to six months of her $240,000 annual salary as well as six more months of health benefits.

Updates

12:03 p.m. July 29, 2021: This story was updated with additional information about how long the city plans to have its current interim city manager in place.


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