Retiring Solana Beach City Manager David Ott reflects on career in public service


Retiring Solana Beach City Manager David Ott has always been one to wear multiple hats. That’s one of the reasons why council members have said it will be a tough task to recruit his replacement.

“We’re embarking on replacing the irreplaceable Mr. Ott,” said Deputy Mayor Lesa Heebner during the June 25 council meeting. “We’ll do our best.”

Ott came to Solana Beach in 2003 as fire chief and director of public safety. He wanted to devote his full attention to public safety after working as Imperial Beach’s assistant city manager, fire chief and public safety director.

“I didn’t hold to my word very long,” said Ott with a chuckle.

Within three months, Ott was also named fire chief for neighboring Del Mar, a position he held until October 2009. At the time, he was the only double-duty fire chief in the county. He began wearing even more hats, becoming president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association and co-director of the county’s terrorism response team.

“There is a sacrifice to going up, because your life changes and it’s more responsibility and more time,” said Ott, who currently serves as board president of the Burn Institute, a nonprofit health agency dedicated to reducing the number of burn injuries and deaths in San Diego and Imperial counties. “But the higher you get, the more difference you can make, hopefully, in a positive way and a constructive way.”

While still acting as fire chief for both cities, Ott became deputy city manager for Solana Beach in 2005 and city manager the following year.

Ott was a year into his job as city manager when the deadly October 2007 wildfires killed 10 people, destroyed nearly 1,600 homes and burned more than 368,000 acres in San Diego County. Also serving as fire chief of Del Mar and Solana Beach, Ott opened emergency operation centers in both cities, dividing his time between the two communities — and any “spare time” in Rancho Santa Fe.

“I was going in circles, not getting any sleep,” he recalled. “But I tried not to shortchange either community, so I spent a lot of time in both cities. I felt that was my responsibility.”

Ott has devoted his life to public service, becoming a firefighter after graduating high school.

Born in Grand Haven, Mich., Ott was a fourth grader when he moved to San Diego with his parents in 1963. He graduated from Helix High School and took classes at San Diego State University, where he earned a certificate in public administration.

Ott earned two bachelor’s degrees in fire administration and fire prevention technology from Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, Calif., and two master’s degrees in human resource management from the University of Redlands and organizational management from Grand Canyon University in Arizona. In 2004, he graduated from the National Fire Academy’s four-year Executive Fire Officer Program.

Ott was a firefighter in the U.S. Forest Service, at Camp Pendleton and in Coronado. Beginning in 2000, he worked in leadership at the city of Imperial Beach prior to coming to Solana Beach in July 2003.

“I’m proud of everything,” Ott said. “I’m very blessed that I’ve had the career I’ve had.”

With nearly 35 years of fire and public safety related experience in Southern California, including more than a decade of service in Solana Beach, Ott recently announced he plans to retire in November.

During the May 14 council meeting, Ott announced his last day with the city would be Nov. 28. He informed council members about his decision to retire during a closed session prior to the meeting.

“Coming up here was an opportunity. I didn’t know how much opportunity it was going to be,” Ott said.

“I think it is time to move on and see what the next chapter is,” he added.

This isn’t the first time Ott has “retired.”

In 2010, Ott announced he would retire at the end of the year but agreed in January 2011 to continue as interim city manager. In December 2011, he returned to the position full time because of a number of projects the city was working on. He agreed to a two-year contract with an option for a one-year extension.

Since then, Ott has been instrumental in the city’s adoption of a local coastal plan and the improvements of Highway 101, among a myriad of other projects.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to end up in Solana Beach. It’s a great community. It’s a community of people who really care,” Ott said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with everybody on the council, in the organization and in the community. I think we’ve accomplished a lot of things. Hopefully, when everybody looks back, they think we’ve made a difference.”

Used to being hands on, Ott admitted he’s “not one just to retire.” Currently, however, the Point Loma resident doesn’t have plans for the future other than spending time with his wife, Nancy, and traveling.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said with a smile.

With several months left on the job, however, Ott remains busy, wearing his multiple hats.

He would like to secure federal approval for the 50-year beach nourishment project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He would also like to see the city and North County Transit District approve a plan for development of the train station. In addition, he is working with the city so the transition for the new city manager is “as seamless as possible.”

“There’s many, many things that we’re still working on,” Ott said. “I’m trying to make it as easy as possible for whoever my predecessor is going to be. It hasn’t slowed down. I can tell you that.”