A pair of high profile dismissals and a surge of retirements have fueled a clean sweep of Temecula’s upper echelon over the past two years.
Temecula officials say they recognize, but are not deterred by, the across-the-board turnover at the top. The turnover was inevitable, they say, and it will inject new ideas and practices into Temecula’s operations as the city prepares to celebrate its silver anniversary late this year.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the entire executive team turn over for whatever reason,” Greg Butler, assistant city manager, said in a recent interview. Over the long term, he said, the city will overcome any adjustment challenges and emerge as a strong team.
“It is refreshing and it will help keep the city sharp,” he said.
It is uncertain whether the revolving door among Temecula’s department heads will spill over into the ranks of the City Council. The council – despite decades-long growth and traffic issues – has had few new faces since Temecula became a city and nearly quadrupled its population.
The retirement of City Clerk Susan Jones, who recently stepped down to move to Florida, marks the seventh department head or top leader to leave Temecula since late 2011. That exodus has forced the city to rebuild its leadership team through a combination of promotions and outside hires. Two open department head positions are due to be filled in the coming weeks or months.
Besides bringing in a wave of new talent, the string of personnel decisions could test the hiring mettle of City Manager Aaron Adams, who recently observed his one-year mark on the job.
Adams, who began his Temecula career as an intern, climbed to his current post after a rapid succession of city administrators.
Shawn Nelson, who held the city manager’s job for more than a decade, said the need to reshape Temecula’s executive team should not come as a surprise.
“We had a lot of long-term stability, which was great for Temecula, but you can only have that for a limited time,” Nelson said in a recent telephone interview.
Nelson, who is working as a contract advisor to Menifee, said he expects Adams to succeed in crafting a robust group that will serve the needs of a changing city.
“I think what (Adams) is doing is building a new team,” Nelson said.
About 28,000 people lived in Temecula when it became a city in December 1989. Many of its early administrators and department heads were in the early or middle stages of their careers. A long period of stability followed, as retirements were rare and some managers, including Nelson and Adams, left the city for short periods before returning at higher level positions.
The exits and retirements accelerated after Herman Parker, Temecula’s community services director, left in November 2011 to accept a similar position for Santa Barbara County. About that time, sluggish tax revenues prompted the city to offer early retirement incentives to several managers as a way to trim personnel costs.
A year later, Grant Yates, a top Temecula executive, was picked from more than 70 candidates to be hired as Lake Elsinore city manager. He had worked for Temecula for 21 years, and his duties there included deputy city manager, personnel director, contract negotiator and emergency services coordinator.
Within a month, a wave of unprecedented personnel turmoil swept through City Hall.
City Manager Bob Johnson was placed on paid administrative leave, a move that was followed by a similar action pertaining to Genie Wilson, Temecula’s finance director. Both officials were soon released by the city.
Those dismissals marked the first disciplinary actions to publicly unfold against top Temecula officials since the city incorporated. They were unusual for Temecula because of its reputation for scant turnover on the council and its upper management.
With the departures of Johnson and Yates, Adams was left in charge of Temecula’s day-to-day operations. He initially worked under the title of acting city manager, and soon was hired as interim manager and then permanent manager. Yates’ position was not immediately filled.
In March 2013, the results of a pair of national recruitment efforts were announced as Temecula filled the positions held by Parker and Wilson. Kevin Le Von Hawkins left his job as community services director for the city of San Bernardino to take the same position in Temecula. Jennifer Hennessy, Chico’s finance director, accepted that post in Temecula.
A city press release issued at that time noted that Adams “directed” the recruitments and had a key role in the interviewing and screening processes.
“Further, Mr. Adams personally conducted extraordinary background investigations to ensure the city of Temecula is acquiring top talent to lead city staff to more successes,” the release stated.
Adams subsequently focused on filling the open assistant city manager position. Another nationwide recruitment effort was launched, and more than 275 applicants responded.
In August, the city announced that Greg Butler, who was then serving as the city’s public works director, would be promoted to the new position. At that time, Butler’s 21 years of public service work included 14 years in Temecula.
Butler’s focus as assistant city manager will primarily be public works, community development, human resources, information services and emergency response functions, according to a press release issued at that time.
Butler’s promotion came about the time word circulated that Patrick Richardson, Temecula’s planning director for the past seven years, would retire on Dec. 19. A three-month national recruitment effort ended with a city announcement two weeks later that identified his replacement.
Armando G. Villa, who accrued more than 20 years of public service in his career, was hired from among 29 applicants to oversee Temecula’s planning, code enforcement and building and safety operations. Villa had worked as Lake Elsinore’s planning and code enforcement manager from 1991 until 2005. Prior to being hired by Temecula, Villa worked as Imperial County’s director of development services and parks and recreation.
Jones was the 12th city employee to be hired after Temecula incorporated, and the city’s population surged beyond 101,000 during her tenure. Jones worked for Temecula for 24 years and served as city clerk since June 1998. Her retirement marked the exit of the last department head who dated back to Temecula’s seminal period as a city.
The application deadlines have passed in the nationwide searches to replace Butler and Jones. Thirty-three people applied for Butler’s job and 25 candidates have met the minimum standards set for the city clerk’s position, officials said in a recent e-mail. Adams said the pair of decisions is expected in a few weeks.
The importance of finding the “best fit” for the city can’t be overstated, Adams said. Many factors must be weighed in picking new executives who can tackle the challenges that come with the city’s slowing growth and stabilizing population, he said.
“Those personnel decisions are among the most important we can make,” Adams said, noting that the recent flurry swept through Temecula faster than others have in the past.
“From a city manager’s perspective, (hiring) is quite an opportunity that I’m allowed,” he said.
It’s uncertain whether the trend will spill over into the ballot box in November, which is where Temecula residents will fill three vacant council seats. It may take several months for those races to take shape as re-election bids or open-field campaigns.
Candidates typically pick up their election materials in mid-July, file those documents in early August and qualify for the ballot a few days later. As nearly 45 candidates can attest, defeating Temecula council incumbents has proven to be an almost impossible task.
In all, just 13 people have served on the Temecula council over the city’s nearly 25-year history. On the flip side, 44 other residents have lost one or more council races, according to city records.
By the time of the next election cycle in November, the five current council members will together have served more than 65 years, according to city records.
Only one incumbent – Karel Lindemans – has lost a re-election bid since Temecula became a city. Lindemans was elected to the first council when Temecula became a city. He failed to win re-election in November 1992, which is when Ron Roberts and Jeff Stone were picked by voters. Peg Moore, another member of the original council, did not seek re-election because she planned to move out of state.
Lindemans returned to the council in November 1994. He served for another five years before opting not to seek re-election and move to the Palm Springs area. Stone was later elected to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, a post he still holds. Roberts continues to serve on the council.
Mayor Maryann Edwards is the only current council member to shift from another elected panel.
Edwards was an appointed member of Temecula’s Traffic / Public Safety Commission from 1998 until 2001, which is when she was elected to the Temecula Valley Unified School District governing board. She was appointed to the council in 2005, and has repeatedly won re-election.
The seats held by Roberts, Edwards and Jeff Comerchero, who was elected to the council in 1997, will come up for grabs in November.