It’s official.

In a closed-door session, Monday, Sept. 10, Ventura City Council voted 4-3 to accept City Manager Rick Cole’s resignation.

Councilmen Neal Andrews, Carl Morehouse and Brian Brennan dissented.

City Attorney Ariel Colonne announced that Johnny Johnston, a former Ventura County chief executive, was named to serve as interim city manager.

After the Council unanimously approved Johnston’s appointment, Cole, who served as city manager for eight and a half years, stoically thanked the Council and staff for their time served and addressed the public.

“It’s been extraordinarily humbling to hear the expressions of support from the community,” said Cole. “What’s been particularly touching to me are the number of people who have said, ‘I didn’t always agree with you, Mr. Cole, but I respect you for your professionalism and your integrity.’ ”

In an Aug. 29 press release, Cole and the city announced that, during Cole’s annual evaluation, “It became clear that a majority of the City Council believes that it is time for a change in leadership.” Acknowledging the Council majority, Cole, an at-will employee, offered to resign and retire. Cole will be paid his salary of $174,000 for seven months and will receive health and life insurance benefits during this time, per the severance agreement.

Johnston, who retired in 2008 from 40 years of local government experiences, will decline salary and benefits, stating he doesn’t need the money and that it is a privilege to serve the public. He makes close to $200,000 a year in pension benefits for the 20 years he served the county. His last seven years were as CEO, where he helped keep a balanced budget and stock the county’s financial reserves. He has also served as city manager for Ojai and the city of Artesia.

Mayor Mike Tracy wanted to make it clear that the city was not seeking a new direction, only new leadership.

“The Council is not interested in radical new approach,” Tracy told the VCReporter. “I wouldn’t emphasize new direction. We’re not going to become Orange County. We’ll have to decide what type of skills and experiences we’re looking for in a city manager, and that will help decide how we move our staff forward.”

There was some public backlash, however, toward the Council’s decision to replace Cole. An e-mail sent Sunday night from the Democratic Club of Ventura urged citizens to show up before the closed-session meeting on Monday and express their displeasure with the attempt to remove Cole, “who has received nothing but excellent evaluations for over eight years, is going to loose [sic] his job because the conservative majority on the Ventura City Council wants a change,” the e-mail said.

“I didn’t see a problem, and I didn’t uncover a problem (with Cole),” said Sandra Kinsler, president of the Democratic Club of Ventura. “I don’t want to waste money getting in a new manager and training and the lost productivity of building new teams.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Heitmann, who was endorsed by the Democratic Club during the 2011 election, voted in favor of replacing Cole.

Tracy responded to the political assertions, saying the Council was an apolitical body and divided across the board.
“I hope we can move beyond that issue in our community,” said Tracy. “It’s not about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals.”

Johnston will assume his new position on Sept. 16. An open search is under way to permanently fill the city manager position in Ventura.

It’s been a busy month for city managers in the county. Following the Aug. 29 announcement about Cole, Fillmore’s City Manager Yvonne Quiring announced she would be resigning, effective Oct. 1. Quiring has served for three years and was hired at a base salary of $159,000.

Her announcement came a week after her father passed away. She will be taking another public sector job, but has declined to state where. Filling in for Quiring won’t be easy. The city’s 2012-2013 fiscal year budget calls for more layoffs and cuts. The city will go from 30 full-time employees to 22, and is expected to face more than a $1 million deficit the following fiscal year. A search to replace Quiring is underway.

During a mayoral forum in Oxnard last week, it was learned that Oxnard City Council will begin a national search to replace City Manager Ed Sotelo, who has been on paid administrative leave since January for undisclosed reasons.

“Today, the status is he (Sotelo) is going to finish out his contract,” Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez told the VCReporter. Sotelo’s contract expires in February and he currently has a total compensation package worth about $411,850 a year. “He has had his run and we will be looking to do a national search, but [that] doesn’t preclude somebody from the inside from applying for it.”

Oxnard’s Assistant City Manager Karen Burnham was promoted to the interim city manager position and her total compensation is about $305,391.

In Simi Valley, Laura Behjan has served as city manager since Mike Sedell retired in July, after 17 years on the job. Behjan has worked with the city since 1989 and receives an annual salary of $199,500. She said she plans to retire as soon as the city name’s a successor.