SOLANA BEACH — The actions of Solana Beach City Manager David Ott, on pension, hiring practices and the firefighters contract were recently called into question.
“It’s a character assassination that’s beyond hurtful,” Ott said of the allegations made against him.
In an Aug. 15 e-mail sent to nearly every newspaper in North County, a person identified only as Watchdog7@att.net and a retired Solana Beach employee accused Ott of a “pension spiking issue,” and “a history of hiring a management team … (that) was like a ‘Good Old Boys Club,’” the e-mail stated.
Ott, 57, came to Solana Beach on July 1, 2003, as fire chief and director of public safety. Later that year he was also named fire chief for neighboring Del Mar, a position he held until October 2009.
While still acting as fire chief for both cities, he became deputy city manager for Solana Beach in 2005 and city manager the following year.
In September 2010, Ott announced he would be retiring Dec. 30, but in October, council approved an agreement, allowing Ott to serve as interim city manager for six months beginning Jan. 1.
The contract can be extended twice for up to 180 days each, meaning Ott could remain in the position until the middle of 2012.
Under the new contract, Ott is paid $78 an hour, or $12,480 a month based on a 40-hour workweek. But under the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, he can only work 960 hours annually, which averages out to 20 hours a week.
Ott receives a monthly car and cell phone allowance but no retirement, medical or dental benefits.
In neighboring Del Mar, interim City Manager Mark Ochenduszko is receiving $15,000 monthly with no benefits.
The anonymous e-mailer claimed Ott should have used his city manager CalPERS scale of 2.5 percent at age 55 when he retired, but since he kept the title of public safety director, he was allowed to use a 3 percent at 50 formula.
The e-mail states that Ott used his city manager pay scale instead of the fire chief salary of $140,000, which resulted in a $40,000 annual increase in his retirement check for life.
“I am not aware of any City Manager that is allowed to retire using the 3 (percent at) 50 formula,” the e-mail states.
Having worked as both fire chief and city manager from August 2006 to October 2009, Ott’s CalPERS retirement is 75 percent as city manager at 2.5 percent at 55 and 25 percent as public safety director at 3 percent at 50, according to the city clerk.
When Ott retired as city manager his salary was $180,250. His salary as public safety director in August 2006 was $142,709.
Firefighters who move up to captain naturally base their pensions on the higher salary.
“That’s not spiking,” Ott said. “That’s getting promoted.”
The e-mail states Ott was contracted back to mentor his replacement and recruitment has not yet started.
Mayor Lesa Heebner said council unanimously approved Ott’s interim contract because of his “institutional knowledge.”
“Mentoring was the least of it,” she said. “We have a lot going on with our local coastal program, the Highway 101 improvements, affordable housing and the budget. Continuity is super important. We didn’t want him to go.”
She and Councilman Tom Campbell are working on recruitment plans, but the process hasn’t officially started because “we’re not ready,” she said.
“It’s not for devious reasons,” she said. “It’s by design.”
According to the Watchdog7 e-mail, when Ott was fire chief in Imperial City he worked under the direction of Barry Johnson, who later became city manager in Solana Beach. The e-mail states Johnson hired Ott as that city’s fire chief and “overlooked” longtime fire Chief Dave Holmerud.
Watchdog7 also alleges that when Dismas Abelman, who previously worked with Ott in Coronado, was hired as deputy fire chief, two longtime fire captains were “passed over.”
Ott and Heebner said the deputy fire chief is hired based on a scoring system.
“Dismas scored the highest,” Heebner said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Ott said after a panel narrowed the field of candidates he only saw the top three or four.
“The (longtime captains) either didn’t apply or they didn’t make it through the process,” he said. “They weren’t in the top three or four I considered.”
When Ott was working on consolidating fire management services for Solana Beach, Del Mar, Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe to save each city money, John Traylor, who worked with Ott in Coronado, was hired as a consultant.
Watchdog7 claims the study was supposed to be complete in four to seven months, but took two years, and accuses Traylor of “double dipping” because he was being paid by Solana Beach while taking his retirement pension.
Heebner and Ott said the consolidation study took longer than expected because Del Mar had a change in city managers and there was a request on behalf of that city to slow things down after the transition.
“Four to seven months was never written anywhere,” Ott said.
The e-mail also claims an assistant city manager and a public works director worked with Ott or Johnson in Imperial Beach. Ott said none of the directors he hired ever worked for him.
Heebner said claims made about a “good old boys club” are either “half truths or complete untruths.”
“To concoct something like this and put it into action years later is so far-fetched,” she said.
Also during the week of Aug. 15, a posting on the Solana Beach firefighters website claimed Ott proposed a staff reduction in the city’s Fire Department “in order to further decrease an already bare-bones fire protection budget.”
“This reduction will not put any money back into the tax payer’s pockets; it will only reduce the level of service being provided to the community,” the posting states.
“Down staffing will result in increased response times, longer on-scene times, and deliver fewer first responders to an emergency.” The posting claims Ott’s proposal “places the community’s safety at increased risk.”
Heebner, who called the posting “very disappointing,” said she received a copy by e-mail the day after firefighters voted to accept the council’s “status quo” on their upcoming contract.
“Nowhere in the new contract does it say anything about reduced staffing,” she said. “We’re not proposing to cut services. We’re keeping salaries the same as last year.”
Earlier this year Solana Beach became the first local agency to implement across-the-board comprehensive pension reform for all employees, including firefighters, who will pay 100 percent of their share of the pension contribution.
At a budget discussion May 25, during which the city was still projecting a $700,000-plus shortfall, Ott was directed by council members to review an $182,500 increase in overtime and workers compensation in the Fire Department.
“The overtime line just stuck out like sore thumb,” Councilman Dave Roberts said. “I know we really value our fire department and the services they provide but I really think we need to take a look at that.”
Ott said when it came to pension reform and the firefighters’ contract, he was following the direction of City Council.
“He’s one of the most ethical men I know,” Heebner said of Ott. “It’s very disappointing people are calling into question everything he’s stood for.”
“It hurts when it seems people are trying to intentionally destroy you,” Ott said. “It’s pretty tough.”
An attempt was made to contact the anonymous e-mailer, but received no response.