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Thursday, November 24, 2005 | City Manager Lamont Ewell’s exit from City Hall has been expected for more than a year, but the abrupt announcement Wednesday morning that he would depart after Monday’s council meeting surprised at least the mayor-elect.

Ewell, who on Tuesday was appointed to assume the post of Santa Monica city manager in January, said it was an ideal time to leave because he found the city to have reached a politically stable time after the election of Jerry Sanders as mayor. Additionally, Ewell said the city was able to recently shore up some short-term borrowing needs and claimed that the consultants investigating the city’s books have a plan for completing their work.

Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders, who takes office Dec. 5, said he found Ewell’s timing to be less than perfect.

“While we are all aware of City Manager Lamont Ewell’s desire to leave, his sudden departure really further complicated things at City Hall,” Sanders said.

The announcement means the transition to a new set of leaders will come a bit sooner than expected.

The council is scheduled to appoint Ronne Froman on Tuesday as Ewell’s interim replacement. Froman, a former Navy admiral who recently resigned as CEO of the local Red Cross, became a household name when Sanders pledged to appoint her as his second-in-command if elected. If approved, she will remain city manager until the city switches to a strong-mayor form of governance on Jan. 1.

At that time, the city manager’s duties will be moved to the Mayor’s Office and Froman will assume the title of chief operating officer.

Ewell joined the city of San Diego in 2001 as an assistant city manager after a long career in city administration and public safety in other cities. His tenure was marked by a time of financial and political tumult.

After former City Manager Michael Uberagua resigned in the spring of 2004, Ewell inherited the city manager’s post just months into investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission that continue to this day.

Ewell has held the city manager post since April 4, 2004, and had planned to quit last November when the city’s voters approved a ballot initiative that changes the city to a strong-mayor structure. After overtures by some officials, he agreed to extend his tenure to Dec. 31 to oversee the certification and release of the city’s audits for 2003.

Without audits, the city’s credit rating was suspended, which has in turn barred the government from issuing bonds for much-needed improvements to San Diego’s infrastructure.

Ewell played an instrumental role in hiring an outside audit committee that would prepare a report detailing the city’s fiscal dealings. The report has been delayed by technical and budgetary issues and, as a result, the city’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 financial statements remain unfinished.

Although the audit committee’s delayed deadlines and $800,000-per-month bills have attracted critics, most notably City Attorney Mike Aguirre, Ewell believes the city is on the mend financially.

“The city is going to do just fine,” said Ewell, who will earn $245,000 per year in Santa Monica. “There was a lot of chatter out there, a lot of political interference, but that should all be set aside.”

Troy Dahlberg, a member of the outside audit committee, said Ewell helped the investigation proceed smoothly.

Aguirre has called for Ewell’s ouster several times, arguing that he was impeding the progress of investigations. He said he wished the city manager “no ill will,” but that his departure is long overdue.

Ewell’s resignation “gives us the opportunity to put into place someone who will change the culture of corruption at City Hall,” Aguirre said. “That is a real step toward reform. It removes a major obstacle that was impeding the establishment of an internal controls system in the city.”

An analysis by Voice of San Diego shows that Ewell is eligible to receive about $58,000 annually in retirement. Although Ewell worked for the city for about four years and 11 months, his purchase of five years worth of service credits and the accumulation of six weeks of administrative leave allow him to reach the 10 years of service needed to vest in the embattled retirement system.

Aguirre reiterated his claim that Ewell and others that used purchased service credits to reach 10 years should not be able to vest in the pension system. Aguirre contends that eased requirements are illegal under the City Charter and has filed a lawsuit to that effect. A spokeswoman for the retirement system said Ewell has offered to undo his service creidt purchase, but that no refund has been issued by the pension plan.

City Councilman Jim Madaffer issued praise for Ewell.

“I will forever remember his fierce loyalty to the employees and the taxpayers,” the councilman said.

Ewell’s work at the city was not untouched by the pension scandal that forced his first boss, former Mayor Dick Murphy, from office.

As a new assistant city manager, Ewell sat in on the labor strategy sessions that resulted in a controversial 2002 agreement that boosted employee retirement benefits while allowing the city not to fully fund its pension system. In an earlier interview, Ewell said he sat in just as a learning exercise undertaken in his first full year. He said he was not part of the negotiating team that hammered out the final agreement, which has been the focus of ongoing local and federal investigations.

As an assistant city manager, Ewell was first called on to refute pension whistleblower Diann Shipione’s original warnings that the 2002 deal threatened the pension fund’s longer-term solvency and was possibly corrupt. The memo he issued dismissed many of Shipione’s prescient warnings that the funding agreement would be disastrous for future city finances, although Ewell later said that a fellow employee authored the memo and he only signed it.

That memo and related documents have been subpoenaed as part of the ongoing investigations.

The leadership at City Hall will look significantly different in January than it did just months ago, partly because political turmoil has shaken up the city roster and partly the result of the city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of governance.

Froman will serve as the city’s chief operating officer under Sanders, who won an election on Nov. 8 to replace former Mayor Dick Murphy.

Murphy stepped down under the weight of investigations and unprecedented financial challenges in July, just days before former Councilmen Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were convicted on federal bribery charges. A judge has since dismissed Zucchet’s guilty verdict on some counts and ordered a retrial for others. The runoff election to fill both vacant council seats takes place Jan. 10.

While the new mayor takes over the city manager’s current duties of running the government’s day-to-day operations and proposing a yearly spending plan at the New Year, a council president will take over the mayor’s current duties of setting the city’s legislative agenda and presiding over weekly meetings.

Councilman Scott Peters was selected on Tuesday to be council president for the 2006 calendar year, and an independent budget analyst, which some observers say may play a very important political role at City Hall, is expected to be named by early next month.

Extending the strong-mayor structure past 2010 will require another citywide vote.

Staff Writer Andrew Donohue contributed to this article.

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