Monday, November 28, 2005 | It was really a love fest for P. Lamont Ewell in Santa Monica last week.

The San Diego city manager, who abruptly announced his immediate departure last week, was bursting with praise for that little burb to the north of Los Angeles the other day. And the Santa Monica City Council was similarly smitten with him.

When Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor called for a council vote on whether to appoint Ewell as that city’s new manager, the council members didn’t just say “yes” when they recorded their votes.

They said things like: “A very enthusiastic yes!”

“Are we going to get into a ‘who’s-more-enthusiastic’ contest?” asked Bobby Shriver, a Santa Monica city councilman.

Shriver wasn’t complaining. He just didn’t want to lose the contest. He voted “a more enthusiastic yes!”

Lamont Ewell first “resigned” from the city of San Diego more than a year ago. It was right after the Nov. 2, 2004 election during that weird period of time when it actually appeared as though City Councilwoman Donna Frye had won the mayor’s race with an incredible write-in campaign.

So the first thought on people’s minds when Ewell resigned then was that he didn’t want to have anything to do with a city headed by Donna Frye. But he quickly clarified that it was actually another result of the 2004 election that had really disillusioned him: City voters had approved the “strong-mayor” charter change meaning that in 2006 the mayor would be the city’s chief executive.

Ewell had made a career out of working in a manager-council relationship like San Diego had. And he didn’t want to stick around any longer than he had to – he was set to leave in June.

But then former Mayor Dick Murphy prevailed upon him and they both announced that Ewell had agreed to stay in San Diego “through Dec. 31, 2005.”

Apparently he has since changed his mind again. His last day with San Diego is today.

More interesting than his indecisiveness, however, are the reasons he has given each time he changed his mind.

For instance, plastered on his Web site for months was this:

“I made the commitment to stay to: Get rid of the pension problem; get the audit done; and adopt a five-year financial plan to keep the city disciplined and focused on the highest priorities.”

Hmmm. If he decided to stay to “get rid of the pension problem” does that mean he’s leaving a month earlier than planned because it has successfully been gotten rid of?

Never mind that people don’t necessarily want the city to get rid of the pension problem. It’d be nice, instead, if someone actually solved it. Getting rid of it has been the goal of far too many city administrators in the past.

But that’s beside the point. Let’s get back to the question: Is Lamont now leaving early because he has successfully gotten rid of the pension problem as he said was his No. 1 reason for staying.

No. We won’t even go there.

How about his No. 2 reason for staying the extra year – to get the audit done? This, of course, is a laudable goal. The city, without an audit of its 2003 finances – let alone its 2004 and 2005 – is fiscally paralyzed. If not for a special relationship with the Bank of America, core city functions would have to be curtailed and bankruptcy would be more than just a campaign threat. Even with Bank of America, the city cannot move forward on vital infrastructure projects.

But eight months after Ewell agreed to stay through the end of the year, there’s no audit. The investigation that is supposedly needed to complete the audit is stalled.

He’s 0 for 2. And as far as the third tier of his commitments – to develop a five-year plan – it’s impossible to conceive true progress on that without achieving the first two goals.

Yet after a nationwide search, the Santa Monica City Council settled on Ewell as the best manager they could find.

The reason?

“He was promoted by the San Diego City Council from assistant city manager in 2004 – to help the city navigate some very tough financial issues,” said Mayor O’Connor. “The confidence the San Diego council showed in him and the experience he’s gained throughout his career gave us every confidence that he is the right person at this time for Santa Monica.”

That is true: The San Diego City Council did promote Ewell to succeed former City Manager Michael Uberuaga in the spring of 2004 and “to help the city navigate some very tough financial issues.”

Funny how earning the confidence of the San Diego City Council was the main reason Santa Monica officials cited to explain supporting Ewell there.

In other places – San Diego, for example – the judgment of the San Diego City Council is not all that well-regarded. There’s a reason why no mayoral candidate this year sought out and highlighted the endorsements of City Council members. In fact, the biggest insult about his opponent that Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders could come up with during the campaign was that she was a member of that disgraced body during some troubling times.

And there was something missing from the Santa Monica mayor’s speech about Ewell. Yes, as she said, Ewell had been promoted to navigate the city through those troublesome financials straits. But she noticeably did not say whether he actually had done so.

That’s because he didn’t. And a month before his set date of departure, he’s decided that he’s not even going to try anymore.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly at

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