The city’s chief operating officer is resigning less than three months before a new mayor will take office.
City hall veteran Kris Michell, who has overseen city operations and employees for nearly three years, announced Monday she will leave her post next Friday, Oct. 2. As chief operating officer in the city’s strong mayor form of government, Michell is the city’s top unelected official.
Michell’s departure comes amid a flurry of investigations into the city’s acquisition of and struggles with 101 Ash St., a downtown high rise it entered into a 20-year lease-to-own deal a year to acquire before Michell took the helm. Under Michell’s watch, the city rushed to evacuate the building in January after a series of asbestos violations emerged during an expanded renovation effort that went awry.
She’s also departing as the city continues to unravel a major budget crunch tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
Michell said Monday she was leaving the city to pursue private-sector opportunities.
“I’ve had the pleasure of serving in three mayoral administrations and there’s a new administration set to take over in December and I’ve decided to step down so that I can begin the next stage of my career in the private sector,” Michell told Voice of San Diego. “This is not something new. It’s something that I have contemplated for quite some time.”
Michell said that the debacle surrounding 101 Ash St. was not the reason for her departure.
“My resignation has nothing to do with 101 Ash,” Michell said. “We do have plans in place for decision-makers to make future decisions.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer tapped Michell to oversee the city’s thousands of employees in January 2018 after then-COO Scott Chadwick announced he was leaving.
The operations role was new for Michell, who previously served as chief of staff to former Republican Mayors Jerry Sanders and Susan Golding. The chief of staff role put Michell in charge of the mayoral administration, while as COO she led the entire city bureaucracy.
Michell had returned to San Diego City Hall in fall 2017 to oversee special projects, including the long-wanted Convention Center expansion and homelessness efforts, after roughly six years leading the influential Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group. Michell soon shifted gears after Chadwick’s departure in early 2018.
Michell’s appointment was seen by City Hall insiders – and Michell herself – as an effort to align the mayor’s goals and his workforce.
At the time, a hepatitis A outbreak that had battered the city’s homeless population laid bare a lack of urgency over both the homeless crisis and the outbreak itself at City Hall, even as the number of deaths increased.
While Faulconer Chief of Staff Aimee Faucett and others wouldn’t publicly fault city operations for the bureaucratic fumbling, they said at the time that the relationship between city operations and the mayor needed refining in the aftermath of a move to a strong mayor form of government more than a decade ago.
“Today we have the opportunity to grow in our understanding of the strong-mayor form of government,” Michell said in 2018. “The mayor is leading the city and we need to know where he’s headed at all times, so we can deliver the results he seeks.”
Since then, Michell has overseen major city projects like the sale of the former Chargers stadium property in Mission Valley to SDSU for its campus expansion, and a massive infrastructure project known as Pure Water, intended to provide the city with a third of its drinking water by 2035 by capturing and treating wastewater.
Michell’s announcement ensures that the city’s next mayor will choose the city’s next top bureaucrat. Michell’s replacement will need to be approved by the City Council.
Update: Faulconer announced after this story initially published that two of his political staffers will be moving to operations roles following Michell’s departure. Faucett, his chief of staff, will become chief operating officer and now Deputy Chief of Staff Almis Udrys will serve as assistant chief operating officer.
Jeff Sturak, who currently serves as the city’s assistant chief operating officer, will remain in that post.
Andrew Keatts contributed to this report.