CITY HALL — When he puts the last box of personal items in his car today and hands over the keys to City Hall to his successor, outgoing City Manager Lamont Ewell will take comfort in knowing that his 34 years of public service are ending on a high note.
Ewell, 56, is retiring after nearly four years as Santa Monica’s top administrator, earning praise from both residents and the business community for being a conscientious, compassionate and considerate leader who was always willing to collaborate. He will be replaced by Rod Gould, formerly the city manager of Poway, Calif.
During his tenure, Ewell completed an extensive reorganization of City Hall and focused on improving customer service, all the while giving credit to city staff. Almost $300 million worth of redevelopment projects are now in progress and the path to the completion of the MTBE water treatment plant is firmly set and progress is being made on the California Incline and Palisades Bluff stabilization projects.
Ewell also appointed several new department heads during his tenure.
“He’s going to be an extremely hard act to follow,” said attorney Tom Larmore, former chairman of the board for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, who remembers when the relationship between City Hall and local merchants was strained.
“I think he improved substantially City Hall’s relationships with not only the chamber, but [Santa Monica College] and the school district,” Larmore said. “He works well with all of these people. I think in retrospect we will realize we owe a lot to him, particularly since he managed the city in difficult economic times.”
In an interview with the Daily Press Wednesday, Ewell talked about his accomplishments and his failures, expressed his love for Santa Monica and the people he worked with, both within and outside City Hall.
“I have stated this repeatedly because it is true,” Ewell said. “I have not seen a group of city employees equal to the ones here and I think that I am in a good position to make that statement. I’ve worked in five other municipalities and one county and I’ve not seen any that equal the caliber of employees here. I will miss them most.”
A dedicated public servant, Ewell, who started off as a firefighter in Compton, was hard at work in the days before his retirement, preparing a budget plan for Gould to give him some breathing room while sitting in on negotiations with SMC for a land swap to allow City Hall to build a buffer adjacent to a proposed light rail maintenance yard off Exposition Boulevard and Stewart Street. He plans to spend today attending the chamber’s State of the City breakfast and then he will take his support staff out to lunch before heading home. He promises to still be available if Gould needs to pick his brain.
“This really was the pinnacle of my entire career,” Ewell said of working for Santa Monica. “I’ve never met a community more gracious, more engaged … . This was a great way to cap off my career.”
There is some unfinished business, mainly the negotiations with the Broad Foundations to create a museum in the Civic Center to showcase Eli Broad’s extensive art collection. Ewell said he wishes he had more time to “help make that a reality,” but he is confident Broad will chose Santa Monica over competing cities and that the council next month will vote in favor of a deal. Ewell spoke with Broad Tuesday, the philanthropist wishing him well.
“I told him that I am optimistic and that two years from now I will come back to the city and attend the ribbon cutting,” he said.
Ewell said there is no substance to a rumor that he would be working for the Broad’s as a consultant. He does not plan to do anything for the next six months but spend time with his family and travel. His daughter recently gave birth to her second son. He and his wife already have plans to visit Arizona for spring training, tracking his favorite Major League Baseball teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
If he does go back to work, Ewell said he would like to help President Obama “in some small way.” Ewell is extremely concerned about health care and the war in Iraq given that his son is stationed there.
Most likely through, Ewell said he will try to find opportunities to work as a volunteer.
He’s definitely looking forward to enjoying Santa Monica now that he is not a public figure. In the nearly four years he’s been here, Ewell said he has never been to the beach, aside from ribbon cuttings and other ceremonies. He and his wife would like to dine out more and attend performances at Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage.
“Quite frankly, I’m looking forward to having a beer,” said Ewell, who never felt comfortable cutting lose as the city’s top administrator.
Looking back, Ewell believes his greatest accomplishments are building stronger relationships with various stakeholders “so that we are working together to help move this city forward,” pushing through redevelopment projects and instituting a new customer service initiative dubbed “Doing The Right Thing Right!”
He does regret not being able to find a different approach to the ficus tree debate in Downtown. Environmentalists and business interests clashed over a proposal to chop down dozens of ficus trees along Second and Fourth streets. Those critical of Ewell said the ficus issue is what turned them, claiming Ewell was in the pocket of the business community. Eventually 23 structurally-deficient trees were removed.
“He could have made a difference in how that matter was handled, but instead didn’t rise to the occasion,” said Susan Hartley, a co-founder of Santa Monica Treesavers. “After all, it was business v. residents and he was 100 percent for business.”
Ewell said he understood the Treesavers’ passion and the need to protect healthy trees, but he had to balance that with public safety and concerns that the damaged trees posed a danger to pedestrians because of falling limbs and roots protruding from the sidewalk.
“I don’t think I articulated those concerns very well,” Ewell said. “I wish I could unring the bell and start over again, bring the Treesavers and others in to talk and achieve both the needs of the city and the environment.
“I’ve never been in anyone’s pocket,” Ewell said. “I’ve always looked at what makes the most sense for the community as a whole. I put the public first.”
Ewell pointed to his creation of community meetings surrounding the budget process in which residents could meet directly with him and department heads to express their concerns and desires. The “Can We Talk?” series became very popular. Ewell also got residents involved in the selection of a new police chief and attended neighborhood group meetings.
Zina Josephs with Friends of Sunset Park said Ewell “went to bat” for Sunset Park, particularly when it came to fighting the FAA over Santa Monica Airport operations.
“For me. Lamont is a role model for public officials,” she said. “We were very lucky to have him here in Santa Monica and I’m sorry to see him leave.”
As for the future of Santa Monica, Ewell would like to see more progress made on creating housing that is affordable for various income levels, with an emphasis on workforce housing so that police officers, firefighters, nurses and teachers can live close to work.
“We need to have a full array of housing available to all our residents, and not just for them to be renters, but to have the opportunity for home ownership,” he said. “And it can’t just be government subsidy. The private sector has to step in. We have outstanding hospitals in the community and dare I say many of the nurses can’t even afford to live here. The same is true with the school district and community college. They are wonderful, but if our teachers and professors can’t afford to live here, we are defeating the purpose of reducing our carbon footprint.
“Housing has got to be critical.”
Ewell said he has no advice for Gould, confident he will perform well despite the economic challenges ahead. He believes he is bright and has the right temperament for the community.
“There’s never a good time to leave,” Ewell said of his retirement. “There’s always work to be done, but the city of Santa Monica will do just fine.”