City Manager Rick Cole announced his resignation Friday in a post on the city of Santa Monica’s blog.
Cole, who was appointed city manager in 2015, resigned ahead of a May 5 vote on budget cuts needed to address the city’s projected $226 million budget gap as the economic impacts of coronavirus slash revenues from sales, hotel and parking taxes. Earlier this week, he offered to reduce his $343,000 salary by 20% amid the budget shortfall.
Cole said in the blog post that he was “prepared to persevere in the face of this daunting battle and lead our organization through this crisis,” but has since recognized his limits and is “offering to step aside now to facilitate the restructuring that must take place, knowing we will need to make reductions in staff at every level of the organization.”
As of Friday afternoon, more than 2,800 people had signed a petition started Tuesday that called for Cole and Chief Operating Officer Katie Lichtig to be fired.
The petition alleges Cole asked City Council to eliminate the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, close the Santa Monica Swim Center and eliminate or reduce CREST, Virginia Avenue Park and Police Activities League youth programs. The petition also asserted that he furloughed more than 600 part-time workers.
Cole dismissed the petition’s claims as rumors at a City Council meeting earlier this week, and in the blog post said he had been put in the line for fire for anyone dissatisfied with any aspect of the city’s response to the coronavirus emergency.
Before the pandemic, the fiscal constraints he introduced to pay down the city’s $448 million unfunded pension liability had been already unpopular with the city workforce and community, he said.
On Tuesday, the City Council approved a plan to offer city staff $10,000 or $15,000 to voluntarily leave their jobs, and is scheduled to discuss workforce and service reductions May 5.
“The need to deal with a projected $300 million dollar shortfall over the next 26 months puts us all in a nearly impossible situation,” Cole said in the blog post. “It almost certainly will result in personnel reductions that will be devastating to the livelihoods of colleagues I’ve been proud to lead — and devastating to community services I’ve been committed to enhancing.”
City Council member Ted Winterer said the council had discussed how to reduce costs associated with executive staff at its recent meeting. He said those deliberations didn’t focus on the city manager specifically, but noted that Cole’s announcement came after council members shared their concerns with him earlier this week.
“We also promised the community that budget cuts and staff reductions would be spread from the bottom of the economic strata to the top so the highly paid people would bear as mush if not more of the pain,” Winterer said.
Cole said he has confidence in the employees who will remain with the city to carry on its mission and pursue the vision of “a city that works for everyone.”
“Parenthood taught me that you can’t ask others to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself,” he said. “I have profound confidence in the team we have assembled and it breaks my heart that we will not be able to complete the journey together.”
Mayor Kevin McKeown said City Council has called a special meeting to receive Cole’s offer to resign and appoint an interim city manager. The council will also consider how to ensure continuity of key leadership during the coronavirus crisis and recovery, he said.
“I can only imagine how painful it is for him now to demonstrate, through his own action, how the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic collapse have made agonizing sacrifices inevitable, right up to the top office in City Hall,” McKeown said.
Cole grew up in Pasadena and is a graduate of Occidental College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He founded a newspaper in Pasadena and was later elected to the city council, serving as mayor from 1992 to 1994.
He then became city manager of Azusa and Ventura, where in 2006 he was recognized as one of “America’s Public Officials of the Year” by Governing Magazine.
From 2013 to 2015, he served under Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as deputy mayor for budget and innovation. He was selected as city manager of Santa Monica in 2015.
In the blog post, Cole reflected on the city’s achievements during his five years as its top official. By the end of his tenure, the city had reversed an uptick in crime and made progress on the regional homelessness crisis, he said.
Cole said he took pride in the city’s plan to close to Santa Monica Airport by 2028, the adoption of the city’s $800 million plan to make Santa Monica carbon neutral by 2050 and efforts to create a new model of mobility, including the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica and the pilot program the city created to regulate dockless scooters and bikes.
He also highlighted the Downtown Community Plan, the city’s rental assistance program for seniors, a tax measure devoted to affordable housing and public education, and half a billion dollars committed to capital projects over the last five years.
But his work was never easy, Cole said.
During his time as city manager, the city was the subject of a voting rights lawsuit and recently settled claims from 24 victims of child abuse at the hands of a former city employee and volunteer. Cole was often the target of criticism from residents over development and staff salaries, and over the last year faced opposition from the city’s unions as he negotiated a reduction in pensions.
“Diverse interests and opinions often stoked controversy,” Cole said in the blog post. “Rising fiscal challenges impinged on our capacity to achieve visionary goals.”
Cole said the city was looking ahead toward goals such as water self-sufficiency, electrifying the Big Blue Bus Fleet, revitalizing the Third Street Promenade and meeting a forthcoming mandate from the state to build 9,000 homes over the next decade.
Now, the pandemic has drastically changed the city’s prospects, he said.
“The challenges before us are starkly different: how to retool to deliver essential services; how to mitigate the disastrous economic impact on our residents and businesses; how to jumpstart a robust recovery; and how to cope with a dire fiscal emergency on top of the public health crisis,” he said.
This article was updated April 18 at 3:47 p.m.