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McCarthy to Retire as City Manager

By Jorge Casuso and Olin Ericksen

August 2 -- City Manager Susan McCarthy -- who helped steer Santa Monica through some of its toughest times with a trademark low-key style -- announced Monday that she will retire in November after six years at the helm.

Citing the need to spend more time with her husband and aging parents, McCarthy leaves behind a City that has rebounded from the economic blow dealt by 9/11, but is in the midst of updating the general plan that guides all new development, tackling gang violence and homelessness and re-imagining its indoor mall.

"While I considered staying one more year, in particular to help advance our work on homelessness and youth violence prevention, I am determined to retire at 60 as I had long hoped," McCarthy said in a press release issued Monday.

“I look forward to traveling with my husband, spending more time with my parents on the East Coast and enjoying Santa Monica, a truly wonderful community in which to live," McCarthy said.

If McCarthy’s announcement caught some City Hall observers by surprise, insiders said the her retirement was not unexpected, especially in Southern California, where a city manager’s tenure averages between three and four years.

“It’s not a surprise,” said Mayor Pam O’Connor. “She said when we hired her that she would stay five to seven years. Time flies, and, suddenly, you’re here. We’ve been lucky to have her this long. The only thing that doesn’t change is things will change.

“I know how important it is to spend time with family,” added O’Connor, who lost her mother during the past year. “I wish her well. She has a lot to offer, and I hope she considers staying involved.”

The first woman to serve as Santa Monica city manager, McCarthy held the post during a time marked by dramatic events, including the tragic farmer's market crash two year’s ago that left ten dead and 60 injured. The City is facing litigation from the victims and their families.

McCarthy also was at the helm when the biggest lawsuit in Santa Monica’s history was settled when oil giants agreed to pay the City some $125 million and clean up water supplies contaminated by the gasoline additive known as MTBE. The City is currently wrangling with outside attorneys over legal fees could top $60 million.

McCarthy’s tenure was also marked by several years of fiscal belt-tightening after 9/11 sent the City’s vibrant tourism industry into a tailspin. Despite the economic downturn, Santa Monica retained its Triple A bond rating and its sales figures last year set new records.

"This has been a remarkable and challenging period in Santa Monica's history, and we were fortunate to have a person of Susan McCarthy's caliber at the helm for the past six years,” O’Connor said in a statement. “She is a consummate professional, ethical, smart, hard working, with a genuine desire to serve the people of Santa Monica."

"I'm very sorry to see her go," said Council member Ken Genser, who is serving a record fifth term on the council. "Susan is an extremely capable manager and a really wonderful person. She just provided so much leadership and talent."

"She's a historic person," said Council member Bob Holbrook. "She's the only woman who has served as city manager. She has the respect of all those who sit on the council."

Despite her soft-spoken demeanor, those who worked closely with McCarthy said her straight-forward approach to handling City business became her calling card, sending a clear signal on how she intended to get things done.

"She's a relatively diminutive woman, but very large in stature... a person of great intelligence and integrity," said Council member Richard Bloom, who was elected in 1999, the same year the council hired McCarthy as city manager.

"One of the things I most like about Susan is that she is direct,” said Bloom, who has served two years as mayor. “Whenever I asked a question I never felt her answer was beating around a bush."

McCarthy was able to maintain a calm demeanor, even during the toughest of times, Holbrook said.

"She's a very brave, professional person," said Holbrook, who is completing his third council term. "She always remained calm, even during a crisis. She was rock solid. She always had a kind word."

While McCarthy’s announcement comes on the heals of a closed session performance review by the council, City officials were quick to dispel any conjecture that the two were related.

"I really want to dispel any myths that her leaving has anything to do with what happened in closed session,” Bloom said. “And for that matter, any review that I would have given her would have been glowing."

McCarthy’s departure comes at a crossroads for the City, which is shifting its homeless policies and embarking on a community plan to tackle gang violence. McCarthy will also leave behind a bevy of capital projects in the works -- from the Civic Center parking structure that recently broke ground to the New Main Library that is nearing completion.

"There is never a good time for a decision like this,” Bloom said. “No matter what, there is always work in progress and unfinished business."

“It’s a complex City, and these are more unsettled times than normal,” O’Connor said. “Change happens faster in that dynamic environment. You need someone that has their eyes on the horizon as things crop up day to day, and I think Susan was excellent at that.”

Ever since McCarthy, the former Assistant City Manager, took the reins at City Hall from her predecessor John Jalili in November 1999, her job has been to manage success in a City where residents have high expectations and the City Council has a penchant for pushing the policy envelope.

McCarthy, who oversees a City staff of 2,000 employees, made it a goal to offer better services to constituents, overseeing a major overhaul of the City’s Planning Department, and reaching out to different sectors of the community, City officials said.

"While Susan has been here, her focus has been to reach out to all of the community,” Bloom said. “She's reached out to the business community by overseeing the changes in the planning department and on changes in dealing with the homeless.

“She's reached out to the Pico neighborhood and all of Santa Monica on issues of gang violence," he said.

The council will be making plans for an interim appointment and will soon embark on a search for a permanent replacement, City officials said.

"I'm glad we'll have her for a few more months," Genser said, "and I wish we had her longer."

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