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Last Days in SLO By Camas Frank


City of SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig does not have the demeanor of a polarizing figure.

In fact as this reporter sat to do a sort of exit interview with the soon to depart municipal leader, her diplomatic skills were foremost in mind.

California’s particular brand of chartered city offers a unique blend of mayors independently elected from the rest of their council, and of city managers that have tremendous power to shape events but which serve at the will of the entire elected body. That’s a tad different from other areas of government, in which a permanent staff may serve removed from direct appointments, or more at the pleasure of a single elected official as their own representative in the cogs of bureaucracy.

Certainly in Lichtig’s nearly eight-year tenor with the City she has displayed abilities worthy of a member of the State Department Diplomatic Corps.

For instance, the ability to withstand years of rhetoric that bordered on abuse from then Councilman Dan Carpenter, and his conservative minded supporters, stands out.

Much of the course of that dispute was covered at the time by this publication, and indeed, coming after the fact, in the New Times, which explored the City Manager’s many qualifications and offered readers an up close look at her situation as a public servant being excoriated by one of the individuals she was bound to serve.

By the time in 2014 that some of those critics came to lay their case at the door of the SLO City News regarding facts concerning growing The City’s financial obligation to Cal PERS, the ground was particularly muddled regarding interpretation of facts versus opinion of detractors.

“I feel like someone just asked me, ‘When I are you going to stop beating your wife’,” Lichtig said in response to the article.

In that reference frame, no, she hadn’t been engaging in any verifiable impropriety, nor for that matter is she known to abuse her spouse.

Back to the sit down exit interview:

“It says more about our political times than SLO as a community that I was personally targeted,” she said. “There are forces at work that make it easier for politics to be personal. More than before.”

She added in response to the observation that US politics have always been personally threatening, “I can’t juxtapose [this region] historically, but I’ve always known in my heart that I was trying to do the right thing, in the right way.”

As well she said, “it’s true of my profession that diplomacy is key. It’s my job to find ways to serve all of the elected officials, together, to find a way forward.”

On the difficulties of that arena she expanded, for example on the challenges associated with serving three mayors in her time here.

Former Mayor Dave Romero, himself a former municipal employee of long standing, hired Lichtig with a Council that does not have a single member still in office.

The City Manager spent most of her time with former Mayor Jan Marx, who was replaced nine months ago by current Mayor Heidi Harmon.

For this article Marx characterized her long time manager, writing in a note for publication: “I have always been impressed by Kate’s deep, abiding commitment to serving the public. Her friendly, down to earth approach to managing city business, plus her financial expertise helped keep the city on course through some very challenging times. She has made significant contributions to the life of our community and will be missed.”

Lichtig herself noted the transitions by likening the changes in leadership to being high school teacher, perhaps a professor, “it is a little like teaching, figuring out how people best receive information and adapting. Some of the Council absorb information much differently than one another,” she said, adding that no matter what, “the Council needs the best information, as long as it’s legal, and doesn’t contradict my personal moral compass.”

That nod to the moral compass recalled a strange incident earlier this year in which Lichtig and Fire Chief Garret Olson received City Council enacted fines for their participation in a video that supposedly sexually objectified firefighters. Lichtig paid  $2,659 and Olson was $5,442, equivalent to a three and eight day suspension respectively.

Oddest amongst the whole incident was that it marked one of the few times Lichtig deigned to make an all-out unapologetic joke in public.  In private both she and Olson have great wit, but they did apologize unreservedly later quite literally paid for displaying satire in public.

“That has absolutely nothing to do with why I’m leaving and a nothing happened ‘behind the scenes’ with the Council,” she said. “With the whole issue nothing went on that wasn’t open to the public.”

And while she’s become quite close with the senior staff, making, she hopes, life long friends here she says she’s always tried to run City operations as transparently as possible.

That’s part of the advice she’s left for her current Assistant City Manager, Derek Johnson, as he transitions to be SLO’s new full on City Manager Sept. 29.

Every potential decision or action that’s presented to the City Council falls along a “spectrum” she said of things that can be done for one issue but may make another worse. “We try to be of meaningful service to the Council, while not offering solutions that would compromise core services for residents.”

With Johnson, she added, he’s been on a planned development path to follow her in the job for about two years already, “we’ve talked a lot about being attentive to the values of the organization, to making sure that relationships and the character of San Luis Obispo is balanced…Derek has an incredible ability to envision what the Council wants and to implement that going forward.”
As for why it’s time to “leave home” as Lichtig put it, “it will be nice after 31 years of marriage to be living in the same house again.”

For the last eight years Lichtig’s husband Mark Loranger has been commuting up to SLO on the weekends for them to spend time together. It’s trip she wasn’t as often able to make in reverse.

“We’ve always supported each other’s work,” she added but, “it was absolutely family decision with the timing now and the opportunity [to be the new chief operating officer for Santa Monica].”

The transition hasn’t been easy, she added, “but the best thing I can say is that I just encourage people to be open minded and optimistic about the future.”

  • Camas Frank
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