Since October, four Palos Verdes Estates Police Department employees, including two corporals and one officer, have left the department. Another officer and a sergeant plan to leave within the next month—and the police chief will depart early next year.
But such vacancies have become common in this wealthy community.
The Police Department, for example, has yet to fill two other spots that opened in 2018. More vacancies could follow, dealing a major blow to a department that typically fields 25 officers for an area of about 13,000 people on the north end of the Palos Verdes peninsula.
In City Hall, three employees have given notice this year that they will soon leave. The city is down a maintenance worker, permit technician and, later this month, its finance director.
And then there's the biggest job of all, city manager, a post that opened in April, when the City Council sacked Anton Dahlerbruch a month after three new members joined the panel. While an acting executive remains in place, the council has yet to find a permanent successor.
These vacancies came up for discussion at the Tuesday, Dec. 10, council meeting, with the panel voting to fill them. But the wave of departures, according to a former city employee who spoke at the meeting, are indicative of a city in crisis. Another resident said the City Council was dysfunctional.
But one of the most significant reasons for the vacancies is this city of million-dollar homes has a money problem. Tuesday's discussion lacked long-term solutions to solve that issue.
"I'm certain leaving these positions vacant will save the city money and the time and effort to recruit," Police Chief Mark Velez said Tuesday about his department's openings. "However, there are challenges associated with not filling these positions — slower response times, streets will not be maintained. There are (employee) retention problems and recruitment problems. Officers will continue to burn out."
Later, the police chief outlined why officers have left—and will continue leaving.
"The common theme was the uncertainty the city faces in terms of lack of promotability and opportunities and the uncertainty of whether the department would go away or not," Velez said. "They need more stability for their families."
Voters in April 2018 overwhelmingly approved a $5 million parcel tax that, it was said at the time, would save the Police Department from turning over to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which patrols the city's far bigger neighbor Rancho Palos Verdes.
The parcel tax, however, does not cover the department's entire budget and there are still financial issues at City Hall largely driven by pension obligations and capital infrastructure needs.
Some of the problems apparently stem from a City Council decision in June, as part of approving the budget, to require the city manager to get the panel's OK before filling any vacant positions. The council unanimously gave that consent Tuesday; now, the city must find folks to fill those spots.
Mayor Kenneth Kao expressed his frustration before the vote.
"We have no business even doing this," Kao said at the meeting.
In an interview Wednesday, Kao said the oversight the council applied to hiring at City Hall and the Police Department included other cases of micromanaging by some of his colleagues.
"The City Council appoints the city manager to carry out its policy decisions," Kao said. "But when the council or any others start intruding directly upon operations, that divests the manager of his or her authority and makes the workload for some employees unbearable while creating doubt and uncertainty in others. That is especially true for a complex, paramilitary operation like our police department."
Carolynn Petru, who until this week was interim city manager, said she intended the positions at City Hall to temporarily remain vacant.
But, she added, "what we are finding is it is causing a strain on the staff."
Petru, whose contract is up with the city, has officially been replaced as Public Works Director Kenneth Rukavina, who will now serve as acting city manager until a permanent replacement is announced.
While city staff can now search for candidates to fill current openings, the Palos Verdes Estates government likely won't expand any time soon. That's because there's a freeze on new positions—underscoring the city's financial distress. The city, in recent months, has also undergone a fiscal review.
Councilmember Michael Kemps, who led the effort to require City Council approval before filling vacancies, said the motivations are to keep the Police Department and preserve the quality of life for residents.
"Rumors we want to get rid of the Police Department or that we’ve done this on purpose, that is absolutely not the case," Kemps said. "We have to face the music. What we have is not inexpensive. At some point, we have to say, if you want to preserve that, you have to cover the true costs of what pensions cost.
"We want to fund the normal costs of those pensions," the councilman continued, "while dealing with the unfunded liability combined with efforts around infrastructure."
Mayor Pro Tem David McGowan, meanwhile, said the panel has tried its best to understand the finances and why the city is short of revenue, sometimes using analytical software.
"What we’ve done," he said, "is try to understand all the variables that have to go into that equation."
Among the recent departures was maintenance worker Pete Tepus, who said he started at the city in 1985.
"My resignation was not a traditional retirement," Tepus said at the meeting. "I went through eight months of very emotional, unimaginable feelings."
Several residents who spoke Tuesday decried the divisive nature of the community lately. That feeling was shared by Councilmember Sanford Davidson.
"If we lose our police, PVE will never be PVE again," Davidson said. "Why is it different than RPV? There’s something that distinguishes it. We should have more community events. We should have more cookie exchanges and laugh more."