Without warning, Escondido city manager resigns (Breaking News)

File photo of Clay Phillips

Just ahead of a pension vestment that pays him over $200,000 annually, Escondido City Manager Clay Phillips, 58, suddenly resigned on Wednesday. Coincidentally, Phillips’ 3-year city manager contract that made him the highest paid city manager in San Diego County was set to expire next year. Dec, 18 would be his last day on the job, Phillips said.

Clay Phillips during opening benediction at Escondido City Council meeting.

Clay Phillips during opening benediction at Escondido City Council meeting.

It was unclear if the pension and resignation were related. Phillips has been a controversial person in city government ever since he took over the reigns as city manager in 2003. Phillips had been the longest-tenured city manager in the county.

It’s also unclear who will replace Phillips, although the City Council in June hired former Lemon Grove Graham Mitchell to be assistant city manager at an annual salary exceeding $200,000.

“Escondido City Manager Clay Phillips informed the City Council today of his plans to retire this December. His last day will be December 18, 2015,” Joyce Masterson, assistant to the city manager said in a statement released just after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“It has been my pleasure and my privilege to have served you, our employees and the residents of Escondido for nearly 30 years and as your City Manager for the last 12,” Phillips said in the statement.

Mayor Sam Abed expressed appreciation for Mr. Phillips’ service, according to the statement, saying, “Clay has been the longest tenured City Manager in Escondido’s history and a great leader for the City. “His strong financial expertise and management skills steered Escondido through economic downturns to financial stability and economic growth. His contributions to make Escondido a better city are greatly appreciated.”

Abed echoed statements by many city leaders over the years, praising Phillips for his handling of business issues. The city manager, however, was dogged by controversies in recent years.

An annual 12 percent pay raise in his 2013 contract made Phillips the highest paid city manager in San Diego county. His $234,719 in base pay in 2013 beat out city managers in Poway, Chula Vista and Oceanside, who each made $220,000 to $230,000 that year.

Base pay didn’t even tell the entire story. As city manager, Phillips, 59, also received a $9,000 annual car allowances the ability to convert half of his nearly 10 weeks of annual vacation days to cash and eligibility for a city-funded pension to begin at age 60, paying him more than $200,000 annually.

At the time of the 2013 contract Rita Geldert, executive director of the California City Management Foundation, was quoted as saying  generous compensation is warranted because city managers oversee hundreds of employees and multimillion dollar budgets.

Escondido officials praised Phillips for city surpluses in recent years after burning running $20 million deficits between 2007 and 2010.

Abed, the mayor, also said Phillips should be among the highest paid city managers in the county because Escondido is a “full-service” city with a police department, libraries and sewer and water service. Many other cities contract out those services.

In 2012, Phillips faced considerable blowback when his son, Adam, 28, was hired by City Attorney Jeff Epp, a close Phillips ally, to be a deputy city attorney. While refusing to say how many people applied for the job, Epp said Adam Phillips was hired because he was the most qualified candidate.

“I didn’t think it was right to discriminate against him just because his dad was the city manager,” Epp said to the Union Tribune.

Last month, Phillips came under intense fire for his handling of a personnel issue ion the city manager’s office. It turned out that a 29-year-old clerical worker he hired for the office had another calling. Poway resident John Friend, hired three months previously, turned out to be running a pro-Nazi, anti-semitic website and was a vociferous blogger and contributor to several white supremacist publications including the american Free Press.

City officials said they were unaware of Friend’s outside activities.  Phillips said to news sources he couldn’t comment in depth, saying only, “John worked in this office and I did find out about some of his writings on the Internet and it certainly raises concerns for the city and for me personally as his boss.”

Phillips began his career with the City of Escondido in January 1986 as Director of Finance, according Masterson’s statement.  In 1993 he was promoted to the position of Director of Financial and Administrative Services.  He was promoted to the position of Deputy City Manager in 1997 a position he held until 2003 when became City Manager.  Prior to working for the city of Escondido, Phillips was the Deputy Finance Officer for the City of Irvine from 1983 to 1986.  He also served as an Accountant for the City of Santa Ana from 1980 to 1983.