Surprise! Escondido city manager resigns

Escondido City Hall, where it all goes down...

ESCONDIDO, CA. — Stop if you’ve heard this one before: Escondido city manager suddenly, and without warning, resigns.

Clay Phillips, the last city manager, pulled that act almost exactly one year ago. He left office on Dec. 18, 2015. His successor, his former assistant, and city manager this year, Graham Mitchell pulled the same plug on Friday afternoon.

“After serious reflection and for personal reasons, I am announcing my resignation as the city of Escondido’s city manager resignation, effective no later than December 31, 2016,” Mitchell said in a surprise letter sent to Mayor Sam Abed and members of the city council.

“I have enjoyed my time with Escondido and feel that I have contributed significantly in its evolution,” Mitchell said in the one-page letter that went on to discuss his perceived accomplishments along with some platitudes about the community.

Timing and substance appeared to take city leaders by surprise. They issued a 2-paragraph statement saying, “Escondido City Manager Graham Mitchell informed the City Council today of his plans to resign no later than December 31, 2016 due to personal reasons.” The second paragraph went over Mitchell’s standard issue biography.

Mitchell received a base salary of $234,719 annually, according to city council documents making him the second highest highest paid city manager out of 18 in San Diego County. Carlsbad city manager Steve Sarkozy receives a $260,000 annual base salary.

In addition to base pay, Mitchell’s benefits included 20 days of management leave with the ability to convert 15 of those days to salary, auto allowance of $750 per month — the same as council members receive; life insurance policy at twice the salary; separate contribution to deferred compensation plan of 7 percent of the base salary.

Mitchell also received a $100,000 relocation bonus in 2015 for moving from Lemon Grove to Escondido. Mitchell said he, and his family, would remain in Escondido.

Escondido City Manager Graham Mitchell resigned after less than one year in office.

Escondido City Manager Graham Mitchell resigned after less than one year in office.

Mitchell was Lemon Grove’s city manager for 12 years before coming to Escondido in mid-2015 to take an assistant city manager position. He was earning $181,824.50, plus an annual $6,000 put into a deferred-compensation plan, when he left that post. His starting salary in Escondido was $203,000

Just a few months later Phillips — who held office for 12 years — announced his retirement and Mitchell was promoted to the top city job, taking over at the end of December.

For the record, Mitchell, told the Union Tribune he was “exploring other professional opportunities,” perhaps even a job outside of government.

“In order to explore those kind of things it wasn’t very fair for me to continue to move on with a relationship with the city,” Mitchell said.

A search begins soon to find a replacement, according to Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, who was quoted as saying, “Graham Mitchell has been a good city manager for the city of Escondido, and we appreciate his contributions and achievements in the past year. We wish him the best.”

Abed declined to comment to news sources about whether he was surprised at Mitchell’s quick exit after such a short stint with the city, saying that was a personnel matter. Although a standard employee performance review was on tap, Abed said Mitchell did a good job and the review behind closed doors didn’t enter into the October surprise resignation.

Council members John Masson and Olga Diaz also complimented Mitchell.

“We were lucky to have him as long as we did,” Diaz told the Union Tribune. “He moved a lot of projects forward very quickly. I wish him well.”

Masson was quoted saying he was “surprised and upset” by the news, adding, “He’s done a lot for our city, and I’m very happy with his work. I understand he’s got to do what he needs to do for his family and whatever else his reasons are. I’m going to miss him.”

During his time as city manager, Mitchell promoted three employees to key management positions –Jay Petrek to assistant city manager, Bill Martin to Director of Community Development, and Russ Knowles to Fire Chief.

In his goodby to all that letter, Mitchell cited his appointments as accomplishments along with streamlined measures to assist businesses, plans for a new library and expanded Grape Day Park and a $1.8 million General Plan budget surplus last fiscal year.

“I hope that in my short time with the city I was able to influence the organization in a way that continues to foster creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit and passion for public service,” Mitchell said in conclusion.

“Mr. Mitchell has been the City Manager in Escondido since December 2015 following the retirement of Clay Phillips,” Joyce Masterson, city spokeswoman, said in the city’s official statement. “Prior to that he was Assistant City Manager from June to December 2015.  He previously was City Manager in Lemon Grove for twelve years, as well as City Manager for three years in Farmersville, CA.”

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