Thursday, August 6, 2009
Pacific Grove Mayor Dan Cort has pulled a Palin: To the surprise of his constituents, and in the middle of an economic bust, he announced his mid-term resignation.
Cort says his decision to step down Aug. 31 comes in response to a recall threat.
In a peremptory e-mail sent around 6pm Aug. 3, P.G. activist David Dilworth informed the mayor he would begin gathering recall signatures at 11:45am Aug. 4 – unless Cort promptly resigned.
“There is a group of cross-partisan citizens who have committed to work diligently and persistently to allow Pacific Grove voters to remove you from office,” Dilworth wrote. “There is one small light remaining for you, assuming you may wish to save your reputation from the recall footnote that would be in your Wikipedia entry for the rest of your life. Do not construe this as a negotiation, nor is it up for discussion.”
Surprisingly, by 11pm that night, Cort had sent out an e-mail announcing his resignation.
“This was not an easy decision for me to make, but has become necessary to avoid the distraction of a recall campaign that will interfere the city’s ability to deal with important issues,” he wrote.
Dilworth and Terrence Zito, P.G. residents and founders of Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment, are moving forward with the recall anyway, saying they don’t believe Cort is actually resigning. Their effort also targets City Councilmembers Vicki Stilwell, Deborah Lindsay and Bill Kampe.
The perennial P.G. rabble-rousers say the four officials must go because they supported the museum’s new public-private partnership, cut library funding, and backed pay raises for police officers when the city is on the brink of bankruptcy, among other things.
“They just sat there chewing their cud while the city is falling to pieces,” Zito said before an Aug. 4 press conference (to which Dilworth showed up 20 minutes late) in front of the P.G. post office.
In a subdued voice, Cort explains the reasoning behind his resignation. “It’s a hard decision, because I love the city of Pacific Grove,” he says. “Our community is in turmoil right now. I want what I’m doing to represent how ugly this thing is – I didn’t need to be the face of this. Now without me, there won’t be a distraction.”
When he became mayor, Cort hoped to make environmental strides with a green building ordinance, a water-saving reservoir and solar panels for city-owned facilities. Instead he found himself mired in a never-ending financial nightmare and constantly on the defense against “a small minority of angry folks.”
“Pacific Grove has done nothing but be financially responsible for the past two and a half years. We’ve cut everything we can cut, and we did that in a very tough economy, which we didn’t create,” he says.
He decision brings some relief that P.G.’s headaches are no longer his: “I have a responsibility to my family and my business and my life and that of the city. It’s difficult to be the mayor of Pacific Grove. You have to be able to breathe.”
Councilman Bill Kampe, who sees the recall effort as below-the-belt, says he’s disappointed to see Cort go. “The best interest of the city does not lie with this vindictive politics,” he says. “I feel that [the recall committee] would advocate bankruptcy and a severe disruption to the city in order to express its very intense anger about police salaries and benefits.”
The Council held a special session before its Aug. 5 meeting to discuss how to fill the vacant mayor position. Under city policy, the council has until Sept. 30 to appoint a new mayor to serve through December 2010, the end of Cort’s term. If Mayor Pro Tempore Stilwell becomes mayor, the council has the authority to fill her council position.
Stilwell did not return phone calls. Lindsay declined to comment.
Although Dilworth and Zito say they represent a larger group called Committee to Save Pacific Grove, they will not name other members. Zito says an anonymous donor is fronting the money for the recall.
Dilworth says his group is not backing any replacement candidates, and he doesn’t plan to run for office. Zito was a P.G. councilman in the mid-1990s, and Dilworth unsuccessfully ran for council last November.
Their claim that the recall targets support police pay raises is not entirely correct. Lindsay, Kampe and Stilwell voted for a contract amendment that would scale back unionized officers’ short-term raises while extending their contract by two years – a move that would save the city roughly $1 million. Councilwoman Lisa Bennett, who opposed the amendment, took issue with extending the police contract while the city struggles to bail out of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (see “Cops and Cuts,” July 23-29). The Council revisited the issue at its Aug. 5 meeting, past the Weekly’s deadline.
Zito criticizes P.G. Finance Director Jim Becklenberg – increasingly the city’s go-to staffer as Interim City Manager Charlene Wiseman winds down her term – for not doing anything to reduce public safety costs. It surprises Zito to hear that Becklenberg advises shaving almost $1 million from the police budget. Calling the police department a “sacred cow,” he paradoxically identifies Councilwoman Carmelita Garcia – founder of Pacific Grove Police Citizens Academy Alumni Association – as the official he supports most.
Also at its Aug. 5 meeting, the City Council considered scheduling a public hearing to nullify a 7-year-old CalPERS perk. Former Councilman Daniel Davis and retired attorney John Moore say the city’s generous pension contract is illegal.
Under a 2002 resolution, the P.G. council increased retirement benefits for police and fire staff to “3 percent at 50.” In other words, beginning at age 50, public safety officers can retire with pensions, as a percentage of their ending salaries, equal to the number of years served times three. Under that structure, P.G. cops with 30 years in the force can retire at age 50 and receive 90 percent of their salaries for life.
“Because it is clear that such benefits have cost far more than was [mis-]represented to the Council and the public at the time, we should revisit whether the decision was made in accordance with the law,” reads the staff report, which was prepared by Councilwomen Lisa Bennett and Carmelita Garcia.