Chris Slama has been working for Huntington Beach residents since high school, picking up his first part-time job in the city’s recreation department in 1991 and rising to become the city’s Director of Community Services.
On Tuesday night, he signed off – the latest in a string of executive-level staff departures.
“There’s a lot of things to love about Chris,” said Mayor Tony Strickland as he handed Slama a plaque commemorating his work. “You’ve left a lasting legacy here in Huntington Beach, your hometown.”
Councilwoman Natalie Moser called Slama the “heart of the city.”
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name – and Chris, everywhere you go, everybody knows your name,” Moser said. “Everyone, everywhere has only the most wonderful things to say about you.”
But Slama isn’t retiring. He’s moving to the same job 10 miles away, in Irvine.
And he’s not the only top city staffer to depart Surf City in recent months.
A Voice of OC review found five of the city’s eight department directors have left Surf City since December 2022, leaving many of the city’s critical departments without a permanent leader.
City Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton called it a concerning trend in a Wednesday interview.
“Am I concerned about the fact that five people have left? Yes. Yes I am,” she said. “To have five executives leave in the space of a few months is unusual, and the only thing that has significantly occurred in that period of time is this change with the city council.”
Their departure comes as the city is making some major changes under a new Republican city council majority, including a legal battle against state housing mandates, a push to change who can pray before meetings and efforts to push homeless people out of parks and other public areas.
In his parting remarks that night, Slama praised an executive team that – as a result of these departures – is no longer there.
“This executive team through the last couple years has just been so outstanding to work with,” Slama said at the city council meeting. “And this community, I always say I think I learn more from all of you than vice versa … just thank you in general to the whole community.”
The exodus from City Hall is feeding another municipality further east.
Most of the departed city workers are going to Irvine.
While some Huntington Beach council members voiced concern about the departures, others denied the notion these workers were driven away, instead attributing it to old loyalties to the former City Manager, Oliver Chi, who’s been Irvine’s top staffer since November 2021.
[Read: Huntington Beach City Manager Moves to Irvine, Ending City’s Year-Long Search for Top Job]
Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark said Chi had been recruiting city staff to move.
“He must have talked to several of them. He’s doing his job taking our talent to his city — I’m sad to see some of them go, but we’ll be fine,” she said in a Wednesday interview.
But Chi said he never recruited anyone – that those staffers wanted to leave.
In a Wednesday interview, Chi said he actually encouraged them to stay, given their ties to the city.
But he said they pushed ahead.
“Frankly, the answer is no,” Chi said when asked if he’d recruited any of the city’s directors. “I told both of them they should stay in Huntington Beach, they live in town. Chris is a lifer, born and raised.”
The two staff members Chi referenced are Slama and Sean Crumby, who was Huntington Beach’s public works director and is now set to run Irvine’s newly formed Project Delivery and Sustainability department.
Chi praised both of their work, and said he felt “incredibly lucky,” to have them come to Irvine.
They’re also not the only ones to leave.
Dahle Bulosan, who worked at Huntington Beach for 16 years and rose up to the position of Chief Financial Officer, left the city and joined Irvine’s city staff in January as the Director of Administrative Services.
Less than three months after Bulosan left, the city council voted unanimously to shift a bulk of his responsibilities under the oversight of City Treasurer Alisa Backstrom, a realtor who’s been certified by the California Municipal Treasurers Association, according to her LinkedIn.
Slama and Crumby are both set to start their new positions in Irvine next month.
“Obviously we’re really going to miss Chris, he’s been with the city over 30 years, and that’s a really incredible run and of course someone with that amount of experience knows the city well and it’s a huge loss for us,” Bolton said.
“As is the case with the other folks who have moved on.”
Reached for comment on Wednesday, City Councilman Casey McKeon also attributed the departures to Chi, despite two of the five executives departing for other cities.
“More concerning is (Chi) would not call our city manager and give the common courtesy (notice) that he was taking three department heads. It’s an absurd argument that he did not recruit them,” McKeon said.
In a Wednesday interview, Van Der Mark said she personally asked departed staff members whether it was “anything we did” – referring to the council’s conservative majority, as “some of the council members would start insinuating that it’s the new council.”
Van Der Mark claimed staffers she talked to “said ‘No.’”
“Apparently the City of Irvine has a lot more money and better pay than we do. We’re a much smaller city. I’m sad to see some of them go because they do have institutional knowledge, but at the end of the day, they have to do what’s best for their family.”
Not everyone who’s leaving is going to Irvine.
Brittany Mello, Huntington Beach’s former director of Administrative Services, left in January for the same job in Menlo Park, according to her LinkedIn page.
After Mello’s departure, city spokesperson Jennifer Carey said Administrative Services would be broken into two separate departments for Human Relations and Information Services.
Jason Austin, Huntington Beach’s Director of Homeless and Behavioral Health, left last month to become the Social Services Coordinator for the City of Palm Desert, according to his LinkedIn page.
After Austin’s departure, the city announced plans to eliminate Austin’s former role and turn it into a department manager role, not a director, which means whoever takes the role will be paid less.
And it doesn’t look like they’ll be the last to leave.
One former executive at Huntington Beach who spoke to Voice of OC reporters, who asked their name not be shared for fear of reprisals, said the new city council has threatened staff with a “hit list of people they want fired.”
“They’re not doing any real work anymore, it’s all these sort of performative fights. Doing good for the community has taken a backseat,” they said. “I know multiple folks who are looking to leave.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brandonphooo.
This article was updated to clarify that while the city treasurer gained new responsibilities, they did not gain oversight of the city’s finance office.
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