Morro Bay hires new city manager with military background

David Buckingham, Morro Bay's new city manager
David Buckingham, Morro Bay's new city manager Courtesy photo

The Morro Bay City Council has hired a new city manager with a military background — one that includes a controversy resulting in his being reassigned to a different post.

The council voted 5-0 to appoint David W. Buckingham to fill the seat effective Sept. 29. The position is currently occupied by interim City Manager Ed Kreins.

Buckingham, 49, was one of 50 applicants. Kreins said the council voted unanimously to offer Buckingham the job, which he accepted Monday.

“He has an outstanding background,” Kreins said. “He’s collaborative and open. He had done his homework when he came in to interview. He knew as much about Dynegy (owner of the Morro Bay Power Plant) as I did. He knew the players in Morro Bay. He came in very well prepared.”

Buckingham served in the U.S. Army for more than 25 years, recently retiring with a rank of colonel. Buckingham also served as a garrison commander for more than two years in Vicenza, Italy, a position that Morro Bay officials said was similar to a city manager.

Buckingham admits to losing his temper and using profanity during a 2013 Fourth of July incident at the base when a military police officer failed to follow orders to open a gate that was blocking traffic at the crowded celebration.

“I used a word I don’t use often,” Buckingham said. “I don’t do it regularly. I apologized to the kid for it. It was a one-time use of profanity in a crisis situation where public safety was at risk.”

Buckingham said as part of his responsibilities, he had been required to clean up a platoon that had severe disciplinary issues. Some reports of the holiday incident, including in the Italian media, were inaccurate, he said.

According to a story in the Army Times newspaper, Buckingham was relieved of his position as commander of the garrison after the incident because his superior “lost confidence” in his leadership abilities due to the “boorish behavior in a very public place.” 

The decision to reassign Buckingham was also due to an investigation into the command climate he had created, the Sept. 9, 2013, story said.

Buckingham couldn’t be reached late Tuesday for his response on the accuracy of that report. But in an earlier phone interview Tuesday he said the Italian media scrutiny included misrepresentations about him that forced the Army’s hand to reassign him.

He also said members of a platoon whom he’d disciplined were seeking to retaliate against him when the incident happened, and subsequent reports of unprofessional conduct emerged.

“It was not poor management because of the actions that I had to take to hold a few people accountable,” Buckingham said.

Kreins, who led the search for a new city manager, said the U.S. Army investigation found that neither alcohol nor unethical behavior were factors in the incident. Morro Bay officials thoroughly vetted Buckingham on the issue, Kreins said.

“The City Council discussed this completely, and it was not a secret,” Kreins said. “I spoke with two three-star generals. They endorsed Dave 100 percent. The council and our citizens group selected Dave as their No. 1 choice.”

Buckingham’s last assignment was director of environmental services with the Army, serving at the Pentagon.

Buckingham said he wouldn’t have been appointed to that position of “significant responsibility” if the incident in Italy had been egregious.

In his new position in Morro Bay, Buckingham will earn an annual base salary of $160,000 excluding benefits, Kreins said. Kreins said the contract still must be formalized; it is expected to be voted upon at the Aug. 26 council meeting.

But the tentative agreement includes benefits such as a car and cell phone allowance, as well as $17,500 annually in deferred compensation in place of health insurance. Buckingham will use health insurance provided through the military.

In Vicenza, he managed a staff of about 900 civilian employees that served a population of about 14,000 to 15,000 people with a budget of $120 million, Buckingham said. Buckingham was responsible for supervising a wide range of municipal services, including police, fire, public works, finance, planning and parks and recreation.

“I’m thrilled and thankful to serving the public in Morro Bay,” Buckingham said. “As I retire from the military, instead of going to work for a private contractor, I’d rather serve at a local level.”

Buckingham, who will be moving to the Central Coast from Washington, D.C., said he will be focusing on the planning and construction of a new wastewater treatment facility for Morro Bay along with other key issues, including the potential uses for the shuttered power plant.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Buckingham holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Pennsylvania State University; a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island; and a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University.

Buckingham and his wife, Kendra, have five children, ages 8 to 17 years old.

The city manager position was vacated in December when former city manager Andrea Lueker resigned under pressure from a council majority consisting of Mayor Jamie Irons and council members Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler. Lueker earned a salary of about $152,000 annually.