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On the cusp of major changes, from a new city hall to an overhauled land-use strategy, Napa approached the end of 2018 with several leaders who weren’t at the helm when the year began.

The city manager retired after 12 years, his place taken by the police chief. The head of public works left under still-unexplained circumstances, barely a month after his maintenance director suddenly retired amid allegations of workplace misbehavior and bullying. And Napa’s newly hired assistant city manager — a champion of the effort to build a civic center and police station downtown — departed after just seven months on the job.

And amid the turnover, an election race unfolded in which two candidates reached the City Council on promises to take a harder look at the civic center’s expense and design — and, more broadly, to ensure that the rise of Napa’s tourism-fueled economy would not turn more residents into strangers in their hometown, or unable to afford to live there.

Voters on Nov. 6 awarded the two contested council seats to Liz Alessio and Mary Luros, who had spent months questioning the expense and scope of the civic center Napa approved in 2017 for downtown First Street. Their victories marked the end of a 12-year tenure for Councilmember Peter Mott, who finished fifth in a six-person field.

The civic center would replace Napa’s 67-year-old City Hall with a much larger four-story structure, uniting a host of departments currently spread over seven sites across the city. It also would provide a new home for Napa Police, whose Second Street quarters were damaged in the 2014 earthquake.

But the prospect of more than two years of construction — and a price estimate that reached $143.6 million when temporary office space is taken into account — sparked unease among some residents, police officers and city workers. They found champions in Luros, a lawyer who served on the council in 2015-16, and Alessio, a former city parks commissioner and organizer of Operation: With Love from Home.

“We don’t need the project to be so big, if all we need is a new City Hall,” Luros said during an April candidates’ debate, questioning the wisdom of blending police and civilian operations under one roof. “ … This is a really complex project and it changes every week, and we’re about to go into extreme debt to pay for it.”

Napa’s new council members also promised to push for policies friendlier to housing construction and density, a topic of vigorous debate in a community with a 1 percent vacancy rate and median home sale prices north of $600,000 — impenetrable barriers for many service industry workers looking for a place to live locally.

“We have more teachers, more public safety, tourism, ag and government workers, people in all industries who are not able to live and work here, to be near their children,” Alessio told the Napa Valley Register in a September interview. “There’s a real separation from the bedrock of the community.”

Alessio finished first in the November vote count and Luros second, and the two women officially joined the council Dec. 3. Upon taking office, one of their first tasks was to take a second look at the civic center’s direction and financing — a job council members began taking on eight days after the swearing-in ceremony.

On Dec. 11, the council assigned Luros and fellow member Scott Sedgley to work with city staff on possible changes to the civic center plan, which may come up for review as soon as February. A fresh look at the project could include giving Napa Police a separate building or weighing alternative sites, Luros suggested.

Amid the debate over Napa’s future headquarters, the city’s most powerful appointed leader stepped away from the scene.

Mike Parness retired in July after an extended absence during a slow recovery from knee-replacement surgery. Following suit in September was his second-in-command Peter Pirnejad, whom the city had hired only in February to watch over several high-profile projects — including the downtown civic center.

Taking Parness’ place was Napa’s top lawman Steve Potter, who shifted from the police chief’s seat to the city manager’s — a berth where he could influence the direction Napa takes in creating its new headquarters.

Elsewhere in the city government, a mass email sent in July contributed to the departure of Jefferson Folks, head of maintenance operations.

Written in the name of the Napa Watch Group, the message aired a long list of complaints against Folks alleging intimidation, favoritism, and sexually and racially offensive remarks at the city corporation yard he directed. Folks stepped down at month’s end, and an outside company hired by Napa began to investigate his workplace behavior, according to a Napa chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

Weeks after Folks’ retirement, his superior also found himself off duty. Jacques LaRochelle, director of Napa’s Public Works department since 2008, was sent “away from the office” in September after an employee lodged an unknown complaint against him, the city told staff members through an internal memorandum.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.