July 27, 2012 - Record Staff Writer
STOCKTON - Despite a personal desire to stay on the job, the city's interim fire chief is stepping down next month to avoid a financial conflict with California's public employee retirement system.
Dave Rudat, who has served as head of the Stockton Fire Department since May 2011, will resign Aug. 8 from the agency with a staff 30 percent smaller than it supported in 2008.
Rudat, 60, a former city manager and fire chief of Orange, has been a public employee in California for more than two decades.
His final shift in Stockton comes two days before a deadline imposed through an ultimatum from the California Public Employees' Retirement System: Pay back CalPERS benefits collected over the last 15 months while serving in Stockton or step down.
"I took the job because it is rewarding and fulfilling, but I have to leave because I don't want to be in a conflict with CalPERS," said Rudat. "I'm having to leave sooner than I wanted to."
CalPERS has said Rudat must return roughly $200,000 in state retirement-and-pension benefits if he continues in his present position. That amount is based off monthly CalPERS disbursements he began earning in 2005 after retiring in Orange.
The city hired Rudat last year through a deal facilitated by DRC Services, a Southern California management-and-administrative-services firm. He receives $14,737 per month before taxes in pension benefits from his time in Orange.
At the time of Rudat's hiring in Stockton, City Manager Bob Deis endorsed the move in a letter to the City Council, saying it saves Stockton money by avoiding insurance and recruitment costs.
Rudat earns a wage of $119 an hour and receives no benefits. His gross pay during his tenure as interim chief is approximately $275,000.
That deal, it appears, was fundamentally flawed.
Even if the fire chief is an independent contractor, Stockton's charter stipulates that paychecks come from the city's payroll. Since the Stockton Fire Department's retirements are established through CalPERS - and Rudat earned monthly payments from Orange - he was in violation of the system's post-retirement employment rules.
CalPERS claims Stockton's leaders didn't check in with them to avoid the conflict.
"Our Employment After Retirement brochure points out that all employment with a CalPERS member agency, even entered into as an independent contractor, should be evaluated carefully to ensure it is not in violation of post-retirement employment rules," Amy Norris, public relations official for CalPERS wrote in an email. "Stockton did not consult with CalPERS before hiring Mr. Rudat under this contract."
Even with the benefit of knowing what they know now, said city spokeswoman Connie Cochran, Stockton officials would still have hired Rudat because of his knowledge and experience.
Deis also defended the hiring in an email.
"The City has been facing challenging circumstances and needed stability and leadership at the department level. In good faith, we engaged Chief Rudat to help us through these difficult times. He has helped us change the culture and has provided comprehensive assessments of a department in transition," he wrote.
Rudat was never meant to be a permanent chief and his abrupt departure does not catch the city off-guard, said Cochran. The city will promote an interim fire chief from within the department shortly, she said.
A permanent replacement will be sought after an interim leader is named.
City Hall has not said how it will go about seeking a permanent fire chief. Whether it will hire a headhunter or consultant is uncertain.
The incoming chiefs will inherit a more stable department that still faces significant challenges, said Rudat.
The reduced staff of 173 sworn members is forcing the department to reorganize its fire-prevention bureau, which conducts inspections and issues permits. Maintaining morale and offering motivation to employees will also be a duty for the next chief, he said.
On the positive, said Rudat, the next leader will oversee a department embracing fiscal responsibility.
"We've seen improvements in our grant acquisition and grant accountability," he said. "We are managing our fiscal house much more attentively and the department turned in a surplus this year."
Rudat has an apartment in Stockton and says he plans to stay in the area for awhile after stepping down but isn't sure what his next move will be.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at (209) 546-8279 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/crimeblog.