Finance director Steve Charelian retires after 35 year career with the City of MB 

Finance director Steve Charelian retires on Friday. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach 

by Mark McDermott 

Finance Director Steve Charelian is retiring after a 35 year career with the City of Manhattan Beach. His final day is July 5. 

Charelian has served as the head of the Finance Department since 2018, taking over after his predecessor, Bruce Moe, was named City Manager. He had big shoes to fill. Moe was lauded locally and regionally for his stewardship of city finances and particularly in helping Manhattan Beach earn its much-vaunted AAA bond rating, the highest credit rating possible for a city. 

Charelian proved more than up to the task. During his tenure, the City faced one of the biggest financial challenges in its history, the COVID-19 pandemic. Charelian provided a steady, experienced hand, and the City emerged from the pandemic on strong footing. Charelian was instrumental in helping the City make some critical course corrections, such as seizing on historically low interest rates to issue $91 million in pension obligation bonds, saving an estimated $31.8 million over the next 25 years in retirement costs. Likewise, Charelian played a key role in addressing gaps in City funding, including an increase to its transient occupancy tax that generated $1.25 million annually and helped pay for 10 additional police officers; and the passage of a ballot measure last fall that provided $2.1 in annual revenue, replacing a subsidy of the City’s Storm Water Drain enterprise fund that had already bled the City’s General Fund of $6 million and threatened to take another $11.6 million over the next five years. 

Moe, at the June 4 council meeting at which Charelian introduced his final budget, took a moment to praise the finance director for the vital, time-consuming, and often thankless tasks he undertook. 

“Steve has just been a tremendous asset to the City,” Moe said, referencing Charelian’s accomplishments over the last six years. “The one thing I’ll say about Steve, is he’s kind of like that song, ‘Put me in coach, I am ready to play.’ It didn’t matter how much was on Steve’s plate, he would always come to me and say, ‘How can I help you?’ And that was true with the TOT, the pension obligation bonds, any of those projects. Steve was the first one to step up and say, ‘I know I’ve got a lot of shrimps on my barbie,’ as he would say, but he was always willing to take on additional. I want to publicly thank Steve for that.” 

Charelian said the he as not a “maestro with words” like Moe, but offered a few words to mark the occasion. He began his career with Manhattan Beach in July, 1989, he noted, which was only two months after Moe was hired by the city. 

“So we kind of had that career path together and grew together and learned and everything together,” he said. “My 35 year tenure has been filled with wonderful professional opportunities. I really want to express my gratitude to Bruce for entrusting me with the role of finance director. For nearly the last six years together, we achieved significant milestones of fortifying the city’s financial framework.” 

Charelian and Moe were both devotees of former City Controller Henry Mitzner, the no-nonsense municipal philosopher who worked for the City of Manhattan Beach for 48 years before retiring in 2020. Charelian learned early in his career, by observing Mitzner, that that traditional 9 to 5 workweek meant nothing —  weekends, early mornings and late nights, he’d see Mitzner come to City Hall when there was work that needed to be done. Through the years, Mitzner peppered him with words of wisdom from his own heroes —  the likes of football coach Vince Lombardi and basketball coach John Wooden. Charelian recalled one of those Wooden quotes at the time of Mitzner’s retirement: “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” 

At this week’s meeting, Charelian’s last, the City Council held a brief ceremony recognizing his contributions. Moe recalled an instance in which Charelian did just what that Wooden quote advised, although in a uniquely Charelianesque way. In 2008, the City’s revenue service director was retiring, Moe said, and Charelian applied for the position. Moe was hesitant, because he just didn’t think Charelian was “quite ready.”  

“And Steve, being the social guy that he is, and the closer that he is, invites me to Il Fornaio for a happy hour,” Moe recalled. “So we sit there, and by the end of 45 minutes and a couple glasses of wine and a few margherita pizzas, Steve had me convinced, because he brought so many qualities… that gave me a nice runway. He was just always there, on the spot, to get things done. But it was that enthusiasm, that intangible thing that you can’t necessarily learn. It’s just part of Steve’s personality that really sold it, and I never looked back.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Amy Howorth went through the many notes of recognition sent by neighboring cities as well as MBUSD, State Senator Ben Allen, U.S. Congressman Ted Lieu, and even more unusually —  particularly for a finance director —  the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and State Treasurer Fiona Ma. 

“So you have touched not just all of us and the residents in our town, but obviously been a presence in the county and have been recognized by state leaders,” Howorth said. “It is so well deserved and well earned. You have done excellent work with your whole heart, and you’ve even convinced some of my colleagues that they were wrong, I’ve been told…. [which speaks to] how much we have trusted your judgment and how much that has meant to all of us in our community. Because there’s numbers on a page, but they tell a story, and you have helped us understand that story, and write the story for our community.” 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano, who was first elected to council in 1992, three years after Charelian began his career, said he was among those sometimes convinced to change his mind by Charelian’s arguments. 

“I want to say, Steve, as a friend, we’ve shared a lot of thoughts together and dedication to this city,” Napolitano said. “And you know that thing about being wrong and changing gears? We’ve had so many great discussions over the years where I think we’ve pushed each other to get outside the norm and our comfort zones. We’ve gotten —  you’ve gotten —  a number of things passed that have put this city on a financial foundation that is going to keep us in good stead, especially our recent vote on storm drains. You’ve helped get us 20 years of good budgets, and now we need to address our CIP [Capital Improvement Projects] and you’ve set us up for that.” 

“The good folks who work in any institution, especially here in the City, are the ones who leave the place better than how they found it,” Napolitano said. “And Steve, you’ve done an amazing job here. You’re leaving Manhattan Beach in a better place than you found it…As a dedicated employee who bleeds Manhattan Beach, you can’t look for a better employee than someone who just believes in what they’re doing.” 

Councilperson Richard Montgomery, who worked closely with Charelian as mayor during the Great Recession and then again as mayor at the onset of the pandemic, said that so much of what Charelian has done is work that is essential but unknown to the general public, such as successfully “clawing” for federal reimbursement for funds needed during the pandemic. 

“All these things you don’t see behind the scenes, this is the guy who made it happen,” Montgomery said. “Along with Bruce, and learning from Howard Fishman in Risk Management, and Henry Mitzner from the old Finance days. It’s a long succession of leaders here, and in finance you don’t see them all, and all the work goes unheralded. But we know what they do.” 

Mayor Joe Franklin presented a gift from the City, a green street sign that said, “Charelian Way.” 

“We are going to add that to Google Maps, right?” Franklin said. 

Charelian closed with some brief remarks, thanking his wife, RC, and his sons Knox and Chase, as well as the council and the City employees he worked alongside. Charelian, a Manhattan Beach resident whose unconventional professional journey began at El Camino College, vowed to remain steadfast in his dedication to the community. 

“I leave with a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege of serving a City of Manhattan Beach employee for the past 35 years,” he said. “The lessons learned and relationships forged will forever hold a special place in my heart. Thank you all for this incredible opportunity and for being part of my remarkable journey. This isn’t goodbye, but I’ll see you later.” ER

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