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Daily Pilot

Respected city administrator puts it in park

Peter Naghavi is set to retire next week but will still be on board to help find his replacement.

By Bradley Zint

8:07 PM PST, November 29, 2012

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He'll never look at traffic lights the same way as everybody else.

After more than 22 years at Costa Mesa City Hall, many of them in the transportation department, Peter Naghavi is on the path to retirement starting next week.

But it won't quite be the last time residents will hear of the much-respected city administrator, whose latest title is deputy CEO and economic and development director. At city CEO Tom Hatch's request, Naghavi will stick around to help recruit his replacement and oversee everyday activities.

Naghavi's plans after that? Traveling with his 29-year-old son and possibly moving to the south of France. He'd like to split his time between a home there and in Orange County.

Europe, as he likes to say, is his second home.

Naghavi was born in Iran but moved with his parents to England, where he was raised.

He's an alumnus of the University of Texas at Arlington, London University and Harvard. He studied architecture at the latter. He speaks English, Farsi, Turkish and a little French.

After working for a while for the cities of Dallas and Somerville, Mass., a recruiter in 1990 told him about an Orange County suburban city called Costa Mesa. At the time, Naghavi said, he was just "a 32-year-old kid" who merely wanted to see the Golden State. He wasn't particularly interested in changing jobs.

"They asked me to come down for an interview, and I did, just to see California," Naghavi said. "But I liked the area and I liked the city."

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'I know I could trust him'

Bill Morris, Costa Mesa's public services director from 1989 to 2007, said he went out on a "big limb" in hiring Naghavi.

"I didn't think he'd stick around at all," Morris said, "but I wanted to take a chance with him."

Morris, as well as dozens of others, attended Naghavi's retirement party Thursday at the city's Emergency Operations Center, next to City Hall. Adorned with blue leis, they celebrated his years of public service over Newport Rib Co. food and French-inspired decorations.

After some eight months seeing Naghavi work, it became clear that he really knew his stuff, Morris said.

"One of the biggest headaches of any public works director is trying to keep traffic in order," he said.

"I've worked with a lot of people in my life," Morris added. "Besides my father and my oldest daughter, Peter is the only other one I would trust on his word. You do not need a contract or anything. He'd be the only other guy I would ever go into a partnership with because I know I could trust him."

Mary Hornbuckle was on the City Council in 1990, the year Naghavi came on board. She too remembered there being some doubt about the man with East Coast and European sensibilities.

"We weren't sure whether he was going to be able to handle all the nuances of California because our regulations are sometimes very different," she said.

But he quickly fit right in, she said, and gave the council members the confidence they needed to make decisions.

"I never doubted what Peter told us," Hornbuckle said.

Former Councilman Jay Humphrey, who began his term in 1994, said Naghavi was patient when explaining the issues.

"I can't say enough positive things about Peter," Humphrey said. "The moment he does physically retire, the city will have lost an important piece. No doubt about it. They will have lost something that was irreplaceable."

Hornbuckle recalled how Naghavi reacted on one of the most momentous days in city history: March 17, 2011, when 29-year-old city maintenance worker Huy Pham committed suicide by jumping off the roof of City Hall.

"Peter was right there," Hornbuckle said. "He showed up, he held hands, he talked with people, he shed a tear with people. He's a very caring and very human person.

"In just being there, he showed his support for the city employees and for the family and everything that was going on."

Naghavi said it was his toughest time at the city.

"While I myself was very sad and could hardly hold my tears back, I felt the weight of the entire City Hall on my shoulders, as I felt it was up to me to provide the soft, yet stable and strong presence for the rest of the staff who were confused and in disbelief," he wrote in an email. "I always have been good in talking to people, but those days, I didn't know what to say … this kept me up many hours at night."

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'The perfect public servant'

Some years ago, Costa Mesa resident and blogger Geoff West had made an appointment to speak with Naghavi over lunch. The two were to meet at Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill in South Coast Plaza.

A small earthquake, however, had shaken things up — literally and figuratively — that afternoon.

Naghavi was 30 minutes late. West tried calling Naghavi at City Hall. No luck.

Eventually, he did see Naghavi coming — as quickly as he could.

"I saw him sprinting down the parking lot," West said. "I shook his hand, and he said, 'Sorry, I have to go back to City Hall. The building is in chaos. The phone system is out.'"

Naghavi wanted to keep his appointment somehow, West said, even though an emergency had impeded communication.

"He's probably the perfect public servant," West added, the real "go-to" guy who's service-oriented.

Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. and a nearly 30-year Costa Mesa employee, said for Naghavi, "It didn't matter what job you had or what level you were at, he was always there for us employees."

He respected the staff, and they respected him in return, she said.

"The employees felt they could go to him for anything," Nenadal said.

"He's been a constant professional and always one to tackle difficult issues, but do it in a way that's collaborative," Hatch said.

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'You have no choice but to succeed'

For the majority of Naghavi's working career in Costa Mesa, he was the transportation services manager. For 17 years, he kept busy with major projects such as the completion of the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to Newport Boulevard and two other major endeavors: the I-405/SR-55 Transitway Project and I-405/SR-73 Confluence Project.

The former project included adding an offramp from the San Diego (405) Freeway to Avenue of the Arts, an onramp at Anton Boulevard, and direct HOV connectors between the 55 and 405.

He also worked on expanding lanes on Harbor Boulevard and computerizing the city's traffic signal system.

Then there were all those hundreds of little projects, he said.

"The beauty of my work then as a transportation manager is that I had to work on a variety of issues, from an old lady who had a little parking problem in front of her house all the way to a $120-million project and everything in between," Naghavi said.

Everyone thought their problem was the biggest, he said. It was up to him and his staff to balance it all.

"It gives you a sense of comfort and a sense of accomplishment when you see in the eyes of residents that they're received what they've wanted on their street, even though it may not be that big of an important thing in the big picture," Naghavi said.

"The most beautiful part of my job was being able to work with the public," he added. "A lot of times we agreed on things; a lot of times we didn't agree on everything, but as long as we all had the best in heart and did not have a personal agenda — and that we're honest with a high level of integrity — everything always worked out."

Costa Mesa is unique geographically, he said, with three freeways bisecting it.

"That's major access," he said. "Most cities would love to have that, if they could manage the traffic part of it."

It's near the ocean but not quite on the coast; it's near John Wayne Airport and it has revenue-generating South Coast Plaza.

"You have everything it takes to make this city a beautiful city," Naghavi said. "It's a very eclectic city. You have a hodgepodge of everything."

Those aspects, as well as the community members themselves, helped fuel his desire to stay.

"Our development community is so good, so sophisticated," he said. "Then you put that together with sophisticated community members. You have the community, you have the business community and you have city staff, who are extremely professional. You add that to our City Council that provides our policies and goals.

"You have no choice but to succeed. Even if you didn't want to succeed, you'll succeed."

He said that he hopes his legacy is one of service with integrity, honesty and frankness.

"I never let any personal agenda come into the picture, whether it was the community or the council or anybody, for that matter," Naghavi said. "I always wanted to do what I thought what was right for this community, and for the most part, they saw it that way too."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint