Q&A with Eric Figueroa, Martinez City Manager and CCMF Board Member.
What attracted you to a career in local government?
I grew up with a great deal of exposure to local government, and my interest was ignited at a very young age. My mom was appointed to the Mountain View City Council when I was nine years old. She served as Mayor and was on the Council for 19 years. I thought the city management profession was the most fascinating job in the world. It combined all the great things from private sector management with public service. I thought it was a fantastic career.
What was your path to becoming a city manager?
My perspective has been shaped by: growing up around a politician, studying economics and government, going to business school, taking a completely different career path from my peers, and having the opportunity to work for the League of California Cities alongside elected officials at all levels of state and local government.
As a student at Claremont McKenna College, I held several internships in government, including a job with the City of Los Altos and one with the federal government at the Senate Budget Committee. After school, I landed a job at HdL Companies where I gained exposure to finance and redevelopment before re-entering the private sector. I received my MBA from UC Berkeley in 1998 and spent several years in finance. Then, one day, I woke up and realized that I really didn’t care what credit card you carried in your wallet—but I cared a whole lot about the place you lived. I left Wells Fargo for a role with the City of San Leandro and returned to local government.
After working with San Leandro for almost four years, I took a job as a regional public affairs manager with the League of California Cities during the economic downturn. That’s where I learned how to work with elected officials, how to work in the world of politics, how to collaborate with the private sector and how to build coalitions. I certainly wouldn’t have mapped my career out that way, but that was how luck had it for me. It’s a unique background and I’m fortunate to have it.
What do you enjoy the most about being a city manager?
The best part of being a city manager is seeing how your daily work makes a real difference in the quality of life for the people in your community. People make their single biggest investment in the community in which they choose to live. No matter where you work, at the end of the day, you come home and what you really care about is what your home looks like, what your street looks like, what your neighbors are like. You want to come home to a place where you can feel a sense of community; we in the city manager profession build that for people. That’s what we do every day. It’s a tremendous honor and opportunity.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing city managers in California today?
It’s a really difficult job. I think you really have to be sure this is the job you want. I would not step into this job lightly, and I would not take the job just because it’s the next rung up on the ladder. You have to really want to work with the City Council, the community and your staff. If you’re not ready for that, it’s okay not to do it. But if you want a job like no other, this is the place to be.
One of the factors that makes this job so challenging now is our complex and ever-changing political landscape, combined with fiscal constraints. I think we’ve lost our sense of community as a nation; trying to manage a community and bring everyone together in that environment requires thinking outside the box. Every now and then. you run across an issue that galvanizes the community together, and that makes it all worthwhile.
As a city manager, how do you help uphold the public’s trust in local government?
You always have to remember that you’re working for the public. You have to understand that the decisions you make really impact the lives of others, and that your end goal is not profit maximization, it’s enhancing the quality of life of the community that you have the privilege of serving. When you walk in with that perspective, it makes you think clearly about what you’re doing. You always have to do your best to work effectively and diligently with your City Council. They’re the ones who put their name on the ballot, they’re the ones who represent the people, and you have a responsibility to listen because they’re the ones who stepped up to lead. Working with your Council is crucial to upholding the public trust.
What are some of the benefits of a council-manager form of city government?
The major benefit of the council-manager form of government is having a distinct line between the development of policy and the implementation of policy. It is not the responsibility of the city manager to figure out the goals and concerns of the community; it’s the Council’s responsibility to understand the will of their constituents and communicate that to the city manager. This enables us managers to focus our skills on the responsible and effective implementation of Council policy, given the resources that we have.
How does the issue of local control impact the future of California?
The government that your community trusts the most is the one that’s right in front of them. That’s where people feel that they can really interact with their decision makers. As someone who grew up with an elected official in their house, I witnessed my mom getting stopped in the supermarket, at the ball fields, and wherever she went for people to discuss their concerns about governance. I really got a clear sense that the government that’s closest to the people is the one that’s most effective at solving a problem. There are some bigger issues that state and federal government need to be involved with but, ultimately, local control and local decisions really customize solutions for smaller sets of people.