What inspired you to enter city management?

Public service has been a tradition in my family; and specifically, my high school civics teacher and my grandfather inspired lifelong civic curiosity to pursue a career in public service. Both had a strong sense of public duty and were motivated at a young age to enter the profession so that I could contribute to the betterment of California.

How did you become a city manager?

Derek JohnsonI became the general manager of a special district in Santa Barbara County just after graduating from college that oversaw parks and recreation programs in the unincorporated area of Isla Vista. I was young and cut my teeth in local government, and frankly, had no idea of what I was doing. The special district essentially served as the “Elected Government” for this portion of the unincorporated area of Santa Barbara County.

Thankfully, people took me under their wing, and I was mentored by many, including the elected county auditor controller. He imparted a tremendous amount of knowledge about public finance, governance and other aspects of local government. From there, I transitioned over and led the office of long range and strategic planning at the county of Santa Barbara and was exposed to a variety of land use, policy, and other financial issues that exposed and broadened my skill sets to eventually take on the wide range of responsibilities to manage a city.

What do you enjoy the most about your role?

I love my role, and leading a city organization is the opportunity to make a difference every day and to advise the mayor and council on budget, policy and operational issues. Today, the city of San Luis Obispo is making a significant impact on some of the most pressing issues facing California. In our region, we are exceeding the state’s requirements for production of housing, launching pilot programs to address homelessness while pressuring our county to do more and be more effective. We are also making sustained and incremental progress on reducing both municipal and community wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Another personal passion is our work to address past inequity injustices and our work to create a more welcoming city where everyone has access and is welcomed to our City through our Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) work is particularly rewarding and setting a framework in my opinion for other Cities to support.

What role does a city manager play in local government, and how do you feel it differs from that of a councilmember or mayor?

I get this question all the time: “What does a city manager do, and doesn’t the mayor run the city?” Traditionally, the role of the city manager is to carry out the policy and budget matters and essentially “run” the organization. Just before the 2022 election season, a selection of ICMA articles in PM Magazine explored local government challenges and questions traditional thinking about the roles of elected and appointed members.

The series was titled “Let’s Think Differently About Local Government,” and one of the articles that really captured my current thinking is that city managers need to be open to new ways of governance and broadening (or crossing) traditional governance and operation boundaries. It also encouraged city managers to be bold enough to lead on policy issues that are vital to communities and to invite council and mayors to “help out” with operational issues.

An example: during the pandemic, one of my councilmembers, who is a licensed architect and designer, took the lead with a city staff and community team of contractors and licensed engineers to develop parklet and streetscape standards to allow for outdoor dining. Staff did not have the capacity during the pandemic emergency, and her design expertise and community connections quickly created design standards and a framework to quickly help our business community. Asking for help in the right way at the right time and being open to new ways of support goes a long way in building trust. That trust goes both ways when a city manager needs to wade into community/policy issues.

What does your typical day look like?

The city of San Luis Obispo (SLO) is fortunate to have an engaged team. Most of my days are spent coaching and mentoring staff and supporting the mayor and councilmembers. The “Great Reshuffle” has really changed my day-to-day, and most of my time is spent looking at the big picture and aligning the community and council’s vision with budget, people and resources in a way that is impactful.

I do my best to try to stay out of the minutiae, and yet, invariable day-to-day issues emerge that demand a city manager’s attention; and because we have a great team with some depth, there are competent and capable people who generally keep me focused on the bigger picture.

What city project are you most proud of?

Recently, we completed a key bicycle and pedestrian connection from Downtown SLO to the Cal Poly campus that required the installation of a bridge over Amtrak and Union Pacific railways. The project had been on the books for over 20 years and had struggled to move forward.

The city was successful in obtaining state and local grants to move the project forward over the years, but in each instance ran into challenges acquiring property and obtaining necessary approvals from Union Pacific. We knew we could engineer a bridge, and the challenge was getting others on board to understand the benefits to everyone. Through a lot of shuttle diplomacy and key partnerships, we were finally able to get the needed permits, and this new facility now provides a safe and convenient pathway for thousands of students and community members to move between Cal Poly, neighborhoods and the downtown each day.

What are the greatest challenges facing city managers in the state today?

Inspiring the next generation of public professionals to live, work and contribute to the betterment of cities. Attracting, retaining, mentoring, training and inspiring young people to contribute and work in local government is going to be critical. As a profession and organization, local government checks so many of the boxes: impact, change, making a difference, etc. Yet, we know that young professionals want agency, autonomy, diversity, equity and inclusion and the affirmation that their work makes a difference. Reconciling their needs with the legacy structures of local government is going to be critical to retaining new employees to fill the much-needed positions of our cities.

When and how do you interact with the residents of your city?

The pandemic accelerated the way we stay in touch with the community and do public outreach. Today, we are engaging digitally through virtual meetings, virtual community forums, surveys and traditional in-person community meetings. Our engagement and community survey right before the pandemic showed that people want to see leadership out in the community and have opportunities to connect with them. So, I make the rounds to service clubs, chamber events and have broadened outreach to nontraditional groups where access has been challenging, essentially bringing local government to them.

What is the role of a city manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?

Everything we do in local government requires trust. Community trust is what we need day in and day out to tackle the big and small needs of our cities. The standards and maxims of transparency are the minimum we need to follow. Developing, adhering and following established organizational values and norms and following through with commitments has never been more essential.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Approximately 90% of Californians live in urbanized areas. Cities are going to lead the way and will determine California’s future. California cities are at the crossroads of deciding how we are going to “house” the next generation, and choices that we make about housing types will affect mobility, circulation patterns and ultimately sustainability. The 482 California cities can and should be effective partners for climate change. Innovation from cities, whether it is delivering new ways of delivering services, building and maintaining critical infrastructure and/or partnering with the federal, state or county government (or other nonprofit partners) can make a difference.