What inspired you to enter city management?
Local government is a bit of a family business. My mom is a retired deputy city clerk from Royal Oak, Michigan, and growing up I was surrounded by family and friends that were city employees, police officers and volunteers. I always knew I would be a part of the public sector, briefly considering law and politics, but it became clear to me during my first undergrad public administration class that local government management was the career for me. It blends what I love (local government) with what I’m good at (managing people). Once I started my first local government job in Oak Park, Michigan, I knew that not only had I found my career, but I had found my calling. I love what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
How did you become a city manager?
After learning from one of the best mentors in the business (Dan Fitzpatrick, former Oak Park city manager, now retired) I was fortunate to make a huge leap in my career by moving to California to take the assistant to the city manager job in El Cerrito in 2001. I’ve been here ever since, moving up to assistant city manager in 2006 and appointed to city manager in 2018.
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
I’m totally biased, of course, but I have the best job in the world. We belong to a profession that does amazing things every day. The thread that connects us all is that we believe in what we do, we believe in our service to our communities, and we care about the people that we serve. We are leaders and we have the power to make things happen. In my not-so-humble opinion, working in local government is the most impactful, meaningful and important work a person can do. We affect how people feel about where they live. We make people’s lives better. What is more important than that?
These are some very interesting times to be in local government, to be sure. I’ve been through a lot of changes here in El Cerrito in 21 years, but I am proud to have helped build an organization that is as resilient as they come. I’ve been here through good times and hard times; and even during these current chaotic times, we keep moving forward and doing good things. I am fortunate to have a very supportive city council and a talented staff team, and I’m in a wonderful community that appreciates the services we provide. Again: the best job in the world.
What role does a city manager play in local government and how do you feel it differs from that of a councilmember or mayor?
Much has been written about how and why the council-manager form of government is the most effective form for local governments, but the bottom line for me is that it allows politics and administration to stay separated for the good of the community. As the CEO of our municipal organization, I am an educated, trained professional that is nonpartisan and nonpolitical, and I oversee the day-to-day business and operations of our organization in an ethical, efficient and transparent manner. I also am responsible for providing informed recommendations to the elected city council that are based on best practices and industry standards. This allows the city council to focus on their political roles, creating the city’s vision, setting policy and guiding the city’s direction. Of course, every city manager needs to be politically savvy and understand the politics behind the elected officials’ decisions, but my focus is and will always be what works best for our organization based on professional standards. In today’s polarized world, being a non-partisan, non-political administrator is more important than ever. Community members can rest assured that we are doing our jobs in a manner that focuses on equity in the community.
That said, from my perspective, I have seen the role of the city manager shift over time. We’ve historically been in the background, but the position has evolved to expand our leadership role. To be successful, we need to be engaged with the community to understand their needs and desires. With that knowledge, we can advise the city council on best practices and offer recommendations so they can create the best policies that meet the needs of residents and businesses. Essentially, the city manager is the connection between the council, the community and the city staff. City managers provide effective leadership that serves the greater purpose of improving the quality of life for our residents. It’s a fantastic profession, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.
What does your typical day look like?
There is no such thing as a typical day, but generally my days are super busy! As a small town, we have a very lean staff and I do not have an executive assistant, so I am very hands on when it comes to day-to-day work. I meet very regularly with the city councilmembers, our executive team and various community members and groups. Since so many of our meetings these days tend to be screen-based, I do try to get out of my office chair to move around and be present throughout the various workplaces in our city. And I’m mostly in the office. As an extrovert, I prefer to be around people and go into city hall rather than work from home (though I admit, on those days where I need to catch up or do a bunch of virtual meetings, it’s nice to have the option to do that at home in my yoga pants). Essentially, my days are a constant flurry of activity and meetings, and I try to have fun with it.
What city project are you most proud of?
There are so many! Over my time here, we’ve built a city hall and a recycling center, passed a progressive Specific Plan in our commercial area to facilitate development; and certainly one of the things that has had a lot of enduring value is our citywide, community-focused Strategic Plan that has been our vision and roadmap to the future.
But no doubt at this point, the thing I’m most proud of is working with our city council, staff team and community to guide our city away from significant financial challenges toward fiscal and budget stability. Our city faced serious deficits, and our General Fund balance was depleted as I was appointed city manager. We had a lot of work to do, which we started. And then, not only did we find ourselves under scrutiny from the state auditor, but even worse, we were hit with the pandemic. So we had to take drastic action: layoffs, furloughs, canceling COLAs and major cuts in expenses.
Overall, we cut 10% of our staff and 10% of our budget over two years. It was brutal and hard, and there was a lot of frustration and tears. But we made structural changes to our budget, increased our bottom line, and with improvements in revenues and APRA funds, we have now not only stabilized our budget but have built back our General Fund balance to a very healthy level. We’re rebuilding trust with the community, and we’re eager to turn our focus back to what we can do instead of what we can’t. It was a massive team effort, with the support and leadership of the city council, our dedicated and resilient staff and our engaged community. We will still continue the work to ensure budget stability, but I’m very grateful and proud that we have made it through to this point.
What are the greatest challenges facing city managers in the state today?
The state itself! The love-hate relationship between cities and the state has always fascinated and infuriated me. The line is so blurred now between what “should” be the state’s responsibility and what “should” be under local control. I feel that we are constantly playing defense, in a reactionary position as to how to implement the head-spinning number of state laws that impact us. I commend Cal Cities and all the great lobbyist firms that are working so hard on cities’ behalf, but it’s frustrating when it seems like the legislature isn’t always listening.
The state of the world today: the pandemic, the economy, the polarization in communities, the lack of civility, the overall malaise and struggle that seems to permeate everything. We’re all still in recovery mode. It seems the entire state would benefit from hitting “pause” and take a few days off from it all.
When and how do you interact with the residents of your city?
Public engagement has been a challenge for us since the pandemic and because we have a very lean staff. I try to be as responsive as I can in answering emails, phone calls and social media posts since it’s been a little more difficult to have an in-person “open door” policy. I do a monthly “City Manager Update” that is sent out to the public via email, social media and is posted on our website that has information and city happenings that covers every department. We have been ramping our events and meetings back up, which gives me an opportunity to talk to people more and get direct feedback. An example: last year, our city brought back our annual July 4 Festival after a two-year pandemic hiatus, and I was able to interact with hundreds of people, answering questions and handing out business cards. I also try to appear and be involved in as many community groups as I can, such as Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and other business and professional groups. We are also conducting a citywide survey and will be updating our Strategic Plan in the coming months, which will also give me a chance to get feedback and interact with stakeholders.
What is the role of a city manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?
Since the city manager is a professional, non-political position, the very structure of the council-manager form of government is meant to ensure that the execution of city policy is done in an equitable, efficient and transparent manner with the intent of enhancing the public’s trust. Most importantly, the city manager has a responsibility to provide ethical leadership in all areas of our jobs so that the public can be assured that the staff team acts based on their professional expertise and not politics, patronage or favoritism of certain people or interest groups. As an ICMA member, I am bound and committed to the ICMA Code of Ethics, which requires me to uphold ethical principles in my conduct and decisions in order to merit the trust of the public, city council and staff, and I take that commitment very seriously.
The city manager needs to listen to and understand the community, be responsive and follow through. As they say, it takes years to build trust, seconds to destroy it and forever to repair. So if we aren’t following through, and if we don’t do what we say we are going to do, then nothing else will matter. It’s also important to remember that, for better or worse, any city manager’s actions can and will reflect upon the entire profession. We not only have a duty to uphold the trust of our own communities, but of each other, and of all local governments. It’s an important responsibility, one that I am dedicated to upholding.
How are cities shaping the future of California?
Cities are the heartbeat of California. We are where the rubber hits the road, where the action happens and where our quality of life is fostered and sustained. We are the front lines and first responders, we are the providers and maintainers of infrastructure, we are the ambassadors of good governance. Whether large or small, urban or rural, our 482 cities exist to provide services for our residents and work together for the common good. Each city is unique, but we all share the same goal of making people’s lives better—in every neighborhood, shopping district, commercial area, parks, beaches, and all the spaces in between.
Compared to other levels of government, cities are the agencies that are closest to the people, so we are more nimble and responsive to the public in providing programs and services. What happens in cities, then, has lasting impacts and ripple effects throughout the state and across the country. We can’t do it alone, of course, and we count on collaboration between other government agencies, businesses, schools, residents, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and others. But there is no doubt that cities set the standard for how to come together as a community to address public needs, and therefore tackle challenging issues and create real change.