What inspired you to enter city management?
I actually wrote a fourth grade career day essay saying I wanted to become a city manager, but it was in 1965 when H.K. Hunter fired a corrupt police chief in my hometown of Fresno that I really began to follow the profession. Mr. Hunter was ultimately fired, and the chief was reinstated; but the dinner table talk at my home favored the city manager. This caused me to see it as a noble way to make a living.
How did you become a city manager?
I started traditionally with a bachelor’s degree in public administration and an internship in Clovis. My city manager, Allen Goodman, inspired me with the values of the profession and took me to monthly luncheons with such stalwarts of our California profession as Lynn Dredge, Nick Pavlovich, Bill Clarke, Guy Huffacker, Ted Gaebler, Sam Racadio, Ray Silver and others.
When I turned 28, I took a less traditional step. Right after Prop. 13 passed, I left local government for 5 years—first to get an MBA degree at Stanford University and then to work for American Airlines at their Dallas – Fort Worth headquarters. I was the marketing planning manager for the Advantage Frequent Flyer Program, the first rewards program of its sort. It was a great job.
Try as I might, I could not get local government out of my blood, so I took the opportunity to return as an assistant to the city manager in Beverly Hills. I did that for six years, then took the community development director position in the city of Santa Clarita, but I was almost immediately poached to return to Beverly Hills as city manager at age 40 when a distressed Civic Center Construction Project caused an exodus of senior staff. I will always owe legendary City Manager George Carvalho for giving me his blessing to leave Santa Clarita back in 1990.
What do you enjoy the most in your role?
I don’t think anyone loves being a city manager as much as I do. I have served as city manager now in 10 cities (four as interim) for 33 consecutive years. I love the whole experience—the privilege to serve a community, being part of a dedicated team and the feeling that we are helping people enjoy their life. I even love being stopped in the grocery store with that question, “Aren’t you that…….uh….?”
What role does a city manager play in local government, and how do you feel it differs from that of a councilmember or mayor?
It is a completely different role. The textbook explanation is that we are like the CEO of a company, reporting to a board of directors. I think that is fair. The board sets policies, declares the organizational values and allocates resources. They also set limits on the CEO’s authority.
The city manager (CEO) takes that direction and manages people and resources in pursuing the city council (board) objectives.
But we are different in other ways, too, in local government. We are obligated to stay out of the partisanship that can exist in a community. We treat every elected official as equitably as we can. We do our very best to dispense truth and a fair explanation of alternative courses of action. And, in my philosophy, I never “count votes.” To do so discounts the vote (or votes) of those on the short side of the issue.
I would argue that we do have a proper role in establishing our own nonpartisan public constituency (i.e., people who learn to trust us). A smart city manager fosters confidence among supporters in the public which serves her or him in difficult times.
What is your typical day like?
One joy of the profession is that the days are not routine. Most days involve at least a couple meetings on a variety of topics, and there is usually interaction with fellow staff, with members of the public and one or more members of the city council. I do a lot of work on email. Some managers avoid email like the plague. There is no single style, so you find the one that is right for you. I also get out of the office and into the field regularly.
What city project are you the proudest of?
I like the ones that involve a great number of teammates and evoke a long-lasting sense of pride in the community. After 14 years as city manager in Beverly Hills, my wife and I chose to seek adventure by moving to Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was the best move we ever made. Spartanburg is too long a story for this interview, but briefly, it is a very caring biracial city in upstate South Carolina that had lost its textile economy. Not only did people have to develop new economic skills, but a great deal of the civic and physical infrastructure was in bad shape. I got to be a small part of one project after another for six years that succeeded—thanks to the “victory of hope”—from a community’s belief in itself and its ethic that great cities do not leave anyone behind.
I am also proud of the work we did in Fresno during the downturn. Fresno is a strong mayor city, which had a courageous young mayor who almost immediately after election had to deal with a gigantic loss of revenue. People expected us to follow Stockton into bankruptcy, but we made very painful cuts and stayed solvent. A few years later, I decided to take a 19-month detour in my career and went to San Bernardino as city manager to join the team that finally brought San Bernardino out of the longest bankruptcy in municipal history. We also sold the community on a new council-manager charter, replacing the oddest strong mayor/strong city attorney governance structure you ever saw.
I haven’t mentioned Burbank, Culver City, Indio, Lincoln, Downey or Ojai, but I am proud of all my cities.
What are the biggest challenges facing a city manager today?
I suppose funding is the obvious answer; but to me, all levels of government are facing a crisis in public confidence. It is a complicated world, made more challenging by the pandemic, climate change, inflation, housing unaffordability, cultural differences and tribal politics. At the local level, we have the opportunity to demonstrate caring, competence and openness to different viewpoints. This is hard work—not for the faint of heart!
When and how do you interact with members of the public in your city?
Literally at every opportunity! I am 73 and not terribly skilled at social media, but I do what I can. I make sure I am “in the community,” and I do my best to respond to anyone who calls or emails me. Communicating with the public is much more effective when one has a relationship with them.
Probably the least effective method of communicating is during the public comment period of regular city council business meetings.
What is the role of the city manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?
Great question. We have the advantage of not being subject to election politics. If we are seen doing our job with integrity, if we show that we care and if we stay professionally current, the public usually responds favorably—but you have to be “seen” to earn that reputation. I think the days of reclusive managers who stay in their office are probably over. It’s a people business. There are alligators in the water, but sometimes you gotta take a swim!
How are cities shaping the future of California?
It is often said that we are the one level of government that interacts directly with our public. We are probably the last level of government where issues can really be debated at an intellectual level—and not just at a sound bite level. I truly believe if cities fail, we would have a crisis in American democracy.
So on that cheery note, let me just say that 40+ years into this profession, I wish I could go back and do it all again! It has been my privilege to work with so many great public officials, like y’all!