What inspired you to enter city management?

Growing up, I was a literal girl scout and active in student government and my community. My love of the natural world led me to a masters in environmental policy from Yale, and I headed to Washington, DC full of optimism to work for the federal government as a consultant. Which is a great opportunity to learn a little bit about a lot of topics. Even though the work was valuable, I felt disconnected from it’s impact, and frustrated at not being able to see a project through from start to finish. Fast forward a couple of years, and I had the chance to move to San José, CA. A position opened up for the City and I was intrigued. Once I joined the team, I was completely hooked on local government and all of the opportunities to work directly and intimately with those who want and need the services and programs. It was the home I didn’t know I was looking for. The gift of serving a community is something I cherish. Once I had the chance to lead our teams in serving the community, the work got even better.

How did you become an assistant city administrator?

It took me a while working for cities to make the link between my leadership skills and how they naturally applied to more general city management rather than just my area of expertise. My strengths are to look at work in an interdisciplinary way, set a vision, get the right people in the room, get out of the way and communicate. After a majority of my career spent in San José with a lot of success in mid-management and honing those skills, I moved to Santa Barbara. There were a couple of opportunities to jump in and lead citywide efforts that had little obvious nexus to my official role as the Sustainability and Resilience Department Director, but a great match to my strengths. They were some aha moments for me that general city management and the role of city manager were a good match for me. When the assistant city administrator position became open in Santa Barbara, first as interim and then permanent, I went for it. Best thing I ever did.

What do you enjoy the most about your role?

The assistant city manager is a unique role, as anyone who’s been in it understands. Here in Santa Barbara, I not only support our city administrator in leading the organization and working with Council, but I oversee five departments, our Communications and City TV Office and shepherd a number of citywide initiatives. On any given day, I love all of it. One of my first managers said the best outcomes come from bringing together people with diverse views and experiences and that he never wanted to be the smartest person in the room. That perspective really influenced me. Hearing from the Council and the community about what they want and need, and empowering our fantastic and knowledgeable staff to deliver results is the most fun and rewarding to me. I thrive and excel at getting the right people together to create and deliver the best we can for, and with, our community.

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

One of the best and sometimes frustrating parts of democracy is the separation of authority. The city manager, city attorney, and City Council are all bringing their expertise and varied perspectives/responsibilities in their roles to serve the community. While I believe a city manager will have great perspectives on policy, the primary role is to hold the long term vision and ensure the sound functioning of the organization. Part of that responsibility is holding the space for the Mayor and Council to have those tough policy discussions and advise them on possible implications and options for implementation. The city manager also has to lead the whole administration, keep them focused on their mission, make sure they have the resources they need and create a positive culture where they can thrive. And finally, a city manager better be present and accountable to community members.

What does your typical day look like?

It is typically not typical in content, except there always will be quite a number of meetings. Guiding staff and meeting with community members or partners are the bulk of the job. I start my day early; I like the early morning to write, answer emails and set the tone for the day. I carve out a bit of time for schedule management and longer term planning to temper the urge to address everything as equally and immediately important. It’s also important to allocate some time for myself at the end of the day. I have horses and if I can’t ride them, I at least see them most evenings. They keep me sane and grounded.

What city project are you most proud of?

Serving a full service city like Santa Barbara gives me the chance to lead a host of projects that are rewarding. One I’m particularly proud of is our coordinated homeless response initiative. It’s a model in creative, collaborative and sensitive services that address community concerns and help our unhoused population. When I arrived at the City seven years ago, multiple departments were acting independently to clear encampments reactively, not unlike how many cities were at the time. I created the first citywide encampment response team. We worked out a system to evaluate, document and prioritize encampments. We also brought in CalTrans and Union Pacific since their property management greatly influences our city, and negotiated MOUs so we could do the work needed on their property with City staff and contractors and recover costs from them. It’s been a great relationship and worked well for us to be more responsive, and now CalTrans coordinates all local encampment and landscape work with us.

We then added street outreach and service providers in our downtown corridor, waterfront and encampments. We worked directly with our unhoused community to build trust and get them on the path to housing and any services needed. To bring in the broader community, we hired SB Alliance for Community Transformation (SB ACT) to coordinate community engagement and education, plan for temporary and longer term housing and ensure a broad coalition of stakeholders in developing solutions. Our model has been adopted countywide, and it’s helping coordinate all of our efforts and strengthen our regional advocacy for support for services and funding for transitional and affordable housing.

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

The majority of people now live in cities and that trend will continue. I think the challenges Santa Barbara are facing are similar to other large cities in California such as fiscal sustainability, housing and homelessness and aging infrastructure. We’re also grappling with increased costs addressing natural disasters – fire, flood, earthquake – including investing in increased resilience and mitigation efforts, providing emergency response and long-term disaster recovery. Internal to the organization, cybersecurity and recruitment and retention are top challenges.

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

Santa Barbara is fortunate to have highly engaged residents. Our email correspondence is frequent and active, and we have good participation in Council meetings, our 40 Boards and Commission meetings and other official venues. The City also recently launched a bilingual CRM, SBConnect and a completely redesigned website for better and quicker connection with residents. I also believe in fostering a culture of meeting people where they are. It’s important to be flexible in the location and timing of interactions. Going to an existing meeting of an organization, coffee in the neighborhood and availability on evenings, weekends, and virtually all help ensure that everyone has a chance for access and to be heard. To increase engagement with our underserved or Spanish speaking residents, partnering with community leaders and groups that have their trust has also been a great way to open doors and dialogue.

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

Watching the public’s trust in government erode over time is concerning. Although local government tends to be more trusted than state or federal entities, it’s the city manager’s responsibility to use the lens of building trust in everything they do. Transparency and frank communication are key to that, in person and more formally at public forums such as our City Council meetings. When people feel heard and respected, even when in disagreement, it goes a long way to ensuring a good relationship. And in acting in this way, I set the tone and expectation for the rest of our organization. I’m also willing to hold myself and others accountable publicly. I say what I mean, and when I make a mistake, I own it.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Cities are where all the fascinating, good and difficult work is happening. The majority of people live in cities and that will only continue to increase, so what we do determines the quality of life for all Californians, including what housing and infrastructure will look like, quality public safety and investments addressing climate change.