Rita Geldert, City Manager, Vista, CA

Why did you enter city management, how did you become a city manager, and what do you enjoy the most?

I entered city management initially to ensure the local government structure was internally managed properly via HR and Finance, and that the taxpayer’s dollars were spent wisely. The fourth city and fifth city manager I worked for retired and the council asked if I would assume the previous city manager’s duties. I was honored to have their trust, and I accepted. Over the last 14 years as a City Manager, I’ve experienced the most satisfaction when a project, plan or vision that has been worked on for years, comes to fruition. I receive immense joy from managing projects that help or make a difference in large segments of the community. I truly feel that cities are the last bastion of true, honest and responsive government. Residents can talk to elected officials and staff everyday at the grocery store, their kid’s schools, concerts or church. Questions or complaints are handled with 24-48 hours and results are realized quickly when the pot hole is filled, the stop sign installed, the tree branch is trimmed or the street light repaired.

How does your role as a city manager differ from that of a council member or mayor?

The Manager’s role is to implement the council’s vision. Additionally, before the council formulates the vision it is important for the Manager to put forth a variety of options representing the needs of the community, so that the council can discuss, agree upon, and provide direction on their vision. A council/manager form of government operates best when avenues have been developed for clear communication between the residents and the council, and subsequently between the council and the manager. Once the vision and direction has been established, the Mayor and council continue to serve the community by periodically tweaking the vision, while the manager works with the city’s employees to carry out the council’s plans.

Tell us about a city project you were involved with that you are most proud of?

Thirteen years ago we initiated an annual project named Vistan’s ROC. ROC stands for Revitalize Our Community. One weekend a year, we assemble service clubs, businesses, schools, churches and other volunteers in revitalizing an entire neighborhood, fixing up between 25 to30 homes. The participating neighborhood is selected by blight. Many times the neighborhood has deteriorated to the point that gang members are starting to occupy the homes and people have lost pride in their neighborhood. We usually recruit about 800 volunteers that scrape, paint, haul away tons of trash, dig up and re-sod the lawns, install white picket fences and most importantly bring pride of ownership back to the residents. At the end of one day, everyone (volunteers and home owners) feels really proud of their accomplishments and the fact that the community has come together for an extremely worthy cause.

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

The biggest challenge for City Managers is trying to identify what the “Face of Government” should be now in these changing times. Based on the priorities of the council and community, we need to identify what services can be offered given the resources available. Cities need to live within their means and to establish healthy reserves to weather the uncertain times. Bargaining unit packages need to be reassessed, pension reform is an absolute must, and health benefits need to be reviewed for affordability. If pension reform is not handled and major reforms implemented, an initiative will surely be put forth that will be a draconian repeat of Proposition 13. Daily challenges arise from the fact that we cannot please all of the residents all of the time. Constant dialogue is necessary.

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

We have a variety of tools that we use: Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin accounts, constant contact with the local newspapers, council meetings, CITY-NEWS publication, a series of Citizen Leadership Academies, and most importantly informal evening public forums held on major issues. These range from small groups in resident’s homes (10-30 attendees) to larger forums held in neighborhood community rooms or school gymnasiums (30-100 attendees).

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

The City Manager’s role in upholding trust in local government is tantamount to all other aspects of the job. City Managers are entrusted with the public’s money to spend it as wisely as possible, and to work for the greater good of the community. It is crucial that this trust is not violated, and if we see other City Managers who do violate that trust, it is important to make the changes necessary to maintain the integrity of the profession.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Leading by Example! Cities should always have a balanced budget while providing services and protections to residents that are important to them on a day-to-day basis. Rebuilding trust that has been abused by a few, and trying to carry the trust mantle for all of government (Federal, State and local) is daunting, however City Managers are up to the Herculean tasks before them!