What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?
Growing up, my uncle (Stuart Rappaport) worked as an Assistant Public Defender for Los Angeles County, and then later as the Public Defender for Santa Clara County. He would tell amazing stories about cases he was assigned to. He was so passionate about his work, due process, and the American legal system. My uncle’s enthusiasm for criminal justice and public service was so inspirational that, throughout my youth, I wanted to become a Public Defender.
Why did you want to become a city manager?
As an undergraduate, I initially planned to go to law school to become a Public Defender. Then, I earned a scholarship to spend my junior year at Bristol University in England studying philosophy and politics. This experience caused me to rethink what type of career to pursue. When I returned to California to complete my senior year, I landed an internship in the Brea City Manager’s Office. I worked for a dynamic and hard-charging Assistant City Manager, Denise Ovrom. This was such a positive and rewarding experience that my long-term career goal shifted from becoming a Public Defender to City Manager.
What was the most important part about your job as a City Manager?
During my 11 years as Thousand Oaks City Manager, I learned that one of the more important aspects of this position was knowing how to transform the organization from one paradigm to another. During my tenure, I had to lead an organization that shifted from serving a younger, middle income, expanding, and growth-oriented community to a more mature, upscale, built-out, and in-fill community. This involved overseeing and implementing a major organizational culture shift.
When you’re not busy working, how do you like to spend your time? What hobbies do you have?
My favorite thing to do outside of work is to spend time with my family, especially with my twin, teenage boys. We travel a lot as a family. I really enjoy attending my sons’ cross country and track meets, music concerts, social club functions, school functions, etc. Personally, I go to the gym three to four days per week and try to run or swim on the other days. I hike and bike as much as possible on the weekends. When alone, I like to build Lego projects. I am a big fan of the Lego City set and have completed most of the buildings in this series. My all-time favorite Lego project is the “Town Hall” building, which is proudly displayed in my office!
Which City project are you most proud of during your years as a City Manager?
During my City Manager tenure in Thousand Oaks, there were several development projects, public infrastructure projects, environmental, land-use, and organizational achievements that I will remain proud of for years to come. However, the greatest sense of pride is based on the following successes:
- Stabilizing a once-fractured and divided City Council during a trying political period,
- Establishing a highly effective Executive Team over a decade,
- Weathering the challenging “Great Recession” of 2008 to 2012, and
- Leaving the position with a City that was much stronger than when I started.
What are the greatest challenges facing City Managers in California today?
Compounding the many managerial challenges facing City Managers (such as declining local revenue sources, loss of redevelopment, rising pension and health care obligations, aging workforce and succession planning hurdles, deteriorating public infrastructure, civic engagement, etc.) is the continued rise of negative and confrontational “news” coverage. I feel the approach used by local newspaper and social media editors and reporters has shifted from being an independent, neutral, objective, third-party observer to that of an openly biased, confrontational, subjective, participant advocating a particular point of view and desired outcome. Learning how to lead and manage within this context requires City Managers to be much more sensitive to this changing environment.
What is your favorite way/place to interact with the residents of your City?
My favorite way to interact with local residents is to meet with them face-to-face where they live, work, recreate, etc. Residents are more open and willing to share their concerns and issues when you meet with them on their turf. They are less inclined to open up when they have to come into a government building and meet in a conference room, office, or formal meeting environment. Allowing residents to physically show you what is bothering them and then openly working with them to develop a solution is the best way to go.
What is the role of a City Manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?
A City Manager has to lead by example all of the time, 24/7, seven days a week, 52 weeks per year. This is true in his/her personal life as well as in his/her professional life. The local government Chief Executive Officer is always held to a much higher standard than all others in a community. This is especially true within the organization he/she manages. Everything the local CEO does (from how one dresses, speaks, writes, acts, and conducts him/herself) is subject to constant scrutiny. As a result, the City Manager sets the tone for others to emulate. Members of the public may question the political decisions of a City Council. However, the public’s level of trust and confidence in the City Manager to implement City Council’s direction and manage the day-to-day activities of the organization should not come into question.
How are cities shaping the future of California?
California cities are the beta sites for the future of democracy and good government throughout the nation, if not for the rest of the world. Whether it involves innovative in-fill land use developments, creative ways to finance public infrastructure projects, non-traditional ways to attract talent to manage public services, determining how to engage with local residents, or managing complicated and complex social issues (such as homelessness, immigration, diversity, etc.), cities are often ground-zero in terms of learning how to address and resolve significant challenges.
What’s been one of your greatest professional challenges, and how did you address it?
The single, greatest professional challenge I faced in my career involved the unexpected July 2016 termination by Thousand Oaks City Council after 16+ years with that city, with the last 11 years as the City Manager. Prior to the timing of the events associated with this separation, I was in very good standing with City Council. Then, I allowed myself to get too involved in a silly, high school baseball booster club grant issue.
As a City Manager, we constantly try to fix problems and resolve issues. There were a number of concerns and issues with respect to how my son’s high school baseball booster club operated, and other parents asked me to help them make positive changes. One of the concerns brought to my attention involved a City sports grant to the booster club to pay for improvements to the varsity baseball field. I unwisely interjected myself into this process and put the grant on-hold until the issues could be worked out. This resulted in complaints to City Council, which quickly escalated into a major media and political problem for City Council. In retrospect, I should not have allowed the roles of dad and City Manager to overlap and, ultimately, lost my position as a consequence.
Although I paid the ultimate price, I learned some invaluable lessons. I learned how to take full responsibility for my actions and move on. This type of situation will never happen again. As a result, today I am a much better person, husband, father, and local government manager.
What has your work in public service taught you?
My 28 years in local government (having worked for four cities and one county, with over 11 years in the CEO role) has taught me that what we do as leaders matters to society as much as any profession, if not moreso. None of the players in our society (families, private businesses, non-profits, special interest groups, religious institutions, other governments, etc.) are able to function without effective local governments, especially cities and counties. The one person that holds cities together is the City Manager.
In many ways, the City Manager functions like a conductor of an orchestra: getting many different musicians to perform music usually written by others. In the City Manager’s case, his music (local laws, rules, policies, etc.) are written by a City Council. His/her musicians are the leaders of the operating departments (Police, Fire, Public Works, Community Development, Parks & Recreation, Finance, etc.). In reality, both jobs are complex, complicated, and stressful. But the best ones make it look easy…as if anyone can stand up in front of an orchestra and effortlessly swipe a small stick back and forth to make beautiful music.
Over the past few decades in this business, I have come to believe that public service is a noble and honorable calling. Without highly trained and experienced City Managers dedicated to providing the highest levels of ethics and professionalism to their communities, our nation wouldn’t be what it is today.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
This is NPR: The First Forty Years