What inspired you to enter city management?
I believe in cities with every core of my being. In 2012, I delivered a TED Talk about the power of cities and how the future (and survival) of ourcivilization depends on our getting cities right. Cities are the birthplace of innovation and the engines of economic growth. They have always been catalysts for initiatives that are easily scaled up. While cities occupy only two percent of the world’s surface, they are where more than half the world’s population call home, and where nearly two-thirds of the world’s resources are consumed. Cities are works in progress, being built and rebuilt every day. They are unending journeys. They are where humanity can flourish or wither. As an urban planner, I find the greatest inspiration and opportunity to impact human and environmental wellbeing in cities, at the very local level. City-making and city management are where this happens.
How did you become a city manager?
My journey to becoming city manager is slightly out of the norm. I began my full-time public service career in the Los Angeles Department of Aging as a management assistant. After three years, I was hired by LA City Attorney Jim Hahn as the office’s first domestic violence unit coordinator. After almost four years, I transitioned to wholesale municipal water agencies working on water supply and reliability policies. I was in the water resources sector for 10 years. I spent two years with MWH Global, a global water and natural resources firm providing technical engineering, construction services and consulting services primarily to the public sector. Following this, I resumed city work in the city of Santa Monica in 2012 as the head of planning and community engagement for Big Blue Bus, and later as special advisor to the city manager on airport affairs. I was selected as city manager of Hermosa Beach in 2018 after serving six years in the city of Santa Monica. Overlapping my 25 years of public service between cities and municipal water agencies, I served as an elected official in the city of Long Beach for 15 years, five as a Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education Member, and 10 as a city councilmember, including four years as vice-mayor. Overlapping my elected service as city councilmember, I served as a board member of the Metropolitan Water District for eight years and as an alternate member of the Coastal Commission for two years.
Being a city staff member made me a better elected member. Being an elected member made me a better staff member. Serving concurrently in these dual roles gave me a unique perspective and allows me to serve both the council and city staff in a manner that delivers the best outcomes for our community.
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
My absolute favorite part of my role is the opportunity to build and lead the Hermosa Beach city team. This past year, I found myself saying to candidates we are recruiting that ours is the team I have worked my entire career to deserve. I enjoy working with them each and every day to solve issues in an educated, informed and pragmatically empathic way.
30 years ago, I could not have known what my future self wanted, although I thought I did; nor could I have predicted that fulfillment in one’s career has as much to do with those we work with, as it does ourselves.
What role does a city manager play in local government, and how do you feel it differs from that of a councilmember or mayor?
Having served in both the role of an elected official and that of a city manager, I have a special appreciation for the responsibilities and importance of each role. The city manager is responsible for converting the goals and priorities of the city council into actionable items for city staff. If the city council decides what to do, we determine how to do it. Having served in both capacities, I am able to meaningfully convey to council what it takes to operationalize their direction and convey to the staff team with credibility how investing in the council’s success on behalf of the community delivers the best outcomes.
What does your typical day look like?
Depending on the issues at hand, my typical day begins with check-ins with either my leadership team or my city council. I feel it is important to communicate regarding the day’s challenges and priorities so that we are all in alignment. Meetings begin in the early morning and routinely consist of one-on-ones with my city council and department heads. For lunch, I like to take advantage of the opportunity to network with colleagues, attend professional luncheons or connect with key stakeholders regarding issues important to my community. As I travel back to the office, I make a call or two on the way. Before I begin afternoon meetings, I make it a point to check in with my city manager’s office team. Together, we work to support all our departments and further council’s priorities and goals. As we end the day, I make sure to circle back by text or phone with anyone who may have contacted me.
What city project are you most proud of?
I am most proud of our team. I am proud of our recruitment and retention efforts, which we revamped after the labor shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. While not a specific project, our people are key to every project. I am proud of the team I have had the privilege of assembling in the city of Hermosa Beach. I have been able to hire six of the eight department heads currently in the city and be involved in the recruitment and selection of many of their reports. Our highly-talented, high-functioning executive team emanates the certainty of best outcomes for every project.
If I had to select one initiative, it is modernizing and professionalizing our operations, as the impacts cascade across the departments and city.
What are the greatest challenges facing city managers in the state today?
Like others across the country, city managers in the state of California are, first and foremost, faced with a shrinking pipeline of talent answering the call for local government service. I believe that chief among the reasons for the decline in those entering our profession is the incivility directed at public servants.
In the current labor market, talented individuals have many offers to choose from, and public service may not be the most appealing, given how taxing it can be if you are working on high profile projects such as housing, public safety and homelessness to name a few. It is a difficult time to be a local government professional, in the proverbial arena, working hard to meet humanity’s challenges.
From this crisis of not being able to attract and retain a strong bench of public servants, our ability to successfully address the difficult issues of housing shortages, homelessness and climate change becomes difficult. Those left after retirements and attrition are left with a heavy load of polarizing issues. As city managers, we face the challenge of leading, encouraging, supporting and protecting our teams so that they can do the great work that they are uniquely called upon and qualified to do.
When and how do you interact with the residents of your city?
In the small and tight-knit community of Hermosa Beach, I strive to meet our residents where they are. Interactions range from a coffee at one of our quaint shops downtown to a front lawn meeting with a neighborhood. I make myself available by phone, email or text message. I enjoy attending meetings of our many community-based organizations and making them feel invited to our meetings as well. The other day, I found myself with our public works team out at a tree trimming to address neighborhood concerns for our avian residents. The short answer is anywhere and anyhow.
What is the role of a city manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?
As a direct report to the officials elected to set policy and represent the community’s interests, the city manager plays a pivotal role in the observable outcomes of local government. It is the city manager’s role to align the day-to-day work and special projects of the city with the vision and goals of the city council. It is also the city manager’s role to ensure clear, honest and consistent communication regarding that work.
It is important that the city manager intimately understands the unique ethos of the community they serve and works with its city team to ensure that all work emanates from and reflects that culture. If your community can see every day that the city team acts thoughtfully as stewards of the public realm, striving to improve the community’s quality of life, trust will build. The city manager must work to ensure that everything the city team does comes from a strong foundation of understanding and that decision-making at all levels is filtered through the correct lens.
How are cities shaping the future of California?
Cities are uniquely sized and situated to be great innovators to impact our daily lives. During the pandemic, our paradigms were shifted in many positive ways. Some of my most favorite areas of city-making is the way we curate our built environment. The pandemic opened new opportunities for travel, entertainment and health. Our progressive residents are open to new ideas to improve quality of life and give us space to try new things.