Who Will Be the Interim City Manager: The Case For Going Outside

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pinkerton-steveSPECIAL VANGUARD COMMENTARY

Today for the first time, the Davis City Council will meet to discuss the process to name the next interim city manager as well as a process to hire the next permanent city manager.  The fact that it took until Friday when there was a council meeting on Tuesday is a sore spot for some on council.

There are naturally names floating around that might be possible targets.  It is tempting to focus on familiarity.  These are the names we know, these are the names we are most comfortable with.  However, I am going to make the case that just as we needed to go outside of the organization to hire Steve Pinkerton – someone not wedded to the inside power dynamics, it is important to hire an interim, a temporary interim, not someone who is going to ultimately become the new city manager, from outside the organization.

In 2006 when City Manager Jim Antonen was abruptly fired, the city went internal to Bill Emlen for reasons a lot of people still question at this point.  Mr. Emlen had been Planning Director and ended as the permanent hire until he left in 2010.

The council at that point named Paul Navazio for the interim position, he applied for the permanent position but ultimately the city council went to an outside hire in 2011 with Steve Pinkerton.  It was really what the city needed – fresh eyes taking a free look at the city’s problems and, under the work of Mr. Pinkerton, the city slowly began a process of re-organization, restructuring city contracts, and beginning realistic assessments of infrastructure and departments like public works and fire.

The result is that, while most people feel that Mr. Pinkerton left before he completed his job, most also believe that he left the city in a far better position than he arrived.

“Steve used his deep understanding of municipal management to implement a suite of major and highly challenging priorities of our council,” Mayor Krovoza remarked on Thursday.  “Our budget is as transparent and realistic as possible and our labor agreements have increased the prospect of long-term stability for our great employees and community services.”

Others in the community echoed the mayor’s sentiments. UC Davis Associate Vice Chancellor of Resource Management and Planning John Meyer said, “Steve was totally committed to nurturing the seeds of partnership with the university and those projects are now bearing fruit.”

Elaine Roberts Musser, current chair of the Senior Citizens Commission and former chair of the Water Advisory Committee, stated, “Mr. Pinkerton is a consummate professional and has been an outstanding City Manager, leading the city towards a more fiscally sustainable path.”

“Steve has served the City Council well through a very difficult set of financial and staffing decisions. I wish him the best as he embarks on a no less challenging job sorting out the water future of Incline Village,” said Cool Davis Executive Director Chris Granger.

Moving forward then, what is the best path for the city to take?  Obviously, there are a variety of different views, but one point that resonates with me is that the likelihood that the interim selected under this city council will end up the permanent city manager is quite small.  This is going to be a very tough year with tax measures, land use, council transition, and the omni-present water issue.

One of the things I have respected about Mr. Pinkerton is the strong senior staff that he has assembled.  Four years ago, I talked in terms of the need to clean house, but several of the key leaders in the city are either holdovers or people who have come back, like Mike Webb at Planning.  Part of evaluating a leader is the strength of the people under the leader and Mr. Pinkerton has made his senior staff better.

It is hard to see the city changing two leaders in a time like this.  The work that Yvonne Quiring has done on the budget, mostly behind the scenes, the work that Herb Niederberger has done helping the city on water as well as other infrastructure needs, the work that Mike Webb has done leading the planning department, the work that Kelly Stachowicz does as Deputy City Manager, the work that Rob White has done in just one year on innovation and economic development – are just short of amazing.

I have nothing but respect for the work that Landy Black has done in helping to create a far better police department since he arrived and his stepping up last year to fill the void of administering the fire department during very trying times is quite admirable, but I think we are better off if he remains a police chief rather than moving over to city manager.

In short, all of those people – and I apologize if I overlooked critical senior employees here – are already booked with critical work.

Moreover, there are landmines ahead.  Steve Pinkerton has done some courtesy in staying a bit longer than his mandated two months and will leave April 28.  But April 28 does not get us to the most critical moments this year as we have a sales tax, a water initiative and a council election in June and possibly a parcel tax and a Measure R-type vote in November.

It is my belief that a short-timer, one who has no stake in the game and could step in from the end of April until September or October, when the city can hire a permanent city manager, would be able to take on some additional tough issues without having to worry about upsetting the power structure, losing their job or not getting hired permanently.

An internal pick would likely take the position with the thought in mind of being permanent city manager, and that would make them vulnerable to internal and community pressure.

The other point that has been made to me is that the city of Davis is in far better shape this time around.  The work that has been done by this council led by Rochelle Swanson on economic development, and Joe Krovoza, Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee on budget reform has positioned Davis as a premier spot for a top-notched city manager.

Two and a half years ago when Mr. Pinkerton arrived, I questioned his salary.  I then got the extraordinary chance to work very closely with him, watch how he operates, and watch the care and detail of his planning.  There is no doubt in my mind that many of the greatest accomplishments would not have been achieved without his vision.

But, like any great city manager, it is the people that surrounded him that was critical.  Agree or disagree with Mr. Pinkerton, no one can deny that, by the end of the surface water project process, the leadership team was markedly improved.  In the summer of 2011, I remember sitting around the room with interim City Manager Paul Navazio, Interim Public Works Director Bob Clarke, Jacques DeBra who headed up the water project, and consultant Jim Yost.

Many of these individuals were good people, but they were out of their area of expertise.  And so, in a year and a half time, the team had completely changed.  By December 2012, the team leading the way was Herb Niederberger, Dianna Jensen, Doug Dove from Bartle Wells, and Mark Northcross, the city’s financial advisor; regardless of what you think of the water project, it was night and day, the difference in the level of expertise from what I had observed just over a year before.

When Steve Pinkerton needed to reform the fire service, he brought in Scott Kenley, a man he knew would not cave to the firefighters’ union, and Mr. Kenley was able to put together the plan that was implemented in 2013 that enabled the city to achieved reforms to response times putting the goals in line with reality, achieve boundary drop and, after much turmoil, reduce staffing and reach agreement on shared management services.

Coupled with impasse that was done correctly, these reforms will save the city well over $1 million annually and possibly far more than that.

We need to find that kind of vision and intelligence in the next leader because, while everyone figured that Steve Pinkerton would be a short-termer, no one figured it would be only two and a half years.

These kinds of changes could not have occurred with an internal selection and the next round of changes will again need people from outside the current power structure who will be able to push through reforms even when they get push back.

For that reason, the council should go outside, find a retired city manager who has the ability to stay about five months and get going on the current hiring process.  The wrong hire here will set back this effort and may result in the tax measure failing due to lack of community confidence in the process.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 thoughts on “Who Will Be the Interim City Manager: The Case For Going Outside”

  1. Tia Will

    I can see the advantage of this approach. I can also see some disadvantages. I think it might be quite a challenge to find such an individual who both has a strong grasp of the issues, the desire to step out of retirement into a complex and contentious situation, a willingness to exert very strong leadership which I think we agree is needed over a very short period of time as opposed to just seeing an opportunity to make some supplemental retirement income.

  2. Frankly

    The good news is that most people experienced in management of a CA city will have experience dealing with over-compensated staff and unsustainable budgets. What they will probably lack is familiarity with so much business hostility and lack of balance between economic development and social-environmental activism.

  3. Davis Progressive

    heard don saylor wants landy black and lucas wants mike webb, which means that’s who bobby feels he can control. based on that, outside looks good. rob white is the only in house guy i would consider and we need him running point for economic development.

    1. Frankly

      Rob White is a good idea. I agree that we need him running point for economic development. The question is, would he be more or less effective with a new interim city manager?

    2. Matt Williams

      DP, I too consider Rob White the best internal choice as the Interim City Manager (ICM). Interestingly enough when I was talking about the ICM possibilities with someone yesterday their criticiam of Rob was that “He [is] too new.” As I procees that comment together with the theme of David’s article, Rob appears to be simultaneously an outside person (too new = outside) and a person who already has a considerable body of knowledge about the major challenges facing the City. If he is willing to specifically eliminate himself from the permanent CM candidate list, he would appear to be an ideal candidate who could help us “not miss a beat” in continuing the progress Pinkerton has achieved in his two and a half years.

      That leads us to the “running point for economic development” issue, and I think Frankly has hit the nail on the head when he asks, “would [Rob] be more or less effective [in moving economic development forward if he were in the role of the] interim city manager. The more I ponder that question, the more I find myself believing that he will actually be more effective in that role. Since he has arrived Rob has to follow the a multi-step process, (a) research the issues, (b) formulate the strategy and tactics, (c) bring Steve to a level of comfort on the formulated strategy and tactics, (d) then in many cases practice “hurry up and wait” while Steve runs them up the flagpole with the Council members, and (e) move forward when the Council sees the wisdom of translating Rob’s formulations into policy directives.

      As the ICM, the natural inefficiencies inherent in step (c) and step (d) will be mitigated/eliminated, and as a result the City’s economic development efforts will be more nimble, more efficient, and whenever the City Manager is asked a question about economic development they will get the best possible answer from the best possible spokesman.

      If Rob were currently doing bedrock research into where the City should possibly go (as he was doing in early 2013 shortly after his arrival in Davis), then I would be much more concerned about tearing him away from what he is doing. However, anyone who watches the video of Item 7 on Tuesday night sees just how effective a messenger and communicator Rob is. Having an ICM with those skills and abilities and insight would be a major step forward for the City in my opinion.

      Council could immediately begin the process of looking for a permanent City Manager knowing that when the completed that search, Rob White’s title would revert back to being solely Chief Innovation Officer and economic development would continue on its very positive upward trajectory … a trajectory that is totally consistent with Davis’ community character … a trajectory that builds on the core competencies of the Davis/UCD/Yolo community, education/research and agriculture.

      1. Jim Frame

        I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage Rob White from accepting the interim CM position if he feels up to it, but my sense is that his skill set is markedly different from that of a CM. I wouldn’t think that a public administration degree is enough to allow someone to jump into the driver’s seat of a city — particularly one that’s facing as many challenges as we are — and expect to perform anywhere near the level of someone with a background like Steve Pinkerton.

        I’m prepared to be shown otherwise, though; this certainly isn’t an area in which I have any expertise.

  4. Jason Hawthorn

    I agree with Davis Progressive and Frankly, that Rob White is the only obvious inside City Staff member who would be competent enough to handle being the City Manager (temporarily or long term ) as well as continuing to do economic development. Given his experience and well written articles posted often on the Vanguard he is a good communicator reaching out to the community with very positive messages. Mike Webb really does not have the background for City Manager and his strong suit is in planning which is where he is needed right now.

  5. Tia Will

    “much business hostility and lack of balance between economic development and social-environmental activism”

    Please read the list of relatively new companies that Rob noted to be only a few examples. Then please tell me how many more “new” companies that you feel would be necessary for you to feel that we are on the right track, or balanced.

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