One of the reasons that I liked the piece from John Nalbandian about Dallas was that he understands what the job of a city manager is – he manages the city. In a simple way, the city manager implements the policies that the city council supports. Now, a good city manager might be able to lead council, but without the support of council, the city manager is not long for the job.
As Professor Nalbandian puts it, “The bedrock of effective city management comes from an understanding that nothing significant can be accomplished unless it is both politically acceptable and administratively sustainable.”
A good city manager has to be in sync with the desires of council, responsive to them, and then has to map out a course of action to enable the council to carry out its goals.
I present for you now an example of the failure of this process and then an example of success.
In the winter of 2011, Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson had been elected on fiscal sustainability platforms. They brought on Dan Wolk early in 2011. They wanted to start tackling the city’s structural deficit.
But, despite these goals, the interim City Manager and former Finance Director Paul Navazio brought the council a budget that did not deal with pensions, OPEB, or unmet needs. After a series of unsatisfactory meetings, finally Mayor Joe Krovoza and Mayor Pro Tem Rochelle Swanson brought forward a motion to direct staff to cut $2.5 million from employee compensation.
That money would then go to pay for roads, OPEB and pensions. After a couple of very contentious meetings, the council would pass these measure by a 3-2 vote. They had directed staff to return in September with a list of cuts – however, as we now know, staff dragged their feet and those cuts never happened.
During the recess, it was announced that Steve Pinkerton would be the new city manager. Paul Navazio was said to be a finalist for that position, but a critical reason he was not the one hired was that he was out of sync with the goals of council and failed to carry out their directive.
On the other hand, Steve Pinkerton knew that, among other things, the council was very eager to pass a series of reforms that would cut costs in the fire department. However, Mr. Pinkerton recognized that he had resistance from the firefighters’ union and an interim Fire Chief who was sympathetic to the existing system, as well as a series of consultant reports that also supported mainly the status quo.
It took Steve Pinkerton over a year, but he eventually was able to get all of the reforms passed by council.
First, he brought in Scott Kenley as interim chief. Mr. Kenley had two great assets. First, he had experience as a consultant and therefore could do a realistic and quality audit of the department. Second, his history suggested he would not be co-opted by the firefighters’ union.
Next, Scott Kenley conducted his audit and presented his findings to council. At a second meeting, Mr. Kenley presented four key recommendations: (1) boundary drop, (2) raise the response time goals to put them in sync with actual performance, (3) decrease staffing from 12 to 11 while re-organizing the department to make it more mobile and responsive, and (4) implement a shared management with the university with shared fire chief and upper management.
There was pushback by some on council and from the firefighters’ union, so they implemented a roundtable discussion with key actors from the city, university, union and even the community.
But the firefighters, after accepting boundary drop and the increased response time, pushed back on staffing and shared management. They attempted to organize the community in various ways.
These delays took so long that they managed to run out the clock on retired annuitant Scott Kenley’s time. Rather than risk the reforms or put in a new chief part way through, Mr. Pinkerton found a solution outside of the box. He put Landy Black, the police chief, in charge of both departments, had Assistant Chief Steve Pierce as the administrative head of fire, and allowed the division chiefs to run the day to day operations.
The move angered the firefighters’ union, which would respond with a no-confidence vote in Chief Landy Black and daily and weekly protests outside of city hall.
However, the move worked in the sense that it bought the city time to ultimately agree to the fire staffing changes and then in the fall, even in the face of letters from public officials, the city council by a 3-2 vote approved the shared management.
It was a long, arduous process, but it ended up with two successful 3-2 votes on staffing and management.
This was a clear case of a good city manager, understanding where his direction was from the majority on council, finding ways to improve the fire service, save money, and address reform and ultimately leadership needs in the department.
There were numerous pitfalls along the way, but Mr. Pinkerton was able to creatively and strategically staff several steps ahead of his detractors. In the end, he was so effective that the union pressured council members to fire the city manager which ultimately led to his departure.
We can take several lessons out of these anecdotal stories.
First, a city manager must be responsive to council at all times. Paul Navazio might be city manager in Davis today had he had greater recognition of the change in tide in early 2011 due to continued economic conditions and changes on council. He also needed to be more forthcoming with council.
As we know, Steve Pinkerton directly told council that he would find ways to cut costs but he needed more time to do it, and he needed to do it within the framework of collective bargaining. Paul Navazio simply failed to implement council’s directive without coming up with an alternative plan.
Second, a good city manager will find ways to accomplish tough tasks. Whether you agree or disagree with his ultimate policies, Steve Pinkerton did a good job of shepherding not only fire but water through. He carried out the desires of council in creative ways in the face of tough community challenges.
Third, going forward the issues facing the city, whether they are continued budgetary challenges, the need for revenue with business parks, or the need for a parcel tax, will be tough challenges. There is not community consensus on taxation or land use policies and the next city manager will have to respond to the vision of council with a plan and probably several fallbacks to implement those plans.
—David M. Greenwald reporting