Part II: What Makes a Good City Manager – the Good and the Bad

Firefighters’ union members protest outside City Hall along Russell Blvd in fall of 2013

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

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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  1. Mr. Toad

    “In the end, he was so effective that the union pressured council members to fire the city manager which ultimately led to his departure.”

    This is not true and you can verify that its not true by asking Steve Pinkerton. Steve left because he had a unique opportunity to take a great job in a beautiful place. Its doubtful Steve would have left for any other job than the one he took.

    There is a lesson here for the council however that has been trying to find its way forward without Steve. When you have a great city manager the council should do everything they can to support and retain that individual. They also should have learned the importance of finding and paying for excellent leadership and what a difference great leadership makes.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “This is not true and you can verify that its not true by asking Steve Pinkerton. Steve left because he had a unique opportunity to take a great job in a beautiful place. Its doubtful Steve would have left for any other job than the one he took.”

      you’re still swallowing the official line.

          1. Mr. Toad

            Well lets believe what we want to believe instead of asking the person who has the best knowledge of what motivation made them decide to leave.

          2. Davis Progressive

            that would only make sense if i believed that david wasn’t talking to pinkerton directly and probably got a different answer than you did.

        1. South of Davis

          Toad wrote:

          > Actually I’m repeating what Steve Pinkerton told me and like
          > i said you can verify it by asking him yourself.

          And you can also ask the hundreds of people who “left to spend more time with their family” (before they were about to be canned) and they will “verify” that it is true…

  2. Frankly

    Why did Pinkerton leave?

    1. Money opportunity – CalPers pension and OPEB retirement benefits he would receive along with his new Incline comp and benefits. No state income tax in Nevada. The former is a problem with the CA compensation system that provides no monetary executive retention mechanism after the employee is fully vested… generally around the time they hit 50 years old… not far from the age required to have developed enough experience and skills to be effective at the job. But note that the Incline job pays less than did his Davis job. Right there we get to understand that

    2. Location – He and his wife like to ski and like the mountains. And then there is Lake Tahoe.

    3. Work environment – The years ahead of him working for Davis were going to be a depressing slog with political minefields as made apparent by the left-side CC attack against him.

    It was the combination of these things and the consideration that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that sent him packing.

    But in review why are we surprised when we have a system that actually nets a CM more money to leave?

    Most chief executives in private industry have part of their compensation as deferred compensation that has a vesting schedule to encourage retention. Talent is talent and it is always in demand. When the going gets tough, sometimes talent will decide to move on. So if you want to motivate them to stick around through the tough times, it is a good idea to peg some reward to sticking around, and some loss of potential reward for jumping ship.

    We cannot compete with location and the work environment is the work environment. What we should do is break away from the monopolized cartel government labor system and design our own based on best-practices in the private sector.

    1. Davis Progressive

      it’s pretty obvious pinkerton couldn’t be sure what the new council would look like, he had a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he took it.

        1. D.D.

          I’ve been in the workforce, mostly government jobs, for over 35 years. When someone leaves a job, they rarely tell anyone but their life partner all the reasons they had for leaving.

  3. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    Toad, you are dead wrong about why Pinkerton left. Don’t believe for a second what he told you about “a unique opportunity.”

    You have to be mindful of one huge fact: When Pinkerton had the job in Davis, he went out looking for a new position, not just the job at Incline Village. If he had been perfectly happy in Davis and perfectly secure, he would not have been seeking interviews with other local agencies.

    Then, the question arises: Why was he unhappy here?

    Frankly gets at most of this. I think, however, as David Greenwald has reported many times, Pinkerton did not feel that he could rely on the support of the Council majority for very long. He was sure Joe and Ro were behind him. But he knew that Lucas and Dan were doing all they could to fire him. So his position in Davis was on a tether named Brett Lee. If Brett changed his mind, Pinkerton, at age 54, would be out of a job in a tough job climate at an age where being unemployed would make it harder for him to find a new job. It was with that in mind that he went looking for a new, more secure job.

    The Incline Village job was attractive for many reasons, not least of which was the money, as he would start getting a large CalPERS pension, a good IV income and all of that would be free of California’s income tax, which is quite onerous for someone making good money, as he now is.

    1. Davis Progressive

      you have it mostly right, from what i’ve heard the biggest question wasn’t brett lee, but rather joe krovoza leaving and whether sheila allen would replace him. he’s not just a 54 year old, he’s a 54 year old with a four year old son.

      1. South of Davis

        DP wrote:

        > he’s a 54 year old with a four year old son.

        It looks like he will need every penny of his CalPERS pension if he is going to pay for college for his kid 14 years from now.

        I just looked at tuition at UC Davis was a little over $3K/year 14 years ago, today it is over $12K/year (4x higher). If it goes up 4x again (to pay for the gold plated UC pensions) in the next 14 years (when Pinkerton’s kid is starting college) it will be about $50K/year…

    2. Mr. Toad

      Having been CM of Davis made him highly marketable even at 54. Of the 30 applicants Pinkerton was the last person standing. Notice that everyone who has held the job got a better paying job after. People figure if you can manage this three ring circus; the council, the citizens and the employees you can handle anything. Just wait until Rob White finds his next job. He is going to get every penny he is worth and its going to be much more than he is getting now.

      1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

        “Having been CM of Davis made him highly marketable even at 54.”

        Absolutely. However, if he waited until he was the fired, former CM of Davis, his marketability would have fallen through the hole in the floor labeled “not good at working with the CC.”

        Regarding Joe Krovoza leaving and being replaced by Sheila Allen: there could be a timing problem with that theory. Pinkerton not only accepted the IV job before Sheila announced her Council bid, but he started interviewing with IV and other places before Joe announced he was going to run for the Assembly. Of course, it’s possible he knew Joe’s plans before Joe made them public. And if he did, then maybe insiders told him Sheila would likely run. Back in December, her candidacy may have looked a lot more promising than it did by June. ……… All that said, I have some fairly reliable inside information that Brett Lee was being lobbied by Dan and Lucas to join them to fire Pinkerton. I also am told Pinkerton knew about their lobbying Brett.

        1. Mr. Toad

          From whom? We have heard these rumors before but nobody has ever gone on the record with such a story. Until someone is on the record they are as reliable a source as I am posting anonymously. By the way if its true I certainly would like to know it.

        2. Mr. Toad

          Where besides Incline did Pinkerton apply or interview? I have never heard this before and doubt its authenticity. He never mentioned any other applications.

  4. Mr. Toad

    Actually you guys are pretty wide of the mark. Pinkerton left for a number of reasons only some of those have been articulated but some of the big ones have been left out completely and some taken as true here in Vanguardland have no basis in fact. As for a potential change in the council forcing him out it was always a possibility as it can happen to any city manager at any time. Pinkerton understood this. Its why his contract had a nine month severance clause. He wasn’t that worried about it though because he was close enough to retirement age that he knew he would be okay one way or another. He didn’t expect to get the Incline job and figured he would be CM in Davis for some time to come. The other finalist getting DQ’ed was the farthest thing from his mind.

  5. Mr. Toad

    One thing I can tell you that all of you missed and is in the public record is that Incline Village doesn’t have a huge budget deficit like Davis. Funny all you conservatives missed this one. It makes a big difference. Up there instead of coyote lovers he has bear lovers. There are many retiree busybodies there too. These things go with running a city or utility district but not having a structural budget headache sure makes it an easier job on a day to day basis.

  6. Anon

    Pinkerton was an excellent City Manager, moving on to take the opportunity to collect a CA pension as well as collect a nice salary at Incline Village, Nevada. Smart man. He shepherded through the water project, reform in the fire department, modest reform with city employee pensions and benefits, among many other successes. Incline Village is lucky to have him.

  7. D.D.

    All the postulations are interesting, but I’m more interested in your opinions re: David’s title question.
    What would all of you look for in a city manger, if you were on the hiring panel?
    Five interview questions?

  8. Tia Will


    In response to your attempting to get the conversation re centered, I have a question that I like from job interviews that I have conducted in the past.

    “What is the best team you have ever been a part of ? What was your contribution ?”

    This completely open question allows the interviewer to watch the candidate think on their feet. You watch them sort through what has mattered to them whether it is a sports team, a project team, a political team…..
    They provide you with insight into how they view the importance of collaboration and competition within a team
    ( group) structure. They convey what characteristics they consider most important in themselves and other team members. Within my profession and group culture, collaboration is key. There have been a number of times when we have not hired based in part on the answer to this question if a candidate has answered in a way that demonstrates a strong “top down ” value system which would not be a good fit for our model of care delivery which is dependent upon cooperation, collaboration, and a flow both ways in terms of consideration of ideas.

    1. Matt Williams

      That’s a very good interview question, Tia. It is especially germane to the current situation in Davis where top down management has been the norm for quite a while. The immediately past council and this council appear to be departing from that model in favor of a more balanced, accountability-oriented approach that produces more empowerment of the employees who are out on the front line of service provision and/or infrastructure maintenance. Hiring a new city manager whose style is top down rather than empowerment-oriented would be at odds with that council trend.

  9. Tia Will

    “Hiring a new city manager whose style is top down rather than empowerment-oriented would be at odds with that council trend.”

    Agreed Matt.
    And is also clearly at odds with what the more vocal members of our community see as their role.

    1. D.D.

      I used a similar question when interviewing claims adjusters and bill reviewers at S.C.I.F. I liked to hear people who could brag a little about their accomplishments, but also give credit to their co-workers. The phrase that comes to mind is “quiet confidence.”
      I work best with people who are hard workers, self assured, assertive, and humble. So that’s who I hired. Because anyone could learn the procedures for those jobs, if they studied them and tried hard.

  10. Tia Will

    I think that we have a number of citizens who have experience, knowledge, and interest in projects to which they would like to make a contribution. If a city manager is either secretive or arrogant or prefers a top down, non collaborative approach, there are likely to be folks who will not be as receptive as they would to a more open, available managerial style. I personally favor the involvement of the engaged citizens and feel working with as opposed to around or over folks with genuine concerns and suggestions is a more productive approach.

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