Part III: What Qualities Does Davis Need in a City Manager?

city-hallWe have spent this week talking about the qualities of a good city manager and what Davis needs.   Today I will attempt to identify several qualities that we need – this is obviously just my opinion, and it is not an exhaustive list.

In response to Monday’s article, Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis posted three characteristics, skills, and abilities he was looking for.

1. An individual who works with City Council to chart a long-term vision for the economic, social and environmental health of the city and then works back from the critical ends to lay out a plausible legislative/policy path that the CC can work through to get there.

2. An individual who will use the vision to push the City Council to define clear priorities (given the foregoing) and stick to them – and who will challenge the Council (even publicly) when it deviates into non-critical areas.

3. An individual who goes beyond managing staff to 1) enabling staff members to increase their productivity by clearing away extraneous work (see above) and adopting more efficient systems for tracking and accounting for work and expenditures, and 2) creating a cohesive team of senior leaders who work together toward defined ends.

I have come up with five main goals – some of which are similar to what Robb Davis came up with. These really aren’t in order of priority.

The first one, though, is that the city manager must be able to carry out the goals and priorities of the Davis City Council. This is a key – for as much as Robb Davis’ first and second bullet points are well-taken, the city council is the policy-setting arm of city governance, and ultimately the city manager’s job is to carry out their directives to the best of his or her ability.

Someone pointed out to me that Paul Navazio was able to parlay his interim position into a full-time city manager position, in a less contentious city for about the same pay. Therefore, they argued, he was a winner in this.

My take away from that point is that this is not a one-size-fits-all, objective test. People who would be perfectly good city managers in other communities might not work out in Davis. And so this bullet point is really about finding someone who fits in with Davis’ mentality.

Second, we need someone who can move Davis forward on the road to fiscal stability. Council and the community are going to make a lot of the calls on policy direction – further staffing cuts, more concessions through collective bargaining, parcel tax, and innovation parks and economic development.

These are not only difficult decisions for city council and the community, but they are huge tasks for the city manager to have to implement. Whatever policy direction we go with, the city manager will be required to be able to develop policy with skill and finesse to implement these changes.

The innovation parks, while moving forward, have another 15 months of planning and will take a good deal of skill and finesse to get through the planning process and to the voters for their ultimate up or down approval.

Third is that the city manager will be asked to improve and implement employee morale. We have had a rough time in the last five or six years. The city has had to reduce its workforce, reduce pay, reduce hours, ask employees to do more while receiving less, and ask them to take concessions.

The community at times has been harsh and critical, and many have laid the blame for the city’s fiscal condition on the employees – ignoring the economy, the council policies, the community indifference, and the lack of sources of revenue.

We are asking our employees to do a lot – yes, they are well compensated – but from all reports, morale is at an all-time low across the board and there is no need for that.

In their six-month plan that was released three weeks after the council election, Mayor Dan Wolk and Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis wrote: “Employee Morale. Considering the difficult budget cuts and personnel decisions that have been made over the past few years, and the often-bumpy relationship between city employees and management, it will be important for the new City Council to build trust with the people who make our city what it is.

“To that end, we plan to have monthly meetings with employees to listen to their concerns, bring back the yearly employee recognition event and show (Dan and Lucas have even pledged to sing), and look at ways of reorganizing City Hall to make it a friendlier place to work – and for the public to visit.”

Key to that is hiring a city manager who, while capable of getting critical reforms passed, can do so while bringing city employees on board.

Finally, while the next city manager must be empathetic to city employees, he or she must also be aware and sensitive to community concerns. The strength and the weakness is the engaged citizenry who want a deliberative public process where they have both a stake and a say in the ultimate outcome.

That is a great strength of this community. People really care about their community. They invest time and resources in it.

At the same time, as we have seen, this can lead to beating subjects to death.

We have seen the good and the bad. We saw the mistakes made when a wireless company began installing an array without public input and dialogue. The mistake made by a veteran staffer who lives in the community caused that staffer to be demoted and might have led to termination under different city management.

We saw the failed and fumbled initial water process that led to the WAC and other community-based approaches.

The innovation parks will be a delicate discussion that has to balance revenue and economic needs against environmental and slow-growth tendencies in the community.

A heavy hand can lead to the opposite of the desired outcome and the city manager has to be cognizant of the community’s needs and desire while still working to implement policy at council direction.

Those are my thoughts on this day – what do you think? What do you see as necessary qualities for the next city manager?

—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. SODA

    We came back to Davis during John Meyer’s tenure and I began to watch the CC mtgs pretty consistently (go figure). My take is that he was the most actively engaged in the conversations of the Council, suggesting direction especially if discussion bogged down or veered away from topic. Steve Pinkerton was second and the other 3 were much less actively involved, at least from watching. That is NOT to say they weren’t active behind the scenes, with agendas, etc.
    I would be interested in your comments on this.
    If the first goal of yours and Robb’s is met it would seem there needs to be active participation by the CM during the open CC mtgs.

    1. Matt Williams

      That is an interesting observation SODA, and a good one. If it is going to work, I think that staff will need to get Staff Reports to the CM and Council much earlier than they do now. The way it currently works there often isn’t enough time to read and review the materials. As a result the comments/questions from councilmembers often seem like campaign speeches rather than consensus-building dialogue with the CM and their colleagues.

    1. Frankly

      I agree with what Robb Davis has outlined, and most of what David responded with. I would add though that David is tilting his wish list more toward a slow plodding mediator, instead of a more aggressive mover and shaker. I think his point is that Davis will not tolerate a more aggressive mover and shaker. But there is the question will our city survive the delays resulting from a slow plodding mediator.

      The fear of being left out is strong in some people. So is the fear of change. Lastly, there is the fear of making a mistake… however immaterial. But as I tell my business partner who is much more prone to slow and steady change backed by endless analysis, a decision to wait and a decision to do nothing is still a decision. You can make great mistakes failing to recognize the need for urgency and the need seize opportunities.

      The average job-life span of a CEO is five years. My thinking on a Davis CM at this point in our city’s life is that he/she will be needing to spend the love chips by the truckload in order to accomplish what is necessary. Seeking to remain above the fray or below the radar is not going to work out at this time. We need a CM that rolls up the sleeves and gets into the muck and mire of all the critical decision processes. And doing so will result in enemies… the enemies of change and the enemies of “I did not get what I demanded.” And with progress the list of enemies will build and eventually it will be time to leave.

      The key will be to retain this CM long enough to accomplish everything we need to accomplish.

      Then maybe the next hire stay longer as our feel-good CM.

      1. David Greenwald

        I hadn’t really considered the fast/slow moving paradigm. That said – I don’t really see Davis as a rapid change town. What do you think can be done in short-order?

        1. Don Shor

          I think getting three peripheral annexations, a large hotel, and a housing project in less than five years would constitute rapid change for Davis.

          1. Mr. Toad

            What makes you think you can get any of these things done? Measure R stands in the way of everything except the hotel.

          2. Matt Williams

            If the process is handled right and collaboration with the University is not only strong, but also evident/conspicuous to the average citizen, then I agree with you.

          3. Davis Progressive

            the city somehow managed to get wildhorse and target passed despite citizen votes. if you don’t believe you can sell it to the public, well i guess there’s that, but i have more faith that the voters will see the need and support it.

          4. Frankly

            I think getting three peripheral annexations, a large hotel, and a housing project in less than five years would constitute rapid change for Davis.

            If we have to wait 5 years for all of the decision to be made, then it is absolutely too long. And in fact we will have missed the opportunity for the economic climb that is spurring the demand for business location.

            If the point is that it will take 5 years to have all of this done with all three business parks at least 50% populated with a trajectory of having them fully populated in 10 years, then I agree.

            Facebook was launched in 2004. Five years is a lot of time in this fast-paced business world we live in.

          5. Davis Progressive

            the firsk decisions are going to be made by november 2015.

            i ask again – how do you propose to do it more quickly.

          6. Mr. Toad

            I agree that the process in place takes too long. I also doubt all these things will pass at the ballot box. Luckily for us we don’t need them all to pass. Still I wonder if Schilling can wait. FMC Tecnologies just completed an agreement to work with a consortium of companies to develop a next generation of submersible robots. My guess is they will do this work elsewhere for at least the next two years. Another loss of jobs for Davis.

          7. Davis Progressive

            i think most will pass at the ballot box as long as they are good projects. you’re mourning the loss of jobs before they happen. btw, why are you mourning jobs over the loss of tax revenue?

  2. D.D.

    Dear Mr. T,
    I guess the remark about pre-marked ballots is an inside joke? No clue.
    What interview questions would you ask, if you were on the hiring panel? What would catch your eye on a resume?

  3. D.D.

    “To that end, we plan to have monthly meetings with employees to listen to their concerns, bring back the yearly employee recognition event

    Monthly meetings are good for venting.
    In my experience an employee recognition program implies that all employees are not equal and you run the risk of negative competition and snitching among your teams. Any effective ee reward should be driven by the workers themselves, and their customers. Not their managers.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think it’s probably more notable that the two leaders of the Council agree that we need to focus on morale than perhaps the specifics of what they suggest.

      1. Mr. Toad

        It happens but you miss the point. The city manager has got to do what he (or she) believes is in the best interest of the city. He needs to be able to tell the council no when they are making a mistake, he needs to be able to take the heat and say no to bargaining units during negotiations, and he needs to say no to people in town that have crazy ideas of what we should do. Its a lot of telling people no. If the new city manager can’t do that they will get run over.

  4. Don Shor

    – and who will challenge the Council (even publicly) when it deviates into non-critical areas.

    I think the mayor and the mayor pro-tem need to take control of the council agenda. Over the last few years I’ve had the sense that the meeting agendas were wasting a lot of time on less important issues, while economic development kept getting deferred or ignored. I don’t know who sets the agenda, or the order in which items are discussed. I think the agenda should reflect the priorities laid out in the op-ed Dan Wolk and Robb Davis posted a few weeks ago, and the council should not get drawn in to symbolic but less-important issues. We spent a ridiculous amount of time discussing things like bag bans and zip cars.

    1. Anon

      I wholeheartedly agree that far too much time in the City Council is spent on insignificant issues. Big ticket items like the budget or innovation parks are tabled, and then not really discussed in detail, because so much time was taken up arguing over the street light retrofit, plastic bag bans, or some national issue that the City Council shouldn’t even be weighing in on.

    2. Matt Williams

      I agree Don. We also spend a lot of time at the beginning of each meeting on proclamations, etc. It would be much better to hold one meeting each month that contains the whole month’s ceremonial content. Once that is done, then a massive Consent Calendar designed to clear the decks of the vast majority of the month’s consent items. Together those two changes would free up almost an hour in each regular Council meeting that could be focused in more important issues.

        1. Matt Williams

          I’ve gone over all the NRC meeting agendas since I joined 15 months ago, and it actually is apretty reasonable list of items the NRC has considered. Further the strident voice of the NRC has been ratcheted back a few notches in those 15 months.

          That doesn’t mean I agree with all the positions that have come out of the NRC in that period, but ther has been a whole lot of good.

          — New Homes Company agreed that including 1.5 kw of solar on all the Cannery’s single family residences “penciled out” as a win-win-win for themselves, the buyers and the City alike.

          — The Wood Smoke Ordinance was refocused on public health. Definitely a step in the right direction.

          — The water conservation efforts are very reasonable and fiscally wise.

          — Green waste conrtainerization has been working like clockwork in El Macero for well over 15 years. Is it not time for Davis to catch up with its progressive neighbor to the east?

          — I wouldn’t have done the plastic bag issue the way it was, but I don’t think you can blame the NRC for ginning up the interest in that issue. The Council was the progenitor of the interest in that issue.

          So, what NRC-driven issues took up valuable Council time?

          1. Barack Palin

            “but I don’t think you can blame the NRC for ginning up the interest in that issue”.

            Funny, but I remember a member of the NRC attending a council meeting dressed up like a plastic bag monster of something to that effect.

          2. Matt Williams

            True, but you are confusing theater with interest. Further, you are assigning the motivations/actions of a single NRC member to the whole NRC.

          3. Barack Palin

            Matt, do a simple Google search and you will see the NRC was very involved in the plastic bag ban, they even drafted an ordinance. Sorry, but you can’t change the facts. I can post several links but you just go and look it up yourself.

          4. Matt Williams

            BP, there is a difference between being involved in the process and being the driving force behind the effort. Council regularly hands Commissions the responsibility for drafting an ordinance. It effectively did that with the WAC. It effectively did that with the Parking Task Force. it effectively did it with the Housing Element Steering Committee. That is simply Council following the dictum that many hands make light work.

            Further, you treat the NRC as if it is a monolith. it is anything but a monolith. Those same Google links will show you that there were many dissenting opinions within the NRC. Sorry, but you can’t select only the facts that support your beliefs.

          5. Mr. Toad

            Reasonable? Deputizing neighbor against neighbor as fireplace police wasn’t reasonable. It was stupid.

          6. Matt Williams

            No one has/had a badge, and the City’s citizens were no more “deputized” under the public health oriented 2013/2014 version than they were in the 2012/2013 Ordinance.

  5. Anon

    A city manager in this town needs to have a thick skin, as well as an ability to “educate” the City Council on the importance for new business to generate much needed tax revenue and any other innovative solutions to our budget woes. It should be all about the budget.

  6. Robb Davis

    Just a quick note: it may seem to some like I am suggesting yielding certain Council prerogatives to the City Manager. This is not my intent. I have sat on both sides of the table: I have been part of leadership teams (including being a CEO) as well as a board member who hired and oversaw the work of CEOs. It has always been my experience that strategic planning and priority setting, while the prerogative of the Board (Council), is a dialogue in which the CEO (CM) plays a critical role. The CEO, after all, has to operationalize the strategy and therefore, s/he can and should push the Board (CC in this case) to be as clear and focused as possible. This is the “help” I am referring to. And, even though the Board chair (Mayor) sets the agenda and runs meetings, the CEO and staff help in this endeavor and play a useful role in assuring that meetings move towards decision points so the critical work of the organization (city) can move forward. It is always a dialogue and both entities play a role. My comments reflect this experience.

  7. Frankly

    Whomever the CM, we need city leadership to make crisp and timing decisions and then move on to the next agenda item. This then requires staff to deliver well-done briefings in a timely manner.

    Hanging back waiting for the political winds to settle down will cause us to stall and our progress will be far too inadequate to meet our needs.

    Maybe advisory votes are a good tool we should explore. Either that or some ongoing survey process that helps clear the path for go or no-go decisions.

    When a leader says, “I do not have enough information yet to make an informed decision.” then that is a call to action for staff to do a better job collecting and delivering adequate decision support information. If the leader says “I do not have a strong enough comfort level for the political impacts of a decision.”… then I say get it quickly and make a damn decision. We elect leaders to make decisions, not maneuver to some middle ground of defended popularity. Doing the right things does often means disappointing somebody.

  8. Anon

    To Franklly: You make an interesting point about choosing “middle ground” because of the political winds. Sometimes it is necessary for a City Council to gain some backbone and do what is right for the city, not cave to political pressure. That is easier said than done, but constantly finding one’s way to the middle ground is not good public policy.

    1. Frankly

      I agree Anon.

      I should clarify that I am not in support of “shoot-from-the-hip” decision-making. Or running roughshod over the top of people with valid issues and concerns. There is a due diligence need to collect information, including the opinions of all key stakeholders. But we have seen it before where a motivated group of activists flood council chambers and the council backs down and asks staff to do more work… when it is clear that the council already has enough information to support a decision.

      It is a good thing for the CC to demonstrate empathy and understanding for all viewpoints and to demand adequate community involvement, but then I would like to see more leadership in explanation of the responsibility of the position in office, and decisions made on the spot.

      We hear all the time that staff is over-worked. We should not be adding more work just for CC political cover.

      And the actions of the CC roll downhill to the CM. If the CC is telegraphing politics as a strong determinant, then the CM will likely follow suit. Then years from now we will be complaining that too little is being accomplished.

      1. Davis Progressive

        “It is a good thing for the CC to demonstrate empathy and understanding for all viewpoints and to demand adequate community involvement, but then I would like to see more leadership in explanation of the responsibility of the position in office, and decisions made on the spot.”

        i would only suggest that there are clear areas where this is true, but the danger in getting too far out in front of the public is water and measure x.

    2. Davis Progressive

      in the abstract i agree with. in reality, you see when council goes too far things like the water project end up on the ballot multiple times and you have measure j. the council in 2005 was way ahead of the public and the public said no.

    3. Matt Williams

      It may not always be good public policy, but sometimes it is wise public policy. Take the recent water rates decision for example. There were a myriad of well supported reasons for the council to choose to go with the 60/40 rate structure recommended by Bartle Wells and staff; however, as good as that policy decision may have been when viewed in isolation, the political realities expressed by the voters in Measure P supplanted that good policy decision with a wiser policy decision. In the last council deliberation on water there were three opponents of Measure P in the audience … Elaine Roberts Musser, Donna Lemongello and myself. During the Wednesday July 2nd water discussions, Greg Clumpner was a fourth such opponent. Contrast that to the dozen or so supporters of measure P who were present, voicing their support of 87/13 and active opposition to 60/40, and the Council did not need to be Phi Beta Kappas in order to understand that adopting the good policy of 60/40 would put the City into another iteration of Groundhog Day. If I remember correctly, Elaine Roberts Musser at one point stated to the council that the difference between 60/40 and 87/13 was less than $5.00 per month. In making that observation, she clearly delineated the difference between “good” and “wise” and in the process probably moved both Lucas and Rochelle closer to 87/13. Winning the support of all those Yes On Measure P folks in the room for less than $5.00 per month made the price of wisdom very affordable.

  9. Mr. Toad

    Yes it came after Wildhorse and Wildhorse came after Mace Ranch but the council that put it forward was the most anti-growth council of all time. They did it to lock in their agenda. It didn’t happen in a vacuum but it was initiated not out of necessity but rather out of convenience.

    1. Matt Williams

      Toad, I tend to agree with DP. The Council was a major part of the problem because they did not hold either the Mace Ranch developer or the Wildhorse developer to the staged buildout schedule that was part of each of those respective development agreements. If the 1% Growth Cap had been in place at the time, then Measure J might not have happened.

  10. Mr. Toad

    What does measure J do? It makes a ballot referendum automatic for annexation. Before measure J nimby’s had to collect the signatures. After it the vote became automatic. It was brought by people who didn’t want to do the hard work of organizing a petition drive against a clock but who were against development. Now i may be wrong but I believe the council put it on the ballot not the voters that makes the council that put it on responsible for its existence.

    The problem is that it created a system that results in long delays. Without it we could be moving much more quickly toward adding economic development with a business park and dealing with our budget problems. It has caused huge delays, deterred projects from even being proposed because it increased the risks of having to pay for a campaign. You all seem sure that the community is going to vote for these proposals and hopefully you may be correct but you also have the luxury of not having your own money being spent on planning a project that could get shot down at the ballot box.

    At the end of the day measure J makes it so only the very richest can afford to develop here. No one else can afford to take the risk.

    1. Davis Progressive

      you’re analysis is flawed in that you have taken the impact of the last decade – only part of which was attributable to measure j – and assumed that it was completely due to measure j.

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