What Does Davis Need in a City Manager?

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Davis-city_hallWhile I do not disagree with those who believe the biggest issue that the city faces is a fiscal one, including the need to develop its revenue base through economic development, those who argue that water is vitally important will not get an argument from me either.

However, after watching the city flail around in recent months, I now believe that getting the right city manager is the most important issue facing the city because, without a good city manager, it will be a struggle to handle the fiscal challenges, economic development and, yes, water.

Last week, the city council accepted this challenge when they upped their game and added to the money they were willing to pay for the next city manager. The question, however, facing the council and their hired gun/search consultants is what makes a good city manager.

I was reading the comments on the Davis Enterprise article, and one person called former City Manager Steve Pinkerton a horrible city manager – but why? Mr. Pinkerton did a lot of things really well and his reorganization of city staff, his fiscal reforms, and other policies put Davis in far better shape when he left than when he arrived.

One area that might have been the exception was the employee relations and public relations.

But what do you think we need? In the coming week, I will be looking at various aspects of the job. As usual, the readers are welcome to comment in the articles, but I would especially like readers to come forward with their own pieces that highlight their own perspectives.

Someone sent me a piece from the Dallas Morning News from last November, by a guy named John Nalbandian. Dallas was going through their own city manager search and had a series of viewpoint columns on it.

John Nalbandian has an interesting background, a highly respected professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. SPAA is ranked as the No. 1 academic program in the country focusing on city management and urban policy.

But in addition to being a top researcher in the field, he also served on the Lawrence, Kansas, City Council for eight years and two terms as mayor.

He wrote, “Many of the writers in this series have focused on the personal attributes needed in the next city manager. I would like to take a different approach and look at the environment contemporary city managers operate in. The most visionary, courageous leader who fails to appreciate that context is doomed to failure.”

This is a critical point. Any city manager coming into Davis must recognize two essential points. First, the issue of fiscal sustainability is critical. Second, they must recognize that change must come slowly. Davis has a very involved, engaged electorate who demand community dialogue and discussion.

This need underlies current issues that face the community – whether they be the need for a parcel tax or the need to develop economically.

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.”

He adds, “Political pronouncements, even consensus decisions, without a practical implementation strategy are as pie-in-the-sky as an administrative initiative that has no political legs to stand on. Bridging the inevitable gap between political and administrative arenas requires, above all else, political astuteness in a city manager.”

That is why, for instance, it has taken Rob White, brought on to help Davis develop economically, so long (in relative terms) to get business park proposals and why it will take probably another 15 months both those are implemented.

We know political astuteness when it is in action, but how can we recognize this trait in a manager?

Professor Nalbandian writes and some of our readers need to take note: “Start with the idea that running a city is not like running a corporation. Unlike the corporate CEO, the city manager must respect an array of democratic values — representation, efficiency, social equity and individual rights.”

He writes, “The astuteness comes not only from recognizing these values in virtually all policy arenas, it also builds on a keen appreciation that these values will conflict — and that’s why we have politics. Ignoring any of the values will come back to haunt the city.”

Another key point that is made is, “Political problems are those that surface when all the facts are known yet we still disagree on what we ought to do.”

Many of our readers believe they know the facts and have the one and only answer, but in a community there are often disagreements as to how to approach the problem – even as we understand it.

At this point, Mr. Nalbandian writes, “we do politics.” That is, “we work with conflicting values, seeking consensus/majority.”

Therefore he argues, “The manager who recognizes that efficiency is just one of four values in the political world is an immense help not only to the City Council but also to a staff wondering what on earth the council is doing!”

Consider it this way, he writes, clearly focused on a large city like Dallas, “The politically astute city manager can understand both political and administrative logic. The 12,000 or so employees of the city communicate with the same words that the council and mayor use, but politicians and administrative staff actually speak two different languages. The logic of politics and the logic of administration are different; serving as translator falls to the city manager, with the help of the mayor or other skilled council members and key administrative staff.”

“Additionally, it’s imperative to understand that Dallas does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a region — and while it heavily influences what happens in the region, it cannot dictate,” he writes.

This point clearly extends to Davis. Davis lives in a broad region, and while it is a small town, housing a major university, Davis can be an important player in the region. We often operate with eyes turned inward and fail to see the bigger picture.

Professor Nalbandian writes, “The challenge is focusing not on the boundaries that separate jurisdictions, nonprofits, foundations, private businesses and neighborhood groups but on soberly asking all the players: ‘What problems are we trying to solve?’ And then confronting the most difficult question: ‘How should we organize ourselves to deal with them?’”

He continues, “In effect, the next city manager must be able to ‘manage boundaries,’ focusing on problems to be solved without becoming overwhelmed by the interests represented by the players.”

Finally, he writes, “Last, citizen engagement is at the forefront of a city’s challenges.” He continues, “I read much about ways to use social media to engage citizens, but we are missing the point. I think there are plenty of ways for citizens to make their views known. The issue in engagement is creating forums that encourage deliberation — encouraging citizens to confront the consequences of their views — these forums are rare.”

“If the citizens and leaders of Dallas are looking for a ‘heroic leader’ as city manager, they are missing the boat,” he writes as he wraps it up. “The problems cities face require city managers who engage in adaptive, not heroic, leadership. Adaptive leaders understand that challenging problems do not have technical solutions; there are no right answers. What must be most valued is engagement that embraces divergent views, respects conflicting values and fosters deliberation.”

That realization leads here, he concludes, “A city manager’s ability to effectively embrace collaborative processes and divergent values is key to success.”

This clearly applies to Davis as well as Dallas. We do not need a heroic leader, we need someone who can navigate the minefield that is Davis’ strength but can devolve into Davis’ weakness.

I found this piece interesting because, while we probably believe we have nothing in common with Dallas, Texas, many if not all of the points brought up apply to Davis.

The question going forward is what traits do we need in a city manager for Davis to be able to move forward?

—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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32 thoughts on “What Does Davis Need in a City Manager?”

  1. SODA

    Do not disagree with your points however, I am critical of the CC in that they knew in Feb, ?correct, that Steve was leaving…if they had prioritized the replacing as high as you, we should be farther along. I realize we had campaigns and other important issues but the fact remains….

  2. DavisBurns

    I think it is an unreasonable criticism. There were time consuming matters that had to be dealt with including an election. I give them credit for realizing they needed to devote time to hiring a new manager and an interim was the best option. I think one of our problems is a knee jerk response to anything they do or do not do as ‘they should have done it this way’. Monday morning quarterbacking isn’t difficult. What I see, over and over here in Davis, is the council thinks they have the matter in hand, they think they are up on the pros and cons, they make a proposal and the expert (or just invested or opinionated) citizens come out of the woodwork, deconstruct what has happened, point out the inadequacies of the proposal and the Davis merry-go-round begins.

    I think we need someone, as stated in your article, who is adept in anticipating the divergent viewpoints and can manage the process so more work is done up front with citizen involvement so there is less conflict after the process is in motion. I think this will mean more work behind the scenes and better ways to engage the public. I support the council in hiring an interim manager. Had they hired someone in June, we’d be discussing how they didn’t take time to do a through search and their timing was off.

    1. Davis Progressive

      yeah but in the meantime – the pou fell apart, the water rates were killed, the parcel tax has been postponed, and had it not been for rob white, the innovation parks might be off track too.

      yes the council was preoccupied with two running for higher office and one trying to get barely get reelected.

      1. D.D.

        “…the council was preoccupied with two running for higher office and one trying to get barely get reelectedI do not understand why your town’s citizens should suffer because two council members had higher political aspirations.”
        I asked Brett Lee point blank, before I voted for him – “Are you just using this council position as a stepping stone, or do you plan on staying in Davis a while, on the city council, if I vote for you and you are elected?”
        Those may not have been my precise words. Mr. Lee assured me if I voted for him, he wanted to stay in Davis and work on the council.
        If two others were busy running for something else instead of running the council, then Davis citizens shouldn’t suffer.

        1. D.D.

          Correction – * “…the council was preoccupied with two running for higher office…” *

          I do not understand why your town’s citizens should suffer because two council members had higher political aspirations.
          I asked Brett Lee point blank, before I voted for him – “Are you just using this council position as a stepping stone, or do you plan on staying in Davis a while, on the city council, if I vote for you and you are elected?”
          (Those may not have been my precise words.) Mr. Lee assured me if I voted for him, he wanted to stay in Davis and work on the council.
          If two others were busy running for something else instead of running the council, then Davis citizens shouldn’t suffer.

          1. Davis Progressive

            “I do not understand why your town’s citizens should suffer because two council members had higher political aspirations.”

            what would your alternative be?

  3. Frankly

    “First, the issue of fiscal sustainability is critical. Second, they must recognize that change must come slowly.”

    A massive contradiction.

    Two ships going in different directions.

    What we need is one ship and all officers on-board and in agreement with the direction, speed and destination.

    And the realization that there are going to be people that will not like it, and they would not like it in any case, and they will complain, and they will look for ways to disrupt and cancel the trip.

    And you will never be able to convince them to come on-board.

    So why waste any time trying?

    If the majority supports it, then it is clear path for sailing.

    If the majority does not support it, then go for tax increases.

    But do it with a sense of urgency and stop worrying about making everyone happy. This level of need can not be satisfied without stiring up resentment from a percentage of residents. Overly sensitive politics and flaky commitments are going to be enemies of the good.

    Here is the key…

    The decision is not “yes” or “no”… or even “when”. The decision should be completely focused on “what”. We know the problems, so what are the solutions? Pick them and then go get them done.

        1. D.D.

          If you know the problems and you know the solutions, go get them done and for goodness sake keep it simple. If you want many creative solutions, you don’t know all the solutions, then for goodness sake still seek input.

          1. Davis Progressive

            because i don’t think everyone knows let alone agrees on the what those solutions are. it’s why we have two parties and a multitude of different thoughts in this nation.

    1. D.D.

      If the council was truly transparent from the get go, they wouldn’t need to announce an 11th hour meeting for public input when most working folks couldn’t possibly clear their calendar that quickly. They didn’t even notify David G. with much time to spare…so they didn’t really want any public input.

  4. Davis Progressive

    “What we need is one ship and all officers on-board and in agreement with the direction, speed and destination.”

    doesn’t work that way in davis. in davis you need a city manager who can map a course, a council that can give direction on that course and then a manager that can course correct.

    “And the realization that there are going to be people that will not like it, and they would not like it in any case, and they will complain, and they will look for ways to disrupt and cancel the trip.”

    true. that’s why we have a political process and majority rules.

    “So why waste any time trying?”

    i don’t read the comments in that light. what i read is that in order to move forward you need to understand both the policy and politics. what are you seeing that i’m missing?

  5. D.D.

    If your mind is made up, don’t ask for input. It’s patronizing and insulting. I had state managers who used to do that to my work team. Not cool.

    1. South of Davis

      D.D. wrote:

      > If your mind is made up, don’t ask for input. It’s patronizing and insulting

      Once you “know how the sausage is made” the entire political process is “patronizing and insulting” (and why I can’t watch it anymore).

      In my early years in politics I was surprised to find out that the votes were in place 99% of the time before the “meeting” or “public comment” that was almost always just “political theater” (to try and show they care what other council members or the public thinks)…

      1. Robb Davis

        There appears to be an assumption here, SOD (tell me if I am wrong), that in the lead up to the public meeting those voting were not listening to the public, working with staff and otherwise developing their ideas on issues (i.e. that they somehow made up their minds without meaningful input or learning). Of course meeting with others who are voting is not permitted due to the Brown Act but full preparation before a meeting should include seeking out public, expert and staff input on the decision in question. The value of the meeting is the PUBLIC airing of opinions and facts about issues, providing time for those voting to consider the opinions/perspectives of colleagues and further framing and articulating the rationale for decisions.

        I realize there is a fine line here: on the one hand we must come into meetings with open minds. On the other we must prepare and be ready to act in a somewhat efficient way. I don’t see public comment or the comments and questions of those voting as “political theater” as much as I see them as a way to bring to the surface the issues that surround the subject. I don’t want to be patronizing but there is a need to ask questions in public that may have already been asked in private (in fact I may communicate to people in advance that I am going to ask such and such to deepen public understanding of an issue). There is also a need to articulate the rationale for why I am voting in a certain way and to allow the preparation to always be informed by new information or perspectives shared in the meeting.

  6. Mark West

    Hiring an Interim CM was a smart choice. With the election only a few months away, hiring the new CM should have been the choice of the new CC majority. I do question the choice of, and direction given to, the Interim CM as it appears that the intention was for a weak Interim CM who would not make waves. I think they should have hired someone capable of aggressively continuing the previous CM’s work until the new CC was in place. That was the decision that has brought everything to a standstill, not the slow pace in hiring the new CM.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the issue isn’t having the interim, i think it was who the interim was and how long it took to get to this point that’s the problem.

  7. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > What Does Davis Need in a City Manager?

    It depends who “in Davis” you ask…

    City Employees: “Higher Pay and better benefits”
    City Council: “A Person that does not piss off our supporters and/or voter base and make our lives hard”
    Bums in the Park: “A guy who lets us continue to hang out near the new playground next to the carousel with our scary looking pit bulls and smoke pot”
    No Growth Folks: “No Growth”
    Green Energy People” “More Green Energy”
    Politically connected Contractors: “Keep paying us tons of money and not get a second bid”…

  8. D.D.

    “”Bums in the Park: “A guy who lets us continue to hang out near the new playground next to the carousel with our scary looking pit bulls and smoke pot””
    When & if I smoked pot in Davis, with my state approved cannabis rx and green card, my pet was a labrador retriever, not a pit bull.
    🙂

    1. South of Davis

      DD: wrote:

      > When & if I smoked pot in Davis, with my state approved cannabis
      > rx and green card, my pet was a labrador retriever, not a pit bull.

      The reason I posted that is just this past weekend I was thinking of Tia’s post when I noticed how nice it was to see kids having fun in the new park when loud barking got me to look past the carousel to see three (3) of the scariest looking pit bulls I have ever seen going crazy (they were all tied up) as a Mom with a (now crying) kid on a tag-a-long bike passed the pot smoking bums (who were laughing)… I don’t have a problem with the homeless (or anyone else) smoking pot or owning pit bulls, I just think that Davis will be a better place if the pot smoking homeless and their pit bulls don’t hang out so close to the kids in the new playground (it seems like it would be just as fun to drink malt liquor and smoke pot down by the railroad tracks)…

      1. DavisBurns

        You know the reason the homeless have pit bulls? That’s the most common breed to be found in animal shelters. I very looked for a second hand dog and don’t like the look of pit bulls, not that I think they are a bad breed. In fact, a pit bull is highly loyal and when not subjected to cruelty, make good pets. The homeless have dogs for companionship, so alert them when someone is messing with their stuff and to make them feel safer. Most of the homeless know better than to be conspicuous because it always brings unwanted attention.

  9. Robb Davis

    David – I appreciate this article and find much food for thought here. I especially like the acknowledgement that the person should be someone who “respects conflicting values and fosters deliberation.” I would like to join the nascent dialogue here by laying out three characteristics that are important to me as I think about bringing someone into this job. I am not saying they are the only ones but they represent a foundation to how I am thinking about this. Feedback and additional ideas are appreciated. Key characteristics/skills/abilities:

    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 work 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 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 towards defined ends.

    (I should also add we need a CM who can work with the CC to significantly deepen the strategic relationship between the City and the University)

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      “3. An individual who goes beyond managing staff to 1) enabling staff members to increase their productivity by clearing away extraneous work.”

      A necessary component of increasing productivity is usually giving people an incentive to increase their productivity. In many cases, that means paying them more money if they produce more and paying them less if they produce less. But, given the nature of government and civil service “protections,” this is almost impossible. At best, it can be done by promoting good workers and not promoting stiffs. No one ever gets fired simply because they are not doing a good job for the City.

      That said, money is not everything when it comes to “incentives.” People normally respond favorably to personal praise and recognition from a manager. And people often, when told in fair terms what they are doing wrong and how their job needs to be done, will improve after being told they are not producing at a sufficient level.

      I should add this: The contracts that we have for city workers are designed in many ways to LOWER productivity for all workers, including upper management. There is simply way too much paid time off. It’s hard to be productive all year long when you are paying your employees 2.5 weeks of salaries for holidays and another 5 weeks of vacation time and more for other forms of leave. Davis does not have to pay its workers to not work so much. That is a choice the City Council has made.

      Unfortunately, if we did reduce the amount of paid time off to be in line with the private sector, I don’t think it is possible to then reward the best workers with an extra week of vacation or a couple more paid holidays. But if we could get away with that, that would be another way to incentivize productivity.

    2. Davis Progressive

      robb, while i respect your views, i think the point raised by the city manager in the article above is that the city manager is the one who carries out the plan and the vision, not necessarily the one who creates it.

      1. Robb Davis

        DP – I don’t disagree. I said “work with.” I think the CC is ultimately responsible for vision but the CM in our form of government must play, in my view, a significant role. More importantly is the role of the CM in laying out a pathway to achieve the vision.

      2. Tia Will

        DP

        I agree that the primary role of the city manager is implementation of the vision.
        However, depending on the experience and motivation of a good city manager, I could see a part of the role as helping to shape the vision. If for instance, a city manager candidate had successfully ushered in successful programs compatible with the environment and values of Davis, they might share their experience thus helping the CC to better define aspects of our own vision. I do not see shaping and implementing as mutually exclusive but as potentially
        complementary roles.

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