On Friday, the Vanguard joined new City Manager Dirk Brazil and former City Manager John Meyer, who, coming off retirement at UC Davis, sat down with the incoming city manager and asked how he could help. Dirk Brazil said that he wanted to do some sort of assessment, to find out where the city was at this point in time, but he didn’t have the time or the background to be able to do it.
What emerges out of the Meyer report, according to Mr. Brazil, “is a clear roadmap for the future.” He said, “What really comes out of that report is how much organizational and workforce work is needed.” He said they want to know “how can things operate better,” but the key point, he said, is “we’re already doing a lot of what’s in there.”
The key thing from both Dirk Brazil and John Meyer is that this was not intended to be an exhaustive report. Rather, they wanted to look at three aspects of the city: Climate, Organizational Structure and Customer Service. This was not a wholesale review of the city, but rather a review of three things.
John Meyer told the Vanguard that his biggest surprise is that, despite all of the morale issues and organizational problems that he identified in his report, a lot of people are still dedicated to public service and still carry the banner.
“The ranks of city staff remain full of individuals still fully committed to public service and dedicated to finding efficient ways to continue the delivery of services,” John Meyer wrote in his report.
“This is not to say they are not highly critical of some of the methods and style used to achieve budget reductions. Indeed, they seem to fully recognize larger economic trends and that expenditure reductions were necessary. However, most individuals were critical of the manner in which budget reductions were communicated and that there seemed to be more outreach with community than with staff. Staff seems committed to public service despite their concern with historic leadership,” he continued.
“While need for budget reductions [are] widely acknowledged, perceived lack of engagement with staff has left widespread bitterness,” John Meyer wrote in his report. “Staff seem to fully understand the economic forces that required budget reductions. However, there is a widely held view that limited communication to staff on budget reductions aggravated an already difficult situation. Certainly, there was urgency to implement budget reductions, but some events have achieved the status of legend within the organization.”
It is perhaps easy to read into this report a wholesale criticism by staff of the previous leadership. But John Meyer at the same time made it clear that, while the report is critical of current climate, and he sees clearly the need to have open conversations with employees and to listen to their concerns, this should not necessarily be read as a criticism of the past practices.
Given the magnitude of the economic meltdown, the city had to act fast and he fully believes if some of the actions were not taken, the city wouldn’t be in recovery. So, while he may have supported some of the organizational changes – particularly the big merger involving Community Development – he described it as being effected on paper, but on the ground it never worked as intended.
As he wrote, “In recent years, the department heads for Public Works and Community Development have reported to a position entitled General Manager. This position was to oversee all development and infrastructure including capital projects. While there is merit in this approach, such coordination never materialized.”
With the General Manager position now vacant, Mr. Meyer suggests that “the city would be better served by these department heads reporting directly to the City Manager and resources from the General Manager position being reallocated to needs within these departments.”
John Meyer explained that the focus of this report was on general government but, given the turmoil over the fire department, it seemed a little surprising that he avoided public safety altogether. However, John Meyer was one of the leading proponents of joint management when he was a Vice Chancellor at UC Davis. He had overseen the merger, and he has a close relationship with Chief Nathan Trauernicht.
As he put it, he did not believe he would be a neutral actor on the fire side and, therefore, he limited his focus.
Dirk Brazil, however, told the Vanguard that he believes that moral is improving on fire. He said that there are been some new hires that have helped to change the makeup of the organization. While the previous City Manager was instrumental in implementing unhappy policy changes and imposing the last, best and final offer on the bargaining unit, Mr. Brazil represents a new face.
The Vanguard asked the City Manager directly about whether joint management sticks past July, and he said that if he had to guess, he thinks it will. Mr. Brazil also seemed genuinely committed to the idea of regional collaboration. “We have to look at things collaboratively, regionally.” He said, “It is short-sided to look at it” in isolation.
John Meyer pointed out that fire already has to have collaboration. When a fire happens, the local fire department “needs the cavalry from other agencies. It’s all about mutual aid.” He said it is better to train the same way.
The final portion of our discussion related to economic development. John Meyer in his report was quite adamant on economic development, “I believe the City should ‘double-down’ on its investment in economic development activities.”
“The City is developing a reputation of supporting business development,” he said. “A number of major businesses have chosen to locate in Davis. Should the City now dim its focus and investment in economic development, that action will be broadcast throughout the region by your competitors.”
John Meyer elaborated on the point which is that the “City has made phenomenal progress on Economic Development.” He made a point that he doesn’t think got enough regional play – the city of Davis beat out Chicago to get Mori Seiki. “It’s on an amazing trajectory,” he said. But he warned that we “have to make sure the foot is on the accelerator. The region is very competitive.”
The Vanguard asked the new city manager if there was a change in approach with economic development, moving away from the innovation parks and back towards the downtown. His answer was “not really.” He said the issue is “how do you treat them all fairly?” “How do you support the peripheral parks and still make the downtown” a critical part of the program?
He said that because the city put so much into innovation parks at the staff level, they had to reassess the allocation of resource. He is also concerned about their ability to manage this. “We have never dealt with anything even close to this,” he said. “Seven million square feet.”
So, he said, we have to “figure out the balance.” He is concerned that the staff, which has been beaten up and cut back, is suddenly being asked to manage seven million square feet of space.
His biggest concern with staff needs mostly concern the planning and public works side. He said that they can never have enough resources, but do not have enough to keep up with the new demand.
The staffing for the project, however, he feels has been solved – a lot of it for the projects will be funded by the developers and he specifically mentioned confidence in the leadership of Mike Webb and Bob Clarke.
Finally, an interesting point that came out of the report was the lack of stability and tenure in the city manager position. As John Meyer wrote, “In the last fifteen years, Davis has had seven interim and permanent managers, while in the previous thirty four years it had four.”
It is actually worse than that – since Rochelle Swanson was elected, just under five years ago in June 2010, we have had five city managers: Bill Emlen, Paul Navazio (interim), Steve Pinkerton, Gene Rogers (interim), and now Dirk Brazil.
That lack of stability, Mr. Meyer called “very worrisome in that an organization’s culture and values cannot take root with such constant transition in leadership.”
While that is a trend, neither John Meyer nor Dirk Brazil could point to the problem or the cure for it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting