Commentary: Mike Webb an Easy Call for the Council

In 2006 when the Davis City Council abruptly fired City Manager Jim Antonen, they quickly named long-time Planning Director Bill Emlen to be interim city manager and about six months later named him as permanent city manager.  He would remain in place until September 2010, to this day the longest-tenured city manager in the last 20 years.

Since then it has been a merry-go-round with City Managers Steve Pinkerton and Dirk Brazil, and interim City Managers Paul Navazio and Gene Rogers.

It was just over two weeks ago that Dirk Brazil announced he would retire, effective in January.  It took the council all of three meetings to name his permanent replacement, assuring a line of succession would be in place and the transition would be remarkably seamless.

It was April 2013 that Planning Director Ken Hiatt announced he was leaving for Woodland and the city of Davis brought back Mike Webb, who had left in 2012 to work for the city of Placerville’s director of development services, to take his place.

Under Dirk Brazil, Mike Webb and Kelly Stachowicz would serve as Assistant City Managers.

Clearly, Mike Webb was an easy choice for the council to make.  Three members of the council issued public statements in support of the hire, which was unanimous.

Lucas Frerichs posted on Facebook, “While I’m saddened to see Dirk Brazil retire, I greatly appreciate and thank him for his service.

“However, we couldn’t have selected a more eminently qualified candidate (internal or external) to serve as Davis’ next City Manager, than Mike Webb. Mike is fantastic; I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for our community.”

Rochelle Swanson said “Mike has been a leader and convener for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Mike in many roles – applicant, colleague and Council. He is consistent, transparent, kind and professional. He doesn’t just talk, he walks the walk. I look forward to watching him shine among his peers in the region.”

As I reporter, I greatly appreciate his accessibility.  I have emailed him for information on a regular basis and he has always patiently answered my questions or directed them to staff.  Often I am amazed at the hours and speed at which he has returned emails.

With that said, the conversations I had in the community were more circumspect.  No one could say a negative about him personally.  However, there are questions about his background on issues of finance.

Generally speaking, city managers need to be well-versed in either land use or finance.  One of the criticisms of the current city manager has been his lack of background in either.  There is little doubt that Mr. Webb has a good background in land use planning – although some will naturally take issue with some of the projects the city has backed, but there are certainly questions about how much he knows on the finance front.

In fairness, we have not really had a chance to see him in action and so this is all speculative.  However, it does bring up the point that I have raised a few times – that the city really is in need of a strong finance director, something that it has really not had since Paul Navazio left to become Woodland’s City Manager.

When I inquired with some of the council, many pointed to Mr. Webb’s experience.  Throughout his tenure as Assistant City Manager, I have heard consistent praise for the hard work he has put in.

Other points have been his understanding of regional importance.

They have also pointed out that, while he is mild mannered, he is also an effective leader.

A big issue will be economic development.  One of my biggest criticisms of the city from 2014 to the present has been the loss of momentum on economic development.  We have seen that on a number of fronts, from the failure of the innovation park projects to the seeming de-emphasis of economic development and the dispersed innovation model to the loss of Nishi with its 300,000 square feet of R&D space.

Nevertheless, between the decline of retail nationally, the city’s ongoing revenue shortfalls and the ambitions of the university under Gary May to develop a regional university-based innovation center, economic development – along with housing and the budget – figures to be among the top three issues.

Yesterday I was told that, while he understands the need for economic development and supports it, he has yet to be supported to actually do it – and being hired as city manager with the backing of this council he will now be free to pursue it.

If that is the case, then I would welcome this development.

The challenges that the next city manager will face are obvious.  The issue of housing is not going away and, in fact, figures to continue to intensify as the demand for housing locally increases while the supply is relatively locked into place.

The university is planning to move to the EIR phase of their Long Range Development Plan and the city has a low vacancy rate of 0.2 percent for rental housing and shortages in work force and family housing as well.  With stringent land use policies like Measure R, the city will need to get creative in how it meets the growing needs of students and also workers in town.

These are all issues within Mr. Webb’s expertise.  The question is how he will handle issues outside of his background and experience.  Two of those are the aforementioned budget issues, with also the growing concern over police oversight and social justice.

These are challenging times, and the advantage that the city has right now is that it has the successor to Dirk Brazil in place.  It was an easy decision from the council’s perspective, and they can effect a smooth transition.

—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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      1. David Greenwald

        There’s about 40 people that comment fairly frequently.  And another subset that comment rarely.  The number shrank a bit when we changed the rules.

        Regardless, my point is this is a city manager government and the city manager is probably the biggest decision a council can make.

  1. Don Shor

    Nothing much to say except that Mike Webb is a great and obvious choice for the job. With respect to any lack of finance background, it is likely that his staffing choices could deal with that. More important would be for the voters to choose some councilmembers who have an interest in the topic and will keep the issue front and center.

    1. Mark West

      I agree that Mike is a great person, but I am concerned about the lack of engagement with the community and also with the Finance and Budget Commission prior to making this decision. I would have a great deal more confidence that made the best hire had we followed a transparent process, rather than rushing to a decision behind closed doors without community input.

  2. Howard P

    I can never remember a transparent hiring process.

    And, I think that is a good thing, in large part (that it was handled as it was).  At what level do those who believe in “total transparency” think the public need to know who applied, who is being considered, etc.?

    Here we have a known quantity, being asked to serve in a new role… trust me, this was ‘vetted’ “in house”… should we have had a public campaign, and the matter set for a ‘vote of the people’?

    People who are considering applying for a position with the City are entitled to privacy… if the employer knows ‘they’re looking’, that could be bad for the applicant, if they are not chosen.  In this case, where the person was tapped in house (there was no “application” process), shouldn’t those who might have been asked if they were interested, and either declined or were not chosen, entitled to privacy and dignity (despite the old Avis ad, it can be hell to be known as # 2!)?

    C’mon… get real… transparency for election and for performance in office (elected or not) is one thing… demanding review of contingent appointments (what we’re dealing with) by commissions/public quite another.  The City and the heir apparent, ARE being transparent at at least one level… it’s out there as an intention, to be ratified by the one nominated to serve, and by the CC next week.  Let anyone who has objections speak now, or forever hold their peace.  And cite valid reasons…

    Hiring processes are not transparent for damn good reasons… as the CM is at “at-will” employee, I see no harm, no foul.

    1. Mark West

      My primary concern was the complete lack of engagement to determine what characteristics were desired in the new hire. This is where the FBC’s input could have been quite valuable.

      I completely agree that the actual vetting and negotiation should be opaque, but the planning, engagement, recruitment of candidates portions of the process should be open and transparent. Was the opening ever posted? How else will you know that you have found the best candidate or show the community that its input is valued?

      1. Howard P

        Nuance (as I understand it) noted… general criteria, desirable characteristics, basically ‘job description’, on those I have absolutely no problem with the input, for CC to sift thru, and act based on their evaluation of the input…

        On ‘engagement’, and recruitment, not so much…

        Was the opening ever posted?  

        To my knowledge, no, but have seen a lot of times when it isn’t… main driver is whether there is a strong ‘in-house’ candidate… why do the search thing if you just need to re-assign, as it were…

        How else will you know that you have found the best candidate?

        When the selected candidate assumes the responsibilities, but “best”? Only if you had hired all candidates, then evaluated each!  How do you know any given person will be the “best” spouse?  CM’s generally have a tenure of 3-7 years, 5 being average.

        show the community that its input is valued?

        That would be on the criteria part, not recruitment/selection… my strongly held view.

  3. Roberta Millstein

    I find these paragraphs from a NC blog interesting food for thought:

    The greatest advantage to a policy that requires advertising the existence of job openings is the possibility of identifying outstanding candidates who would otherwise go unknown. Advertising can enrich the workforce. A second great advantage is the perception of fairness that is promoted in the community. People who see that vacancies are advertised are more likely to have faith that the government’s employment practices are aboveboard. For these reasons alone, governmental employers may wish to adopt policies requiring that vacancies be advertised even though they are under no direct legal requirement to do so.

    The greatest danger in not advertising vacancies is the likelihood that alternative methods of identifying candidates—personal knowledge by governmental officials of candidates in the workforce or in the community, word‑of‑mouth communication between people inside the government and those outside—may act as a barrier to employment opportunities to members of groups underrepresented or not represented in the workforce. Even if the reasons for relying on methods other than advertising have nothing to do with an intention to discriminate on account of race, the effect of such reliance may nonetheless constitute a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This will be especially true where the governmental workforce is already disproportionately white compared to the population in the community. Communication through informal channels other than advertising in such a situation is much more likely to reach white candidates than minorities, constituting an unlawful adverse impact on the basis of race. This was exactly the finding in a 1990 decision by the federal appeals court that has jurisdiction over North Carolina, in a case arising from a Virginia public school system. Thomas v. Washington County Sch. Bd., 915 F.2d 922 (4th Cir. 1990). In that case the court found a violation of Title VII where the work force was overwhelmingly white, black candidates were overlooked (even unintentionally), and only informal communication of vacancies existed.


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