Mike Dunbar: Modesto’s interim city manager setting right tone

mdunbar@modbee.comJune 7, 2014 

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh might want to keep his new city manager around for a while. It could be good for his average.

Working overtime to learn more about the city, interim city manager Jim Holgersson showed up at McHenry Bowl during the mayor’s Wednesday night league. As Marsh bowled, they talked over city business. As they were talking, the mayor was rolling strikes. By the end of the 10th frame, he had rolled 12 in a row. It was Marsh’s 14th perfecto.

At least as far as the mayor’s concerned, Holgersson is off to a great start. We think so, too.

The interim city manager told us this week he likes what he sees in Modesto. Yes, we know he’s obligated to say nice things about the place where his paycheck is written, but we think he’s sincere. More importantly, Holgersson was optimistic about the work to be done.

And optimism is something our city clearly needs.

“It’s critical,” he said. “You’ve got to have a full-glass attitude. … With the challenges you have in any city, you have to come into it with a positive approach – a can-do attitude. And that tends to be catching; people would rather work in an environment where they believe they can get things done.”

Holgersson has been an administrator in seven cities. He says he knows what makes cities work, and it’s always the people.

“So many good people here,” he said. “And they’re working so hard. ... When it comes down to it, it’s the people in the organization. Developing your people and the right attitude, is really important. That’s where you need to make your investment.”

Isn’t he going to decry the failure of Measure X, which deprived the city of new revenues? Nope.

Isn’t he going to tick off all those lists where Modesto ranks at the bottom? Nope.

Isn’t he going to squint and tell us how much work there is to get done? Well, maybe.

But he thinks the work is doable, mainly because of the people – and not just those on city staff. He is already walking down the hall nearly every day to get county CEO Stan Risen out of the office for coffee. He’s met with David White at the Alliance and likes his plans for partnership and development. He admires the energy of the Great Neighborhoods program. He thinks the Gallo Center is an incredible resource, not just for Modesto but for the region.

“A lot of the fundamentals of downtown are there – good streets, good sidewalks, good restaurants. And there’s a plan to bring in rail in 2018; that’s a plus,” he said. “And there are three garages downtown with capacity, that can attract businesses.”

Holgersson says he’s a numbers guy, and says Modesto’s numbers aren’t that bad. He points to a reduction in retiree health insurance liabilities, falling from $104 million two years ago to around $50 million today. He says the city has a workable plan to unwind the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, which will be presented Tuesday.

He even already appreciates some of our local traditions.

“People take their communities for granted,” he said. “And they shouldn’t. Like yesterday, the American Graffiti thing I went to, that was a hoot. I’m a ’60s guy, and seeing all those people and those beautiful cars – some of which I drove when I was a kid – that was great.”

Important to The Bee, Holgersson wants better communication with the public. That wasn’t a priority of the previous administration.

We like Holgersson’s optimism. Coming to a city with so many reasons to be down on itself (no need to enumerate them again), optimism might be his most necessary attribute.

But back to that 300. We can’t finish this without rolling out a few bowling analogies. We don’t expect Holgersson to roll 300s all the time, but we hope he can keep the city out of too many nasty splits, finds the right pocket and doesn’t roll any gutter balls.

Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com or (209) 578-2325.

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