Modesto’s city manager leaving for Southern California job

04/09/2014 8:25 AM

04/09/2014 10:18 PM

City Manager Greg Nyhoff is leaving Modesto after six years for a job in Southern California.

The Oxnard City Council selected him Wednesday to become its next city manager. Nyhoff said he hopes to start June 1. Oxnard is about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. With about 200,000 residents, it is roughly the same size as Modesto.

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said he and other council members plan to meet in closed session Tuesday to begin the discussion on how to replace Nyhoff. Marsh said Modesto could bring in a retired city manager on an interim basis while it searches for a permanent manager.

Modesto officials praised Nyhoff for his leadership during the Great Recession and its aftermath when the city saw its revenues nosedive. The city dipped into reserves, did not fully fund some accounts and cut services – such as reducing the number of police officers and firefighters and cutting park maintenance – to balance its budget while trying to maintain essential services and keep employee morale up.

“I think they are going to get a superior city manager,” Marsh said. “We were lucky to have him.”

Modesto faced other challenges during Nyhoff’s tenure, including a recent city auditor report that concluded the Public Works Department’s water and wastewater divisions suffer from poor leadership, low morale and high turnover.

He also faced criticism over how he described a telephone survey he commissioned in spring of 2013. At the time, he said the survey would reflect the diversity of Modesto’s residents and gauge their satisfaction with city services and their priorities. However, two California State University, Stanislaus, professors said the survey was a poll to gauge support for a sales tax. The poll also did not reflect the city’s demographics. For instance, 75 percent of survey takers were white, and 61 percent were 60 years of age or older.

The Oxnard council voted 4-1 to hire Nyhoff. Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn said Nyhoff and the council essentially have agreed on contract terms and those terms should be formalized in the coming days. Flynn said he expects council members to ratify the contract Tuesday.

“He projected a strength and a vision and a determination,” Flynn said. “One of the things I saw about him was he was determined to get this job.”

Nyhoff said Modesto and Oxnard are similar and he sees an opportunity to make a difference in a new community. He added that one of his reasons for leaving is personal but declined to elaborate. Marsh said he suspects one reason is Measure X’s failure in the November election.

The measure was a 1 percent sales tax that was expected to bring in about $26 million annually over six years to the general fund, which pays for such basics as public safety, parks and tree trimming. The general fund makes up about a third of the city’s roughly $344 million operating budget. Modesto officials have said they will need to cut as much as $9 million more from the general fund over this and the next two fiscal years to bring expenses in line with revenues.

Nyhoff, 54, came to Modesto in June 2008 from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he served as an assistant city manager. He has 30 years of experience in public administration. He earned $199,188 last year.

He is leaving at a time when Modesto has lost many of its top managers. In the past several months, the city attorney; chief information officer; and Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department director have resigned to take jobs with other cities. Additionally, the directors of public works and utilities planning and projects have retired.

Stanislaus Taxpayer Association President Dave Thomas said Modesto has deteriorated under Nyhoff, and its finances are in worse shape than city officials know or will acknowledge.

“Modesto is far worse now than six years ago,” Thomas said. “Are the roads better? Are the sidewalks better? Is public safety better? Pick a function and tell me it’s better.”

But others joined Modesto officials in praising Nyhoff. “I think he’s been terrific,” said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor and founder of the Great Valley Center, which, according to its website, supports activities and organizations that promote the Central Valley, from Bakersfield to Redding.

She said Nyhoff has kept a low profile while supporting the City Council, but he’s provided council members with his experience and big-picture thinking as they need it. She said he has improved Modesto’s relationships with Stanislaus County and most of the surrounding cities.

Whiteside said it should not be a surprise that Nyhoff has stumbled at times. “All people in leadership positions,” she said, “trip and stub their toes on occasion. It’s part of being a leader.”

Councilman Dave Lopez said he appreciates that Nyhoff became part of the community and got involved in community cleanups and similar events. Lopez recalled one event from several years ago when he came upon Nyhoff, his wife and son working at an elementary school.

“He was shoveling sand into the playground,” Lopez said. “I thought, ‘Here’s our city manager. Here’s a guy making $200,000 a year running the city, and he’s got sweat all over him, shoveling sand. And he has a big smile on his face.’ ”

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