In the early days of spring, Stanislaus County’s two largest cities – Modesto and Turlock – both learned they would need someone else to lead them.
Several months later, neither is close to selecting a new city manager.
The inability of city council members to get on the same page – politics, essentially – is the problem in both cases.
“We’re a big city, so it’s a big deal,” said Ted Brandvold, mayor of Modesto, California’s 19th-largest city with a population of 215,080.
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But more than six months after the council fired former City Manager Jim Holgersson, Brandvold has yet to decide which executive recruitment firm to hire to even begin the process of looking. And some members of his council are tired of waiting.
“When a big corporation or company sees a change in CEO, there probably should be a plan,” Councilman Doug Ridenour said. “There should be some thought of what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go.”
Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer pronounced herself “very, very not happy. We need to do something. It’s been (several) months now and we haven’t heard a word. I don’t know what’s going on.”
We owe it to the citizens to make sure we’ve got the best possible candidate.
Ted Brandvold, Modesto mayor
The recruitment should become Modesto’s No. 1 priority, according to Councilwoman Kristi Ah You. “We need to get going in a hurry, with a sense of urgency,” she said. “I’m not in favor of doing nothing.”
Fourteen miles down Highway 99, Turlock only recently seemed in better shape for a top transition, having appointed committees of city officials and regular people alike to help select a new city manager three months before the old one, Gary Hampton, retired in August. Two finalists emerged, but differences erupted into bickering on the Turlock council. After spending $13,000 on a search, the council on Tuesday announced they will scrap it all and start over.
“We’re looking forward to a renewed process that casts a wider net,” said Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth.
County Supervisor Vito Chiesa’s reaction to that news: “Yikes.”
Turlock, population 72,261, is in the district Chiesa represents, and as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, he deals closely with Modesto as well. “Would I want to be without a city manager too long? No. It creates some uncertainty,” he said.
Both agencies continue functioning with interim leaders. Turlock is getting by with Fire Chief Robert Talloni at the helm, for now. Modesto has Joe Lopez, a Holgersson deputy who for months has said he will seek the top job.
“It’s a job I absolutely want,” Lopez said Friday.
Is he disappointed that he hasn’t been chosen already?
“It’s a very critical decision and these things take time,” Lopez said. “I’m going to work every day to do the best job I can for the citizens of Modesto, regardless of what my title says.”
Twisting in the wind
But the void of permanent leadership can bring an unsettled feeling among employees. It’s hard to promote a long-term vision without someone at the top. And other key vacancies normally handled by a city manager, for positions such as department heads, can go unfilled for long periods.
“You’re handicapped, because it’s hard to have long-term planning and pursue strategic opportunities,” said Carol Whiteside, Modesto’s mayor from 1987 to 1991.
It’s chaos down there (at City Hall).
Carmen Sabatino, former mayor, Modesto
Another former Modesto mayor, Jim Ridenour (2003-2011, and Doug’s brother), said, “People need to know what’s going on.” Yet another, Carmen Sabatino (1999-2003), said, “It’s chaos down there (at City Hall). But after an election, you want your (own) guy.”
That much seems true.
Shortly after Sabatino’s election, Jack Crist was hired as city manager; soon after Sabatino was ousted by Jim Ridenour, Crist was out and George Britton was in, and Ridenour also ushered in Greg Nyhoff. Two years after Ridenour stepped aside, then-Mayor Garrad Marsh brought in Holgersson. And Holgersson was shown the door a year after Brandvold’s arrival.
Marsh said it was a big mistake to sack Holgerrson, who was earning $220,900 a year. A decent successor will be hard to find, Marsh said, because, “We don’t pay enough here. We aren’t a dynamic part of the world. It’s a difficult job to do. When you put all that together, there are too many other places seeking similar talent that have more to offer, and you end up with a tough (recruiting) job. I don’t think (the City Council) looked at all that when they got rid of Holgersson, for no apparent reason.”
Jim Ridenour, in a separate interview, said: “The day they let Jim (Holgersson) go, they should have had a plan of what to do to replace him.”
Six months later, what is the plan?
“We’re looking at putting together a search,” Brandvold said.
“I would say shortly,” he said.
From the start, Brandvold said, he has advocated a broad search for Holgersson’s replacement.
Why didn’t the search begin six months ago?
“I didn’t want the search hanging over Joe while he was trying to prove himself,” Brandvold said.
So ... has he?
Some council members are Lopez fans.
“Personally, I feel Joe has done an absolutely fantastic job,” Kenoyer said. Doug Ridenour called Lopez’s performance “remarkable,” and Councilman Mani Grewal, “tremendous.”
We should have been doing it by yesterday. We can’t wait till it’s perfectly safe.
Kristi Ah You, Modesto council
Ah You said, “I just want to make sure we look outside of ourselves to see who is the best candidate. If it ends up being Joe, so be it. But we need to look, and we should have been doing it by yesterday. We can’t wait till it’s perfectly safe.”
Brandvold acknowledged it may have been a mistake to delay. With the holiday season around the corner and a head-hunting firm not yet hired, the mayor has little hope that a search can conclude before year’s end. It’s possible Modesto will go an entire year, plus or minus, without a leader.
“Right or wrong, this is the point we are at,” Brandvold said.
Political divisiveness can repel top candidates, warned Whiteside, who also served in Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration in Sacramento.
“It’s hard for a chief administrator to be successful if the governing body is not acting in concert,” she said. “If they’re hired on a split vote, it makes their tenure even scarier. They all pay attention to that” before applying, she said.
Sabatino said, “Who’d want the job? I wouldn’t want to work for them.”
Said Marsh, “Maybe they’ll luck out and find a rising star willing to spend four or five years here. But the odds are pretty slim.”
Britton, who remains in Modesto, suggested searching long and hard for that rising star.
Do you go for a team that loses all their games? Yeah, if you view yourself as a turnaround agent, somebody on the make, someone who is going to make a name for themself.
George Britton, former city manager, Modesto
“Do you go for a team that loses all their games? Yeah, if you view yourself as a turnaround agent, somebody on the make, someone who is going to make a name for themself,” Britton said.
“There are personalities out there who are willing to take on an organization where there might not be unanimity or even the majority you’re hoping for. But it’s harder to find those people,” he added.
Meanwhile, to the south, Turlock turmoil prompts former Mayor Brad Bates to use “meltdown” and “dysfunction” in describing the atmosphere at City Hall. From the audience in the past two council meetings, Bates asked for updates on the city manager search, and both times came away with no answer.
He and others also asked about City Attorney Phaedra Norton, who filled in as acting city manager when Hampton was on a four-week medical leave, and who now is out on leave herself, forcing Turlock to pay another firm for legal advice. Soiseth cited confidentiality as a reason for the council’s silence; he refused to say whether she was a candidate for the city manager job.
I’m not certain what’s going on at City Hall, and it makes me nervous.
Amy Bublak, Turlock councilwoman
Tension filled a Sept. 26 Turlock meeting when Councilwoman Amy Bublak demanded that a special meeting be scheduled to discuss problems with the positions of city manager, city attorney and finance director. “We need to talk about it. It’s critical,” she said.
Soiseth called such talk “extremely inappropriate” and shut it down, saying unnamed officials are expected to return from leave.
On Tuesday, the Turlock council emerged from behind closed doors to announce a relaunch of the city manager search, “in order to attract even more applicants.” The council will further discuss “the new recruitment process” on Nov. 14, again in closed session.
Modesto will do likewise in a few weeks, Brandvold said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390