Jeff Jardine: Modesto could use some climate change

04/23/2014 8:22 PM

04/23/2014 8:23 PM

When Reagan Wilson resigned as Stanislaus County’s CEO under a cloud in 2003, the supervisors went outside the county to find his replacement.

They recruited an outstanding one in Rick Robinson.

But despite the mistakes, misdeeds and questionable expenditures that led to Wilson’s demise, he was very adept at recognizing talented people and letting them do their jobs. Chief Operating Officer Patty Hill Thomas doubled as the interim CEO and chief financial officer for roughly 20 months before Robinson came aboard, even overseeing construction of the Gallo Center for the Arts and new district attorney offices.

When Robinson retired in 2011, he was replaced by Monica Nino. Nino had risen to become a key financial officer during Wilson’s reign and became assistant CEO under Robinson. When she left last year to become San Joaquin County’s CEO, Stan Risen – another Wilson-era holdover – rose to take her place.

So, as Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff prepares to leave for the same job in Oxnard, who is his heir apparent from within the city’s ranks? Whom did he groom to take his place? Which among the underlings is ready to step up, saving the city tens of thousands of dollars by avoiding an elaborate search process?

The short answer is the same as the long answer: no one. The City Council announced it will hire an interim city manager, who will not be a current city employee, and then begin the search for a permanent replacement. Thus, it is incumbent upon the incumbents to find a strong leader and talent recruiter.

Great leaders’ legacies should stretch well beyond their time in charge, enhanced by the generation that follows. They display no qualms about finding employees with serious potential and then nurture them to someday take over the top job.

It is a concept that can apply to any organization of any size and kind, but it must start at the top. That is why it is imperative that the council import a person who can recognize promotable talent while establishing a climate of openness, accountability and accessibility to the public from the top on down.

A year after Nyhoff arrived, then-Councilwoman Janice Keating cited a “chasm” between City Hall and the people it serves, according to an October 2009 story in The Modesto Bee. The city responded by sending personalized “we appreciate your business” letters after dealing with residents.

Did the customer service improve?

Nyhoff deserves extremely high marks for hiring Galen Carroll as police chief. And Nyhoff this week hired Larry Parlin of Lodi to rebuild the city’s troubled Public Works Department. Parlin is well-respected and -liked in Lodi, where he spearheaded construction of the city’s water treatment plant, which was completed on time and under budget.

I can cite a specific instance, and certainly there have been others, in which the customer went home satisfied. Two years ago, a man bought a home in Modesto believing it was hooked up to the city’s sewer system when, in fact, it was not. Why would he think that? Because city documents from 1994 said so.

The homeowner went to see Nyhoff, who quickly grasped the problem and set about rectifying it. They city paid the homeowner $2,300 toward the hookup cost. Nyhoff recognized other properties might have the same issue and ordered public works staff members to produce a list of nonconnected homes. They found 184 of them among problems dating back to 1986 and offered homeowners a $2,915 credit if they connected within the next three years. You could argue that Nyhoff would have made a fantastic public works director.

But on a grander scale during his reign, the city has endured a string of well-chronicled missteps, oversights and public-relations nightmares. Instead of improving actions and decisions, city officials simply want to control information. On April 13, I wrote about a procedure by which city employees are supposed to report all media inquiries and their own responses upstairs to be immediately posted online. It is an effort to pre-empt and spin before the reporting and stories are completed and published or aired. I received numerous supportive responses to the column, including “thumbs ups” from badge-wearing people I ran into downtown.

One comment came from a person identifying herself/himself as a city employee: “Since 2008, the sixth-floor ‘leaders’ have clearly demonstrated they think they know better than the folks in the trenches. They do not solicit or listen to warnings or advice from their employees based on decades of experience. That is the reason that there has been a mass exodus of managers, on many levels, and other key workers. The disdain shown the public is the same as they show employees.”

In a city auditors’ report on public works released this month, a segment regarding the wastewater treatment plant seemed all too familiar: “The unofficial policy of the Division is for all communications at the operator, technician, and supervisor levels to flow upward through managers, rather than at the level where the work is being accomplished. This practice developed primarily due to the culture of suspicion and retaliation within Wastewater, in which micromanagement has cascaded through the organization from the top down.”

The new city manager must bring climate change to Modesto to improve morale, to build trust through accessibility and openness both publicly and within the staff.

And that would begin with a leader willing to recruit people talented enough to someday take the job themselves.

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