The Modesto City Council met behind closed doors Tuesday evening to discuss appointing a city manager. That it later emerged to report “no reportable action” was disappointing.
It’s past time for the council to do its most important job, filling this utterly critical position.
There are two options: Take the word “interim” off Interim City Manager Joe Lopez’s title, giving him the job; or decide to conduct a broad search to find out if there are better candidates for city manager.
The one thing the council should not do is leave the city hanging.
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Without a top exec, city staff is often left in a holding pattern, biding time until they know who will be calling the shots. It’s not fair to residents, who would love to see many initiatives continue and others begin. And it’s not fair to Lopez, who is left wondering if there’s something more he should be doing.
The city should conduct the search. That best person might be Lopez; it might be someone else. But the only way to be certain that Modesto has the best person is to look.
That’s assuming the “best person” will consider coming to Modesto.
When the council decided to dismiss City Manager Jim Holgersson, it took a self-inflicted hit in its reputation. The dismissal of its top executive sent an unsettling signal to anyone who might be interested in moving to a city with high unemployment, higher crime and a council that often appears to be in disarray.
Holgersson had his faults, but he had been a good antidote to Modesto’s secretive previous city manager. Holgersson’s focus on strong neighborhoods made the city better. He helped settle contentious union conflicts. He created an excellent working relationship with his Stanislaus County counterpart. He even helped repair the city’s litigious relationship with Modesto Irrigation District.
The most important task on Holgersson’s to-do list – rooting out the “heads-down, bunker-up” culture that existed before he arrived – was started but never completed. That takes time, he the council wasn’t willing to give it to him even though it cost them.
If the council had waited seven months, it could have dismissed Holgersson without having to buy out his $129,000 contract. Dismissing him – because his style didn’t suit four council members – seemed an inexplicable and expensive act of hubris.
The world of top city administrators is relatively small; word gets around. There’s no doubt some qualified candidates, before deciding to apply for the job, will be interested in hearing Holgersson version of what happened.
In the meantime, Lopez has been thrown in the breach. His time as deputy city manager was relatively brief, and it’s clear he has had to learn on the job. Recently, it was discovered the city had spent $2.2 million more on paving than had been budgeted. We’re still uncertain when overspending began, but it’s unlikely that it was on Lopez’s watch. But trying to slip the remedy past the council on a list of procedural votes called the consent decree was a poor decision.
What the city needs is someone who can continue the task of changing a neurotic internal culture while assuring the city’s partners – the county, MID, other cities, developers and those working to expand businesses – that it knows where it’s going and what it wants to be when it grows up.
Lopez might be that person. There might be someone better. We won’t know until we look. Conduct a search, Modesto; then choose the person best suited to make this city better.