Our View: Loss of Modesto city manager Nyhoff a big blow, but also an opportunity

04/09/2014 6:54 PM

04/09/2014 11:06 PM

Losing a city manager who has six years’ experience juggling any number of crises will, undoubtedly, be considered a devastating blow by many members of the Modesto City Council. We think it’s an opportunity.

Greg Nyhoff managed the city through some of the most difficult times imaginable, including the housing meltdown of 2008 and the budget eviscerations that followed. It was no easy task, and we appreciate his efforts.

Still, he is leaving a city with substantial issues – a highly critical city auditor report on the Public Works Department; a roughly $9 million hole in the general fund; a failed sales tax increase, and a city in the midst of a very public squabble with its neighbors, resulting in two council members being served notice of intent to recall.

In writing about Nyhoff, the Ventura County Star asked Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh about some of those issues Wednesday. Marsh defended his departing city manager.

Nyhoff did not cite any of Modesto’s problems in explaining his departure. Instead, he characterized his new job of city manager in Oxnard as an excellent opportunity and called the city “a gem.”

Oxnard is roughly the same size as Modesto, and all such cities have problems. For instance, Oxnard hasn’t had a permanent city manager since 2012 when the city’s top exec was put on leave in the midst of a corruption investigation. Restoring faith in the office will be a tall order. We hope Nyhoff succeeds.

But we’re more concerned with how the council replaces Nyhoff and how that will affect this city’s problems. In replacing high-ranking employees, most organizations have a tendency to look at what the outgoing employee did poorly, then hire someone who does those things better. With that in mind, we have some suggestions:

• We’d like more transparency in dealing with the press and public. For instance, key staffers shouldn’t be strongly discouraged from talking to reporters.
• We’d like someone who is able to communicate vision, direction and expectations to staff and public. For instance, the latest general plan update was a train wreck that inspired those two recall attempts and has enraged the city’s neighbors to the north and west. Better communication could have dampened some of that.
• We’d like someone with a strong network for hiring technical staff, finding and retaining people who can start solving problems the moment they arrive.
• We also want a clear window into the hiring process as it unfolds. Oxnard and Riverbank both used the same executive search company, which conducted open forums with the finalists. The city should follow the same model.

Modesto needs a tried and true hand. This is not the time to take a flier on a bright-but-untested assistant in some faraway city. We need someone who has solved real problems in California. The city has an opportunity to find that person.

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