Jeff Jardine

Go-to guy retreats victorious again

One crisp February morning, a dusting of snow capped the Diablo Range west of Modesto.

Jim Niskanen enjoyed the view from his corner office on the sixth floor of the city-county building downtown.

Of course, he knew the snow wouldn't last very long. Neither, as it turns out, will his view from the top.

Last week, the City Council hired Greg Nyhoff of Colorado Springs, Colo., as Modesto's new city manager. Niskanen, the director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods, has been Modesto's interim city manager since George Britton retired in January, and Niskanen became a finalist to fill the vacancy.

By the time Nyhoff reports to work June 1, Niskanen will be back in his office in the Parks and Rec department two floors below.

And, Niskanen said, he's fine with that. He'll do his best to help bring Nyhoff up to speed on the city's issues, which are many. He'll try to finish a budget that needs to be trimmed by $1.3 million more than the $14.5 million originally projected.

Shouldn't Niskanen be really, well, disappointed? Shouldn't he feel jilted because he's stepped in not once, but three times, to handle major roles within the city?

"It would be silly to say I wasn't disappointed," Niskanen said. But crushed? Absolutely not.

"If I wasn't appointed," he said, "it's not the end of the world."

You see, Niskanen never really set out to become a city manager. It wasn't something on his career radar until he got a taste of it as the interim guy in Modesto.

"For many people, me included, at a young age you aspire to be something," he said. "You work toward a career plan that gets you there."

His plan was to become a parks and recreation director. That's what he studied and trained for at San Jose State University.

In fact, he was more upset that he didn't get the parks and rec director's job in 1998, when then-City Manager Ed Tewes passed him over in favor of Jess Valenzuela, who lasted just five months. He resigned shortly after being investigated by police in a sexual battery complaint filed by a Modesto woman.

Niskanen became the department's interim director, and got the job permanently in 1999, when he was named to the post by then-interim City Manager Paul Baxter.

Since then, he's earned a reputation for being the city's go-to guy when other departments are in disarray.

A mess to clean up

In 2005, he doubled as the interim Public Works director and cleaned up a department left in shambles by former Director Peter Cowles and then-Deputy Director Robert Howard.

This was the department that, unbeknownst to the council, built an $84,000 steel building at the city's Jennings Road facility, and then denied its existence. This was the infamous "What Building?" which, upon further review, became the "Oh, that building."

This was the department responsible for a 1.2-million- gallon sewage spill into Dry Creek and claimed it was vandalism when, in fact, the problem involved a lack of maintenance. The state fined the city $152,000.

Public Works also violated the Municipal Code by paying $2.125 million over 18 months to Labor Ready for temporary workers.

In January 2006, Niskanen handed new Director Nick Pinhey a much-improved department.

Niskanen also doubled up by becoming interim director of the Community and Economic Development Department in April 2006, after Brad Kilger left to become Ceres' city manager.

"Public Works and Community and Economic Development gave me a view of the general city organization," he said. "It led the council to say, 'If you can do those other things, you can fill the interim city manager role.' "

Which is what happened when Britton retired. They made no promises about his getting the job permanently. Nor was it something he'd aspired to do throughout his career. Doing the job is what gave him the bug.

"This job gives you incredible reach into the entire (city) organization," Niskanen said. "A directorship is much different than a city managership."

He set out to improve communications between employees and managers. He began planning to implement changes in the City Charter through voter-approved measures M and N. He began preparing the city's 2008-09 budget, preserving the 8 percent reserve. He played a key role in bringing the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race to Modesto.

He enjoyed the duties enough that he decided to apply. Modesto View, a free monthly publication, campaigned openly for him to get the job in its February edition.

"To be a city manager in Modesto was too good of an opportunity to pass up," he said. "To me, it was win-win. I've never viewed these assignments in terms of being a caretaker. I've done things within the authority (of the position)."

It was fun while it lasted.

"When the council had multiple closed sessions over a monthlong period of time, that was indication they were looking at another candidate," Niskanen said.

Back to his original path

Niskanen didn't get the job. Now, like he's done after his previous interim assignments, he'll try to hand over an efficient, well-run organization to his successor.

He'll return to the fourth floor, to the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department that he's headed since 1999.

He probably won't apply for city manager jobs elsewhere, unless the right opportunity arises.

"This was a unique situation here," Niskanen said. "I'm not sure I'd compete very well (elsewhere). I have very, very good administrative and directorship experience. But there are lots of people whose career tracks were in smaller cities, preparing themselves to move up to bigger ones."

People such as Nyhoff, the newly hired city manager who, a few months from now, will move into the corner office.

Until then, Niskanen can enjoy his view from the top.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.