Jeff Jardine

City manager brings culture change to City Hall

City of Modesto interim City Manager Jim Holgersson has been named city manager.
City of Modesto interim City Manager Jim Holgersson has been named city manager. aalfaro@modbee.com

In May, the city of Modesto hired Jim Holgersson as its interim (translation: caretaker) city manager until the new city manager arrived.

Now, and paraphrasing from the “Pogo” cartoon strip, we have met the new city manager and it is he. The council had whittled its short list down to two finalists. But even though the other withdrew from consideration, Holgersson already had established himself as the best candidate for the job. They are now negotiating a contract, and barring any unforeseen glitches, he’ll be around for however long the job intrigues him.

“I’m an old Swede, and old Swedes have a tendency to live a long time,” the 63-year-old said. “I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Which is good for Modesto. When I met with him a few weeks ago, he impressed me on several fronts: He doesn’t have that stiff, distrusting demeanor of so many I’ve met over the years in government. He is personable and approachable. He listens. He brings a positive vibe to a community that can use one, and the desire to overhaul the culture at City Hall. Sometimes, that change can be made through internal policies.

Other times, it’s done by example.

When the recent Bowen Avenue road project dragged on for 11 weeks instead of the projected three or four, he was blunt about the reason: a poor relationship between the city and Modesto Irrigation District, which had to approve one element of the project. That, he vows, will improve, as will the city’s relations with the schools and business community.

“You form strong partnerships,” he said, which is what he did in previous jobs. He was vital in redirecting services to benefit long-neglected, low-income neighborhoods in San Jose, and in bringing various lobby interests together to obtain grant dollars when he worked in Arlington, Texas.

Holgersson also apologized to the Bowen Avenue residents and businesses for the delays.

“Sometimes, you mess up,” he said. “You admit it. You’re going to be found out anyway, so you might as well be upfront about it. It changes the way you’re viewed in the community.”

That represents a different way of thinking in a city where officials traditionally have denied, deflected or tried to spin whenever mistakes were discovered. And Holgersson is in a position to improve morale by expecting department heads to seek and value the input of city employees – the people in the field who deal with the residents daily. Several city employees told me they felt a huge disrespect seeping down from the executive offices on the sixth floor of 1010 10th St. during the time Greg Nyhoff served as city manager.

Holgersson’s task will be to stabilize a city staff that experienced great turnover under Nyhoff, who left for the same job in the city of Oxnard last spring. Holgersson seems to understand the need for a solid organization top to bottom – one that develops strong leaders from within and grooms any number of them to someday take over at the top in that city or be recruited by another.

In essence, a good city manager is like a first-rate coach or general manager whose legacy is not measured merely by victories and defeats but also by the people left in place to perpetuate the tenets that led to successes. Granted, some of the city’s best recent hires were made shortly before Nyhoff’s departure: Police Chief Galen Carroll and Utilities Director Larry Parlin. The city also hired the law firm of Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson as the city attorney, with Adam Lindgren as the city attorney and Jose Sanchez as assistant city attorney. They have proven to be more accessible and accommodating than their predecessor, Susana Alcala Wood.

But Nyhoff didn’t groom anyone to succeed himself. That is something Holgersson plans to do.

“It’s about creating the right culture,” he said. “We’re looking at starting a management academy. We want to develop a succession plan for every employee in the organization, and I would hope that when I leave someday, that there will be several people internally who can step into the city manager’s job.”

What Holgersson represents is the opportunity for a start with a fresh attitude based on more than three decades of experience. The interim title is gone.

Indeed, we’ve met the new city manager and it is he.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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