Did Modesto City Manager Jim Holgersson do something wrong?
Did money go missing at Tenth Street Place? No, there’s no hint of malfeasance.
Has there been sexual harassment or misconduct (it’s happened before at City Hall)? Absolutely not.
Was Holgersson difficult to work with; a closet tyrant? Nope, nice guy according to most accounts.
Was he incompetent? Quite the opposite, in our estimate and that of many others.
Without explanation, four members of Modesto’s City Council have decided Holgersson must go. After dozens of conversations with those in and out of government, we’re left wondering: Why?
Holgersson was hired to run a city still dormant following the Great Recession, at odds with the county, fighting legal battles with its electricity and water provider, and confronting disgruntled unionized employees. He calmly helped right the ship.
He improved relations with the county; led talks that reached settlements with the Modesto Irrigation District and helped negotiate contracts with employee unions (not always entirely to their satisfaction). He helped implement a more realistic and transparent budgeting process. More importantly, Holgersson helped re-establish a sense of professionalism at city hall and greatly strengthened the city’s ties to its neighborhoods.
No one’s perfect. Holgersson was infamously hands-off in some areas, not a detail guy. On some issues, The Bee would have preferred a greater sense of urgency: dealing with city employees caught sleeping on the job, a more coherent approach to rising pension costs and the resulting hiring freeze that exempts public safety employees (the largest and most expensive group).
Regardless, we vastly preferred Holgersson to his predecessor, Greg Nyhoff, a secretive man who created a bunker mentality that infected all of city hall. For that, especially, Holgersson was an excellent antidote.
Apparently, it wasn’t enough for Tony Madrigal and three of the council’s political neophytes – Mayor Ted Brandvold, Mani Grewal and Kristi Ah You.
Perhaps Holgersson wasn’t meeting their expectations. Or perhaps their expectations were not realistic.
In any city the size of Modesto, politics play a role. Forces outside city hall – businesspeople, developers, activists, even philanthropists – push their priorities. That’s not always a negative. But policies are supposed to be decided on the dais, not in backchannel conversations.
Our guess is that Brandvold and Holgersson simply didn’t mesh. And while that’s not really a good enough reason to fire a competent manager, it’s far from uncommon. As one former city manager put it, “There are two types of city managers: Those who have been fired and those who will be fired.”
Still, dismissing a city manager sends a distinct and clear message to the city’s 1,200 employees. And we’re worried what message Holgersson’s departure delivers.
Competence doesn’t count? Openness, probity and cooperation aren’t valued? Neighborhoods aren’t important? Budgets should be less transparent?
The city will likely get many applicants for this opening. When the final candidates meet the council, we hope they ask: What did Jim Holgersson do wrong?
They deserve a better answer than we’ve gotten so far.