Monday, Sept. 10, 2007 | As a long time municipal executive, now retired, I frequently heard how the city of San Diego should be managed like the private sector or how the city should have managers from the private sector.

It’s interesting to hear the contrary point of view from Mayor Jerry Sanders. San Diego has had a long history as being a national leader in management and innovation so I can understand the mayor’s position and reliance on the past. However, the past 10 years has taught us all, city employees and citizens alike, that you can’t take good management for granted.

In my 35 years with the city, I worked directly with every city manager since 1975. Some were great, extremely intelligent, effective, and politically savvy. Others were average with some skills. Some were … well, look where we are now.

My point is this: Good managers make the effort to understand their environment, including politics, and operate effectively within it. They assess the employees they have under their authority and utilize them as effectively as possible or make changes as necessary. They inspire, they set goals, they add value, they hold their employees accountable.

The mistake is to presume that private sector or public employees as a group are better than one another.

In the early 1990’s, Mayor Susan Golding appointed a group of high-level private executives (CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s, presidents, vice presidents, department heads, etc.) to review city of San Diego operations and make recommendations for improvement. Their initial attitude before their study was clearly that city executives do not perform at the same level as private sector executives.

The city benefited greatly from their intervention and points of view, but by the end of the intervention, it was clear that both the private sector representatives and the city employees had a new respect for each other. The one issue that many of the private sector executives had trouble dealing with was the role of the mayor and City Council i.e. politics, and its impact on how the city does business. That is clearly one of the most significant differences between the public and private sector. Recent experience reinforces that and that was likely what lead Mayor Sanders to express his opinion.

There is another issue that warrants consideration. As I mentioned earlier, when Mayor Golding’s task force worked with city executives, each party came to respect the other and discussed issues as equals. Each had different backgrounds, but it was evident that both had the intellectual capacity, skill sets and initiative to mutually benefit the city. I have no quantitative data, but I assume that the private sector counterparts of the city executives were compensated at a significantly higher level.

I have not discussed this issue with Mayor Sanders and I certainly can’t speak for him, but were I in his position, I would be concerned about the level of quality of an executive from the private sector I could attract for what the city pays. Different values drive each of us in day to day decisions and in our careers. It’s no accident that some of us were attracted to public service and others to the private sector.

There are those, however, that have a strong sense of community and are looking to benefit the public. As an example, I would cite the program that grew out of Mayor Golding’s task force. Named Zero Base Management Reviews, executives (mostly retired) from the private sector volunteered their time to provide high-level reviews of city operations. Developed by Linc Ward, a retired telephone company executive and I (financial management director at the time), the program saved the city well over $100 million in operational improvements and was recognized by the Government Finance Officers Association as the best new management program in the nation.

It’s easy to point to pension costs and some of the highly publicized issues we all read about almost daily, but the real issue is management of those issues. A group of executives who can develop a cohesive team to bring innovation and meaningful solutions to the fore should be the goal. It shouldn’t be the private sector OR the public sector; it should be the right persons for the right jobs and the structures that facilitate the most meaningful input and beneficial decisions. Collaboration and input from all sectors will benefit the city.

In the past, it was the responsibility of the mayor and council to hire a city manager to manage the city’s day-to-day operations. It was, in my opinion, their most important function and one which they traditionally performed very well. Somewhere along the way, they forgot about that and both city employees and the public are living with the result. The pride of working for a city generally recognized as one of the best managed in the nation is gone. What’s left are unmet financial needs and confusion among the public about what is going on at City Hall.

Now, with the strong mayor form of government, it’s the mayor’s responsibility to bring the best talent to the city to address these many needs and it’s a challenging one.

Ernie Anderson is the former director of General Services for the city of San Diego. Agree with him? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.