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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 | The job market may not be so good in most industries these days, but one area of opportunity blooms at the top levels of various bureaucracies. Several of the region’s public agencies are experiencing turnover.
The searches are on for a new president for the Centre City Development Corp. and one for the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. Both are very well paying jobs (though one will probably not be as lucrative as before). The San Diego Mayor’s Office just recruited three new talents to replace one very strong personality at press secretary. The Housing Commission just got a new leader.
And I just came across the newest job announcement:
Wanted: New City Manager, City of Chula Vista.
Qualifications: Experience dealing with a group of petty, childish and perpetually bickering City Council members preferred. A demonstrated success managing 1,000 embittered and worried employees desired. Ability to artfully shuffle papers in such a way to be able to cut budgets without actually cutting anything required. Experience building massive bay-front convention centers without actually spending money a must. Supernatural powers to reverse the course of the national economy and get people buying homes again a plus!
Benefits: A great parking spot! We really have a beautiful City Hall.
I was surprised to see the announcement. Just last week, I walked into Chula Vista City Hall and sat down in an unoccupied office where a Segway Personal Transporter stood gathering dust. The Segway was there ostensibly to help bureaucrats traverse the vast grounds of the complex. But it appears to be just stored in the office now as a kind of reminder of the excesses of just a few years ago when San Diego’s sprawling southern suburb seemed to be drowning in cash. After all, the office where it sits once hosted a top city bureaucrat, one of the many officials whose job no longer exists.
I sat in the office and waited just a bit. I had an appointment with City Manager David Garcia, who was a bit late. He had been in a meeting with the City Council until 3 a.m. that morning. And when he came in to the office, he had a slight cheer but the bulging eyes and distant look of a very tired man.
I didn’t realize that the marathon City Council session that kept Garcia awake was one of the last in a series that led to his dismissal this week. Fifteen months ago, Garcia started his job and upon looking at the city’s books immediately declared that the city was on the path to insolvency — that it would default on its bond debt and end up in ruin if it stayed on the same road.
Leaders of big cities don’t say this kind of thing lightly. And regardless of what Karl Rove says, Chula Vista is a big city these days, with big city problems and brutal big city politics. Not long ago, the much smaller city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy and it made national news as the largest municipal failure since the 1994 bankruptcy filing of Orange County. California may lead the country on many trends, but on municipal failings, it’s unrivaled.
Since he started, the number of budgeted employees of the city of Chula Vista has gone down from 1,200 to 1,000. He’s said goodbye to top managers. He’s tried to dampen the effect on the budget of five years of promised raises the City Council gave to its firefighters, police and municipal workers.
“We’re at a sustainable budget now,” he said. “But there are concerns about further revenue reductions and costs are going up.”
When Garcia took over he demanded that subordinates make realistic and very conservative revenue projections. Then he actually decided to count on even less money coming in than that. And even less money did come in.
Each time revenue projections come up short, a cut has to be made. Last week, when I met him, Garcia was in the midst of the latest round of cuts. He wanted to eliminate nine positions from the Development Services Department. When the housing market was hot, the department could hardly keep up with the demand for new permits and inspections. Now, nothing is being built in Chula Vista and the staff has found itself looking for work to stay busy, drawing complaints that they are over-zealously looking for infractions and code compliance problems.
Garcia recommended eliminating nine positions. In government parlance, this means that most of the people will find other jobs in the city. Still others will move to another government nearby. But even with this repositioning, three people were going to lose their jobs without a new option. It was causing heartburn for the City Council, whose antacid has always been to fling rancid accusations at each other. Either the mayor spends too much money on her car or staff or the council members are pocketing legal fees for their own troubles. Around and around it goes. There are more civil discussions between parents and umpires on little league baseball diamonds.
Meanwhile, the city sinks. During the boom times, the city took out loans to pay for the roads and sewers and other amenities that new subdivisions needed. Developers promised to pay the city back for these with each house they sold. The selling stopped. The developers disappeared. And Garcia didn’t know how the city would pay back those loans.
It’s a common theme. The city took out huge loans to pay for the new City Hall and other fire stations and police stations. It went nuts. How did it plan to pay for them? Why, with the fees the developers were paying to build all those new homes, of course. Again, the building stopped, the developers dried up. But the loan repayment continues.
Garcia told me that the city was not on the path to defaulting on these loans. It can make its payments. But the city’s economy and the building industry has to revive within 24 months. The city’s managers have immersed themselves in financial projections. They study the foreclosure market like bond traders on Wall Street. But they suffer from the same instinctual optimism that they felt two years ago when they declared that they could not imagine a time when Chula Vista did not grow — did not build homes.
They were shocked when that very thing happened. But they shouldn’t have been.
In the happy days, the city promised its employees raises during the boom time. Not just raises for those years. No. They promised raises every year well into the future, regardless of what happened to the economy. This not only boosts the budget and burden now, but it also boosts the cost of the pensions all of these employees are accruing. Chula Vista’s annual payment to its pension system has skyrocketed.
And then there’s the last shoe. Chula Vista’s director of inter-governmental affairs calls Sacramento daily to find out what’s going to happen with the state budget. She has estimated that the city could lose up to $7 million in revenue, though she expects less than half that to actually be lost. This may not seem like a lot, but there is no cushion in Chula Vista and such a cut will mean more layoffs.
At least it should. The dysfunctional City Council could not even agree to protect taxes and fees the city already charges. There will be more revenue losses.
There are some city managers who see it as their job to placate their nervous bosses on city councils — giving them what they want (low taxes) and avoiding what they don’t want (painful and unpopular cuts). And some of them are clever enough to push off budget obligations even in the toughest of times. David Garcia, whatever you think of him now, was not one of those managers. He spoke with a sense of reality about the situation all local cities are in and he didn’t hide the necessary pain.
If the City Council, consumed with short term convictions, chooses someone the politicians can bully, Chula Vista will someday fall off the rails and ground to a halt.
So why do they even need to choose a new manager? Why was Garcia fired without an explanation? I don’t know. A month ago, the local newspaper revealed that Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox had officially chided Garcia for viewing what was called “inappropriate” images on his computer. Cox and Garcia agreed that the matter had been settled between the concerned employees who had complained and Garcia. The word “inappropriate” implies quite a spectrum. Managing a fantasy football team, for instance, could be “inappropriate” but so could viewing pornography.
The fact that the matter had been handled to supposedly everyone’s satisfaction implied that whatever Garcia was viewing was more on the former side of the spectrum than the latter. Garcia’s attorney, Bob Ottilie, said that the images were vacation photos. Again, “vacation photos” can include quite a spectrum of images. And there is no excuse or apologizing for a man who would create a hostile work environment by displaying nude pictures or something.
Unfortunately, the city has, to date, not released the details about what was inappropriate.
So only a few people know what was happening. And the one who seemed most interested in getting rid of Garcia and sharing what was supposedly inappropriate with reporters — City Councilman Steve Castaneda — did not return my call for comment.
I asked Mayor Cox in a dozen different ways to share some insight about what had happened. If Garcia had played better with Castaneda and others, would he have kept his job? What changed between when she seemed OK with the issue between Garcia and now when she joined the 4-1 majority that had him fired?
She wouldn’t say.
OK. I went at it differently. Had Garcia’s tough approach to balancing the budget created enemies?
“Any time you’re involved in a situation in which you are in a hiring freeze and the employees are asked to do more and any time you’re involved in layoffs or diminished opportunities the employees will tend to compete and there will be people who are concerned,” Cox said.
In other words, yes.
So was this partly why Garcia was fired?
Again, she wouldn’t say.
“The City Council believed we needed to make a change in order to move forward together. It became clear that this action was in the best interest of the city,” Cox said.
“In order to move forward” is an interesting way to put it. This implies that whatever it was that some City Council members were not going to put behind them what had besmirched Garcia. The dysfunctional body would apparently function even worse.
Yes, that’s the last thing Chula Vista needs.
The city is sick to the bone. It bet on the housing market just like all those investment banks on Wall Street did. And it lost. But the city, unlike those banks, has a guaranteed client base. Unlike a bank, the city can force its market to pay for its services. So it will survive in some form. And it sees a savior in a big-time rootin-tootin Southern company — Gaylord Entertainment — that will supposedly come and bring riches with its conventions.
Good luck with that. Gaylord is fickle, dodgy and demanding. The $300 million in taxpayer funds offered to the company wasn’t enough. Chula Vista and surrounding cities will be asked to give more. It’s going to be a rocky road.
The mayor and the City Council will now go about choosing a new city manager to deal with all this. The last three have not had very good experiences.
But if you’re interested in the job, there is a perk: A nice rarely used Segway Personal Transporter will be made available to help you get to the other side of the big beautiful City Hall.