Santa Rosa faces many challenges in the months ahead, as underscored in the financial overview presented to the City Council on Tuesday. But no decision the council will make this year will be more important than picking a successor to City Manager Kathy Millison. No decision is likely to test this council's strained ability to work together as much as this one either.
History is not on the council's side. The last time Santa Rosa's elected leaders were asked to select a new city manager during an election year, the result was dissension and bitterness. It included a deep rift over the naming of an interim city manager, open disagreements over the search for a new top executive and a 4-3 split over the final selection of Millison in July 2010.
But there's reason to be optimistic this time around. First, Millison, to her credit, has given the City Council six months to find her replacement before she retires, which eliminates the need to find an interim city manager, the decision that triggered so much tension and backlash last time. Her long-term notice also provides ample time for the city to cast a wide net for applicants and go through the selection process.
But the burden still falls on this divided council to come to agreement on a city manager who not only will help Santa Rosa address its long-term needs but ensure the city is moving forward in executing the vision set forth in endless documents on shelves at City Hall. These include plans for creating transit-oriented mixed-use development at Railroad Square, reunifying Old Courthouse Square, rebuilding and possibly relocating City Hall and remodeling that old eyesore AT&T building downtown — a project that has been anticipated for years but has yet to come to fruition.
Granted, many of these projects have been held up or torpedoed for reasons beyond the city's control — the collapse of the housing market, the governor's elimination of redevelopment, the recession, etc. But that makes it all the more urgent that the City Council find a top administrator with a vision not just for what the city needs — a topic that requires little further debate — but how to make it happen in an era of limited resources and fewer development tools with which public agencies have to work.
The next city manager also will inherit a number of bookkeeping challenges that will require new thinking and astute leadership. Chief among them is the city's losing battle against rising pensions costs.
As the City Council was told on Tuesday, despite a soaring stock market, the creation of so-called second-tier pension systems for new hires and increased contributions by the city and by employees to the state Public Employees' Retirement System, the city's long-term unfunded liability continues to climb.
As reported on Wednesday, Santa Rosa is now behind some $251 million in setting aside enough money to pay for the retirement promises it has made to current and former employees. That's an increase of $53 million in just one year.
Given all of this, the city needs to find someone who not only has the knowledge and experience to work through these challenges but has the interpersonal skills to manage a city of some 1,200 employees while fostering the kind of public-private partnerships that will help create change outside City Hall.
Finally, given that this search also comes at a time when the city is looking for a new police chief and chief financial officer, it would behoove the city to find candidates who see Santa Rosa not just as a place of employment but as their current or future home. In recent years, Santa Rosa has had too many top administrators — police chiefs, city managers, etc. — who worked here but lived elsewhere. We realize the constitutional limitations on requiring where employees to live. But given the starting salaries the city is offering — $217,000 a year for the city manager — the city should be able to assure itself of gaining not just top administrators in their fields but at least a few more residents.