Ken Blackman, the reserved but formidable administrator who ran Santa Rosa as city manager for a nearly unheard of 30 years that coincided with dramatic growth, and who left it to others to debate whether the power he exerted crossed any lines, died early Saturday at his home in the city. He was 82.
A hands-on municipal executive who for decades kept mental notes as he jogged or cycled the streets and then alerted subordinates to potholes or graffiti or other issues requiring immediate attention, Blackman had struggled for several years with lung disease and other health challenges.
Taciturn, humble and content to remain in the background, Blackman possessed a unique view of the city he managed from 1970, when it was home to just over 50,000 people, until 2000, by which time its population had almost tripled. Also during his tenure, the city budget grew from $10 million to $160 million.
It was on his watch that the downtown mall was constructed, Annadel-Trione State Park was created and the city was roundly condemned for releasing 750 million gallons of treated effluent into the Russian River — then was widely praised for the ambitious project that pipes effluent more than 20 miles to The Geysers to generate steam for geothermal power.
Hallmarks of Blackman’s success include the fiscal well-being of a city whose finances were in shambles when he took the helm not long after the devastating 1969 earthquake, and sustained city facilities and services that exist to this day. He and his vision for Santa Rosa are credited with influencing, for three decades, virtually every aspect of Santa Rosa’s evolution.
“We have so many debts to a man that most people don’t even know we owe the debt to,” said Sharon Wright, a former councilwoman.
Blackman became accustomed to being characterized as wielding an iron fist, or being a pro-growth and pro-business puppeteer who had council members dancing on strings. He would calmly assert that what he was, always, pro-Santa Rosa.
There is no disputing that he made full use of the power the city charter bestows upon the city manager.
A Press Democrat headline in 1983 declared, “The reality is that city manager Ken Blackman is the true mayor of Sana Rosa, or at the very least, the sixth member of the five-member (later, seven-member) City Council.”
Santa Rosa attorney and former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco said flatly, “Ken ran the city. There was no two ways about it. If you had an idea, or wanted to accomplish something, he was the one you went to. He was very honest, and he would tell you then and there it was a go or no-go.”
But several former council members from across the political spectrum said Blackman’s use of power did not extend to dictating to them or dismissing them.
“I have nothing but good to say about working with him,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a progressive who was on the council through Blackman’s last three years as city manager.
“As a new person (on the council) I was pleasantly surprised how open Ken was,” he said. “Even if we had a different philosophy, I always felt I was able to talk with him and feel confident and learn things from him.”