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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.”

Noting Blackman’s 30 years on the job, an exceptionally rare achievement for a city manager, Rabinowitz said, “To have that kind of tenure, you have to be able to work with all kinds of people.”

Marsha Vas Dupre, another of the council’s former liberal voices, said Blackman was “a very principled person” who worked at being evenhanded with her and others.

“I think I was one of his biggest advocates for his fairness,” she said.

Another former council member, Donna Born, noted that by his own choice, Blackman never had an employment contract with the city. So had a majority on any of the many city councils seated during his three decades decided he was exercising too much power, Born said, “He could have been fired at any time, or quit.”

“He never forgot who he worked for,” she said.

Born recalled that in 1990, Maureen Casey joined the council with an intent to get Blackman dismissed. She got to know him and changed her mind.

Casey told The Press Democrat in 1999, “Everyone wants to can him until they get there and work with him and realize he’ll lay down and die for Santa Rosa.”

Blackman came to the role of city manager from the experience not of administrator but of a city planner. A native of Spokane, Washington, he graduated in 1959 from Whitworth College, where he studied economics and business, and earned a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Washington.

He first went to work for Santa Rosa in 1965 as the assistant planning director. Prior to that, he’d served as the assistant planning director for Richmond and as Eureka’s planning director.

When Santa Rosa City Manager George Minturn retired to go into private business in 1970, a council composed of Mayor Jerry Poznanovich, Hugh Codding, Clement “Ting” Guggiana, Gregory Jones Jr. and John Downey awarded the position — the city’s highest paid and most demanding post — to the 34-year-old Blackman. The promotion boosted his salary about $1,500, to $21,648.

“The City Council expects an efficient, well-run city. My job is to see that it’s done,” he told The Press Democrat at the time. “It’s possible that I will be more active within governmental and department activities if for no other reason than my age and vigor. Departments will see more of me. There will be more dialogue and rapport.”

In 1974, Blackman hired Sal Rosano as the city’s new police chief.

“He always had sort of a stern countenance,” Rosano said. “He had a dry sense of humor and lot of people didn’t understand that.”

The retired chief recalled that Blackman was fiscally responsible to a fault. “It was a task to get money out of him.”

Said Gaye LeBaron, the Press Democrat columnist and author of Santa Rosa history books, “It’s safe to say the town changed a great deal under Blackman’s leadership.”

If the city manager was convinced that something would be good for Santa Rosa, LeBaron said, “I think it was going to happen.”

Former City Council member Mike Martini said he’s aware that over the years Blackman was accused of dominating the council.

“I would actually contradict that position,” he said. “I really do believe he was the consummate city manager and he truly understood the role of the city manager, to enact the will of the City Council.”

Martini said Blackman certainly was persuasive, and that persuasion was rooted in his extensive knowledge and institutional memory of the city he’d served since 1965.

If Blackman wanted something done, Martini said, he would make his pitch and he would count whether there were enough votes on the council to make it happen. If the votes weren’t there, the ex-councilman said, “He would never, ever buck the majority.

“Never did he push me into any corner,” Martini said.

Many at City Hall relied on his firm hand and strong will. When the late Mayor Jack Healy was running for one of his three terms on the City Council, he said he was asked on the campaign trail how he planned to keep Blackman under control, because it was clear he ran the city.

“If he didn’t we’d fire him and get someone who will,” Healy was quoted as saying.

Keith Woods, executive director of the North Coast Builders Exchange and former head of Santa Rosa’s Chamber of Commerce, said Blackman did not walk in lockstep with business interests. But, said Woods, Blackman clearly understood “that none of the good arts or social programs, or other things that the city wanted to do for the citizens of Santa Rosa — none of those were possible unless there was a strong and vibrant business community.”

After he retired from the city, he worked locally as a planning and development consultant.

The convention center named after him at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel sits on the former Grace Brothers Brewery site that was cleaned up and developed in the last decade of his tenure with taxpayer help.

Blackman was known for his long workdays and for collecting issues in need of attention while running or cycling for miles a day. Aside from work, he did indulge his passion for hunting, fishing, restoring vintage automobiles and spending time with his wife, Dee. “We would have been married 60 years on Sept. 1,” she said Saturday.

He is survived also by daughters Jennifer Blackman of Bolinas and Katie Bicknell of New Zealand, and four grandchildren.

Interment will be private. Blackman’s family expects to make plans for a celebration of his life.

Editor’s note: This version of the story corrects the name of Katie Bicknell.

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