Keeping Woodside on an 'even keel'
Money doesn't grow on trees, it's said, not even in Woodside, where the number of high net worth residents might lead one to suspect such trees exist. For a town to afford amenities such as a new park and well-paved roads — both of which Woodside has — money management is important.
If only all governments understood that. The Woodside public in 1993 "wanted to hang the Town Council, they were doing such a bad job," Mayor Dave Tanner said in recalling Susan George's arrival as town manager in March of that year. "She brought it back to an even keel," he said. "It had to be one of the hardest jobs that anyone ever had."
After nearly 19 years on the job, Ms. George retired Friday, Jan. 13. The Almanac interviewed current and former officials for this story.
Woodside's $1.7 million general fund budget faced a shortfall of $154,000 in 1993, coupled with a $900,000 debt on a short-term note and long-term debt of nearly $3.6 million, Ms. George said via email.
Her first budget, in June 1993, eliminated the shortfall, put $20,000 in reserve, lowered the short-term debt by $150,000 and made timely payments on the long-term debt, she said. The budget has been in the black ever since.
"I do think that the first council hired me because of the strength of my financial background," she said. "I was what they needed at the time and it worked out well."
"She is a financial wizard," former three-term councilwoman Carroll Ann Hodges said of Ms. George.
Andrea Gemmet, who covered Woodside for the Almanac for years, had high praise for Ms. George. "As a reporter, I have to say she is the best damn city manager and finance director I've ever worked with. Her budgets are miracles of clarity, context and good planning."
Former three-term councilwoman Sue Boynton described Ms. George as exceptionally honest, intuitively bright, hard working and very talented. Her financial leadership and character enabled the town to protect its historic assets and create new ones that reflect the community's identity, Ms. Boynton said.
"It's been a team effort," Ms. George said. "The councils I've worked with here have been fiscally conservative, as am I, and have lived by the town's financial management policies. They've generally accepted my recommendations over the years."
And if they didn't? Alternatives were included, some of which she may not have agreed with, former councilman Paul Goeld said. "She has her core beliefs (but) I've never seen her let them stand in the way," he said. The council came to rely on Ms. George to keep its focus on the big picture and to steer them through difficult bureaucratic jargon, Mr. Goeld said. "I thought she was very, very good at that."
OK, but what about difficult people? How did she fare with them?
Woodside has its "own particular flavor, style and challenges," Mr. Goeld said. There are pickup-driving residents, he said, with eight- and nine-figure net worths, people for whom "litigation is a blood sport," people unfamiliar with hearing the word "no" as a response.
At times, a local regulation will say "no," and a resident with pockets deeper than the town's will resent it and threaten a lawsuit, so attention must be paid. "It's a tough balancing act and I think (Ms. George) did a very good job of that," Mr. Goeld said. "She's the consummate professional."
"Believe it or not," said Denise Enea, fire marshal of the Woodside Fire Protection District, "the community of Woodside is a very complex place. Susan George has masterfully kept the town in check and has tackled some extremely complicated issues over the years."
"It's a truly bittersweet moment for the town," said former assistant town manager and now Town Manager Kevin Bryant. "She will be missed by everyone she has worked with over the years, and Town Hall and the town won't be the same. But, she has positioned the town very well to continue to thrive."
"It was a pleasure working for Susan," said Planning Director Jackie Young. "She is a rare blend of gifted intellect and grounded warmth."
"Susan has a remarkable ability to multitask, keeping the parts well oiled and the gears turning smoothly," said Councilman Ron Romines.
"Her heart and soul have been put into her job. She lived and breathed Woodside," Mayor Tanner said. "It's hard to see her go. I've watched almost everything she's done since the beginning."
"There's so many things about Susan," he said, in preparing a speech for Ms. George's going-away party. "I don't think you can cover it all in a single speech."