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About this blog: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I lived in high-density housing and experienced transit-oriented services first hand. During high school and college summers I worked in Manhattan drafting tenant floor plans for high-rise office buildi...  (More)

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How to Hire a City Manager

Uploaded: Sep 11, 2015
But first, I'm glad to see the right-turn obstructions on Alma and Ravenswood consigned to history. (It takes a village to get the right changes, I suppose.)


My father entertained me as a kid with this story of the South Pacific: After a week of flying around the commanding officer says, "Good news! Today is laundry day! We get to change our laundry. Smith, you change with Adams; Adams you change with Miller; Miller you change with Smith." I'd be on the floor howling with laughter.

This, sadly, illustrates how cities actually change city managers. We could all be howling in consternation at the lack of imagination in the traditional processes in selecting and vetting candidates for this visible role.

Hiring city managers and top positions is generally a closed loop system, with relatively few positions available, but many candidates. Candidates include existing city managers including those looking to move up, or down in their careers, and senior management in specific departments, such as planning. And for the most part a City Manager leaves one city, and a fresh is hired from another city.

City Managers have made the news recently ? in Redwood City and Portola Valley. As amply noted in the Almanac the City Manager of Portola Valley left under the ambiguous reason "involuntary resignation" ? a contradictory expression of neither termination nor resignation, but a quid-pro-quo allowing the City Manager to leave with 6 months severance, and avoid having a termination on his resume. Maybe behind closed doors the powers said something like "If you resign in the next 20 seconds" we wont fire you. (Actually similar events occur the commercial world as well).

Looking back historically, there was a point until about 2000 where senior staff had long tenures, for example, City Manager Jan Dolan and Finance Director Uma Chokkalngham. Since then the tenures have been much briefer. I wonder of theres an indirect correlation to the the Silicon Valley economic booms that creates more turnover. At some point Menlo Park will need to identify candidates for a new City Manager. The traditional method is to retain one of the few of headhunters who specialize in senior minicamp staff. Headhunters maintain a Rolodex of people they've previously placed, or people they've met at conferences. But most likely you'll get a list of candidates from central casting: people on their way up, or on their way down in their careers. It's a closed loop system so the effect is that cities exchange city managers.

I propose that we consider our parameters for future Menlo Park city managers - now, before the day when we need to do so in panic mode.. Our present search process prevents the city from considering other types of candidates. It could be improved. Menlo Park, for all its Silicon Valley, VC, startup and Facebook allure, could be much smarter and creative.

First, there are local opportunities to locate the next city manager. Chief Bob Jonsen seems to be a good manager and gets along well with the public. Former councilmember John Boyle is an MBA and spent a lot of time studying city finance. Former City Manager Dave Boesch related well to residents and businesses, and was engaged in city activities as a parent. I always thought that Development Services Manager Justin Murphy would be great, like a chef that has to eat his own meals, Justin, a long-time neighbor, would have to live with the consequences of his decisions

One would think that cities grow talent in house - from Assistant City Managers, Planning Department of Finance. That this fails to happen in Menlo Park suggests something amiss.

I'd look at other cities to consider their city managers. Santa Monica and Beverly Hills come to mind, and put out feelers before we ever have an opening.

I'd look at universities with strong government programs, like Harvard's Kennedy School of government. Look at their roster of courses and professors, and inquire whom they'd recommend. Menlo Park's own Justin Murphy mentioned above went to Kennedy.

But I wouldn't run first to headhunters with their closed loop rolodexes of candidates ? the 'laundry day' method. The headhunters tend to screen the candidates they supply. Cities should also have a look at the choices they don't see to check the headhunter filtering bias.

Going forward, we should manage the employment contracts and manage expectations. They should start out with probation period for city managers, with a limited payoff for termination ? not 6 months, not 9 months. Goals should be clear and achievable; and meeting those goals should be apparent to everyone, including the council. Agreements should have covenants not to solicit employees when they leave. Hiring contracts could include an undated resignation letter to the council. I know this is a hardball approach, but in the absence city councils are doing a silly dance when they want a new manager but lack the cohesiveness to act.

The presence of Facebook in our midst creates the 'Facebook effect' ? there's international recognition. If Menlo Park considers itself a World-Class City, we should look the qualities of a World-Class City Manager.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Sep 11, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Stu - Thank you for a thoughtful piece. It would be nice to have a plan for this before a vacancy occurs.

Posted by Ed Klinenberg, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Sep 12, 2015 at 7:40 am

Stuart, your article today about effective approaches to hiring a very good city manager contains some excellent suggestions--thank you for writing and posting it. I hope some of the elected officials of Menlo Park read it and consider your ideas seriously.
My wife and I are rather recent residents to Menlo Park--we bought our house just 18 months ago--so we do not have a long historical perspective as many of our neighbors do. But already I see serious problems that should be solved soon.
For example, when the unfortunate death incident on the Caltrain tracks happened some months ago, I thought the City's response was totally unplanned and very poorly executed. The real cause of the incident was that the driver ignored the most basic rule of approaching any RR tracks: NEVER STOP ON THE TRACKS!! So in response, the City erected those horrible barriers that only made the intersection more dangerous. I actually observed two cars make U-turns ON THE TRACKS to try to avoid those barriers when they first went up! Eliminating the right turn onto southbound Alma Street by eastbound traffic on Ravenswood was a complete mistake and most of us quickly understood that--yet the City took months to finally announce that this would be remedied! A good city manager, in my opinion, should have observed this and should have fixed it very quickly---not months and months later!
Another problem was recently written up by a journalism student and published in The Post. Until I read that article, I had no idea that this situation was happening here! This one involves lower-income people who are driving through Menlo Park and are stopped by Menlo Park Police officers for various reasons. When one of those motorists is found to have an invalid driver's license, the officer usually impounds the car on the spot and then has the vehicle towed. This tow is charged to the motorist at $300 which is substantially higher than similar police-ordered tows in neighboring cities. Plus, those motorists are charged around $60 per day in "storage" fees by the towing company! To low-income people, this is a total economic crisis and disaster, and many simply abandon their cars because they cannot afford the fees! Nobody benefits from this. The city manager should start taking action to lower all those fees. In fact, I think the Menlo Park police officers should allow those motorists to drive home after they receive their traffic tickets and not punish the drivers for being low-income workers! There could be a penalty for not resolving the driver's license situation within 5 days--and the police know where each driver lives if follow-up is required. Is it moral and ethical for our little city to become a virtual trap for low-income people like those notorious southern speed-trap towns we sometimes read about?
In a town as small as Menlo Park, local government leaders should react to new problems very quickly! This is not New York or Chicago, and our problems are not as complex as one finds in such big cities.
I strongly believe we need imaginative, thoughtful city government employees at all levels. The city manager is the starting point, but I sure hope our elected officials really know what is happening here in our little corner of Silicon Valley and that they take thoughtful action to solve problems and act morally and responsibly while doing so.

Posted by Stu, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Sep 12, 2015 at 8:23 am

Ed, (And Peter)

Thanks for your comments. Actually it seems that the city will consider lowering the towing charges.

Posted by Friend of Henry, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 12, 2015 at 9:16 am

Your article contains some valuable information but dances around the essence of the problem. Here's what results when a city always selects city managers from the Ever Circulating Pool of City Managers:

* You get a CM who is more focused on the next job than on the current city

* As a result of the above, your CM is going to favor every project that comes down the pipeline, no matter how flawed. What looks better on a resume: "preserved the tranquility of a small city" or "added 20 million square feet of office space, built 30-story hotel, transformed former parks into dense housing"???

* The CM is going to have an existing network of cronies who scratch each other's backs as they move among jobs. Expect to see the same high-priced consultants and experts that your CM used at the last city. Your CM's allegiance is to these buddies, and the CM will somehow always find money in the budget for them, even if it means cutting back on services to residents.

* The residents should be ignored, especially those that have the audacity to write critical blogs. Instead, the CM (and staff) should assume they have the unilateral support of the 99% of residents who don't write letters or complain.

Some of the decisions this CM has made will be creating havoc for our city down the road. Meanwhile, he'll have moved on to a larger city. City managers rarely if ever have to answer for the mistakes they made. They just change jobs and their slates are wiped clean.

Posted by Dagwood, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Sep 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Geez, is this a heavy-handed hint that more change is on the way?

Posted by Good luck, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Sep 14, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Stu, it is the role of city council to hire the city manager. You can run in 2016. Good luck!

Posted by support, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Sep 14, 2015 at 9:52 pm

In reality, Portola Valley may now have trouble attracting a qualified city manager. Paul Collacchi helped create an environment where Jan Dolan found Scottsdale Arizona was more desirable than Menlo Park. We are fortunate that Menlo Park was able to attract Alex McIntyre to come, and we hope he sticks around. You and Elias Blawie are free to fixate on this issue ad nauseam, but the vast majority of residents are pleased with the city council and their support of city manager.

Posted by Alex M, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 14, 2015 at 11:51 pm

Thanks, mom! I didn't know you read the Almanac online!

Posted by Roy Thiele-Sardiña, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Sep 16, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Roy Thiele-Sardiña is a registered user.


I was part of the VERY open process that was used by MPK to hire Alex.

They enrolled community leaders to be part of the interviewing team. we broke into groups and interviewed ALL of the final five candidates.

The candidates were all stellar (and I mean that). The then Asst City Manager Starla Robinson was among the candidates. In the end Alex M. received the highest scores, and was the recommended hire.

That we looked at both internal and external candidates and the BEST candidate came from outside is EXACTLY how we operate a Business. I have several CEO's in my portfolio companies that were internal hires (Promotions) and in several cases we have gone to the outside for the eventual leader.

One of the reasons we lose people from within our City is that there are better (read bigger) places to work out there. It certainly doesn't help that our residents are PAINS in the ASS to every city employee. Our city councils of the past didn't help......

People move from companies all the time and we survive. The GREAT thing that is available to private industry that is NOT available to our City Manager is that we can get rid of unproductive and disruptive people easier.

Roy Thiele-Sardina

Posted by menlo resident, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Sep 17, 2015 at 1:53 pm

"but the vast majority of residents are pleased with the city council and their support of city manager. "

Dear support,

You know this, how?

Roy Thiele-Sandina:

"It certainly doesn't help that our residents are PAINS in the ASS to every city employee."

Ya, it's so irritating when residents get uppity about their City and their tax money. The nerve.

Posted by Stu Soffer, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Sep 17, 2015 at 3:22 pm

Stu Soffer is a registered user.

My comments above, while spurred by current events, is directed towards the future.

I'd like to see suggestions for criteria going forward - experience, demeanor, track record, references. Some may be better at execution than strategy.

And suggestions for candidates as illustrations of characteristics.

One problem (that Roy should know) is that candidates who may be skilled at interviews may fall short in the clutch and execution. Which reminds me of the Peter Principle. (Web Link

Posted by Good luck, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Sep 17, 2015 at 4:15 pm

Unfortunately, it appears Stu was not one of the "community leaders" enrolled by city council. With Cohen and Fergusson on council at that time, it is surprising that Stu did not make the cut.

Posted by Mike Keenly, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 19, 2015 at 8:36 pm

Stu, you're correct that a successful interview candidate does not always correlate with successful performance in the position. This happens frequently in the private sector.


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