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McLaughlin strives for open & transparent government

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POSTED April 16, 2012 1:52 a.m.

Karen McLaughlin never imagined she’d be city manager overseeing municipal operations serving nearly 70,000 people when she was hired to work for the City of Manteca 25 years ago.

McLaughlin was the guest speaker at the Manteca Tea Party Patriots meeting Thursday night at Chez Shari sharing a bit about her past, her feelings about the current status of things in Manteca and the shape of things to come.

The city manager said she appreciates working at the level of government that’s closest to the people that they serve even if it’s the level of government that people sometimes know the least about.

Providing an accessible city government, she said, is one of her goals. It is something that is becoming easier with advances in technology that can now beam a city council meeting onto an iPhone and allow for pothole complaints to be filed over the Internet.

“I believe that we’ve made great strides in bringing awareness in government into the homes of people who seek it,” McLaughlin said. “I personally take pride in being responsive and I think that all other levels of government can learn from local government and strive to be more like the level of government that’s closest to the people.”

A Southern California native, McLaughlin moved to Northern California to major in journalism at Humboldt State where she would meet her future husband. She got her first reporting job at the Oakdale Leader and spent just over two years covering a variety of beats for The Bulletin.

It was a job as an executive analyst that allowed her to make the jump to the staff of the City of Manteca. It still allowed her to write but in a different capacity.

She was hired as Manteca’s full-time city manager last year after serving in a variety of assistant roles to the position.

Now that she oversees a staff of 340 and an operating budget of just over $124 million, McLaughlin makes it a point to ensure that all of the needs of the residents are being met in a timely fashion. She receives weekly updates from each city department outlining happenings and concerns that allow her to keep her fingers on the pulse and distribute resources where needed.

A “skeleton” operating crew, however, has changed the way that the city conducts its business. By cutting staffing by roughly 20 percent and watching the operating budget shrink by 17 percent in the last three years, sacrifices across the board have been needed to prevent the sort of financial meltdown that have plagued larger cities.

She praises Manteca’s employee bargaining units for committing to renegotiations that allowed for some of those cutbacks to take place. Unsustainable pension and healthcare plans, she said, can sink city governments – like what is happening in Stockton. Exorbitant healthcare costs for retirees added to existing debt payments for downtown revitalization efforts have brought Stockton to the brink of financial collapse.

Manteca, however, continues building more than 300 houses a year – more, McLaughlin said, than every other city in the county combined. Manteca is moving ahead with city projects that have been in the pipeline such as the construction of a new animal control shelter, the vehicle maintenance center across the street and soon the transit center on Moffat Boulevard at South Main Street.

All of it, she says, starts by conducting things in the open and being approaching.

“I’ll be walking through the office and if a phone is ringing, I’m going to answer it,” she said. “People will look at me and ask, ‘Why did you answer it?’ Because it was ringing. I take pride in that level of service to our community.”

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