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McLaughlins 29-year journey as city worker sees stability, innovation & 52,000 more people
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Outgoing Manteca City Manager Karen McLaughlin is shown at the November 2013 gathering marking the opening of the Crothall Laundry on Airport Way. - photo by HIME ROMERO/Bulletin file photo

Karen McLaughlin’s tenure as Manteca’s city manager came to an end this week.
As city managers go — especially in Manteca — she was in a class by herself. What makes her unique not just from the perspective of Manteca but for California cities in general is the fact McLaughlin devoted over 29 years working for the same city.
Toss in two years before that as a newspaper reporter covering Manteca’s city government and you have someone who has had a ringside seat, a worker bee role, and ran the show during the course of three decades.
“I would say overall what I’m proud of — not just as city manager but as part of the city team for 29 years — is the way in which this community has grown,” said McLaughlin who served as city manager just shy of five years. “We have developed a balance of residential, commercial, and industrial projects, while ensuring quality in doing so.”
McLaughlin came on board as an analyst in the city manager’s office in 1986.  It wasn’t exactly heady times for Manteca. A severely divided community — one fraction wanted a 2 percent growth rate imposed and another 6 percent after 1,500 homes were built in a single year — saw unchecked housing development as having the potential to rip the fabric of the community to shreds. The City Council at the time took a King Solomon approach and imposed the Central Valley’s first ever growth cap that allowed the issuance of housing permits based on 3.9 percent of the housing inventory at the end of the previous year. It avoided another divisive election just five years after voters recalled the mayor and two council members.
The city also proved to be no match for growth.  At one point in the mid-1980s the city was down to a general reserve of just over $1,000, the city couldn’t open the recently completed fire station on Louise Avenue because they couldn’t afford to staff it, and whenever the police department needed new patrol units the city bought surplus CHP cars that already had 92,000 miles on them when they were placed into service in Manteca.
The political upheaval from that recall election derailed efforts to bring jobs to Manteca and prompted more than a few residents to ask out loud why Manteca couldn’t be more like Tracy that was landing distribution centers and retail.

She leaves behind
a different Manteca
As she departs Manteca has a 25 percent general fund reserve of $8.6 million, voters stepped up public safety staffing by embracing a half cent sales tax that augmented general fund staffing with 15 police officers and 15 firefighters, and the city puts aside money each year for vehicle and major equipment purchase year that allowed the delivery a month ago of a new $500,000 replacement fire engine.
The recent councils when they disagree no longer delve into three-ring circus political infighting. Manteca has made deals to lure retail and amenities to the city that they would not have been able to obtain. The list includes Spreckels Park — with textbook harnessing of development agency funds to turn blight into an economic engine — Bass Pro Shops and the Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley, Costco, Big League Dreams and Del Webb at Woodbridge whose residents’ spending power helped Manteca businesses and restaurants weather the Great Recession. They also devised a $1 land deal that secured the future development of a county center in Manteca and not Tracy in the coming years to serve the South County. That prompted a frustrated Tracy resident to pen a letter to area newspapers six years ago asking why Tracy can’t be more like Manteca.
“The City Council, and City Councils of past, have made difficult decision that while they were not the easiest, have resulted in a better community,” McLaughlin said. “This includes creative financial partnerships that resulted in Big League Dreams, Spreckels Park, and the Promenade Center. There’s still work to do, but these creative strategies have not only put Manteca (in growth mode but has) balanced the desire to grow with ensuring revenues are there to support that growth (in the form of community facilities districts and Measure M).”
McLaughlin noted through it all rank-and-file city staff delivered for Manteca and its residents.
They did so by constantly looking for more efficient ways to do things and thinking out of the box for long-range savings and the ability to sustain growth. The latest example is the move to convert food waste into compressed natural gas to power the city’s fleet of nearly two dozen refuse collection trucks.
And how efficient and dedicated the city’s workers can be was illustrated 15 years ago when some council members pushed to have city services such as garbage collection and the wastewater treatment plant operation privatized to save money.
One bidder actually could run the garbage collection for slightly less less than the city but wouldn’t guarantee the price for longer than 18 months. The four firms that submitted bids to run the treatment plant didn’t even come close to matching what Manetas’s municipal workers were doing. The next lowest bid after the one submitted by staff based on operations at the time was $1 million higher.
“Not only was there no guarantee on the price (for garbage collection) for more than a year or so, but there was no way they could match the service,” McLaughlin said. “The refuse crews — just like all city workers — take great pride in serving Manteca residents.”
McLaughlin can rattle off complements city workers have received over the years including an elderly lady who was extremely happy that a refuse collector took a pause while on his route to untighten a jar lid for her.

City staff gets credit
for keeping costs low
McLaughlin pointed out it was the “stuff that isn’t sexy” that staff has kept their nose to the grindstone that has created situations such as water system that relies both on ground and surface sources. A state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant designed in “Lego” fashion that — while it took longer to do and cost more up front — makes adding capacity far less expensive and faster to do — to an unrivaled park system for a community of 75,000 residents.
And in the end it also translated into lower costs for ratepayers. There hasn’t been a garbage rate hike for 12 years while water and sewer rates have been unchanged for six years.
“I give city workers an ‘A’.” McLaughlin said when asked to rate their performance.
Then, after a few seconds of reflection, she modified her answer.
“Make that an ‘A’ minus,” she said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Looking ahead, McLaughlin said Manteca needs to address long-term water supplies and strive to work with other cities to convince the state to restore redevelopment but in perhaps a narrower fashion focusing on economic development opportunities and affordable housing.
“The state must recognize that business and industry continue to look outside California because they can do so cheaper, but we need to develop incentives to encourage exiting businesses to stay, and new businesses to start,” she said.
She is encouraged by what she sees as a “strong drive by the Chamber of Commerce, together with a commitment by some dedicated property owners, (to give) new life to new possibilities for downtown.”
“I see tremendous opportunity and renewed interest and enthusiasm for a more-vibrant downtown,” McLaughlin added.
Also high on her list for the future is the council and staff’s continued commitment to enveloping the family entertainment zine including a resort hotel, waterpark, and conference center.
“We have made great progress in entitling this land to better the position the city (has) in attracting the right partner, and under appropriate, acceptable terms.”
There were 23,000 people in Manteca when McLaughlin first reported for work 29 years at 1001 W. Center St. Today as she leaves, Manteca is at almost 75,000 residents.
“It’s been a rewarding experience,” McLaughlin said on Thursday as she was working to make the transition of the city manager’s job to Elena Reyes as smooth as possible.
McLaughlin noted she never set out to be a city manager.
“This is about as far as you can get from what I thought I’d be doing,” McLaughlin said.
She has no regrets given that she has worked for 29 years with the level of government that has the biggest impact on people’s lives although it is often the level of government they know the least about.
That’s because as long as toilets flush, water flows from faucets, garbage is collected and police and fire respond no one has big issues.
“It (local government) is the closest to people and the one that impacts their lives on a daily basis,” McLaughlin said.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email