Lawrencium — number 103 on the periodic chart of elements — may be one of the few things on the planet with a shorter shelf life than city managers.
The Manteca City Council on Tuesday is expected to hire Toby Wells. He’ll be the sixth city manager in as many years when you tabulate all of the different ones that have been appointed since 2015 as either permanent or interim.
This is not a record. Just 31 miles south on Highway 99 in Turlock the council has changed city managers more frequently than many change their car’s oil. Turlock is tied with Manteca for the honor of the fastest revolving door in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
How does a city go through six city managers in six years? The answer is very expensively.
And we’re not just talking six-figure contract buyouts. It takes a heavy toll on a city to keep moving projects forward, to attract and retain the best and brightest for positions in mid-management or senior management as well as rank-and-file jobs such as police officers.
If you doubt that just ask Willie Weatherford. He’s the retired police chief with the California-ized Andy Griffith personality whose 12 year reign as mayor put the council and the city back on an even keel after a decade of fun and games.
Anyone willing to have a bad flashback just recall Manteca’s salad days as the dysfunctional Family City from 1995 to 2002. This was when:
*the council majority hired outside lawyers to the tune of $20,000 to investigate the council minority for alleged Brown Act violations.
*council meetings that started at 7 p.m. routinely went past midnight with the meeting record of the era adjourning at 3:35 a.m.
*a council member tried to have criminal charges filed against a speaker because he angrily pointed a finger at her from the podium that she interpreted as a death threat.
*a city council member was found guilty of trying to shake down the city attorney.
*council meetings were on Monday nights and if the San Francisco 49ers were on even the most fervent red and gold fan would switch channels between the game and meeting coverage on Comcast 97 because they didn’t want to miss one of the council’s frequent verbal brawls.
*the council appointed a blue ribbon citizens panel to investigate alleged golf course operation financial improprieties several council members claimed existed. After 16 weekly meetings and $14,000 worth of staff the only official finding they could come up with was that the golf pro wasn’t on top of keeping the men’s locker room clean.
You get the picture.
Weatherford was police chief for part of that era. More than once when his department offered a job to an applicant they passed after looking further into the city’s operations and decided it was an unstable work environment.
That brings us to a point that hopefully elected leaders keep in mind now that four of the five current members of the council members are on their fourth city manager in four years.
They need to stay in their lanes.
In the past competent city managers with integrity were forced to retire after being told individual council members away from public or legal gatherings decided they would be fired if they did not immediately dismiss a mid-management employee.
This is not sound or even above board legal governance as defined by California law. It is more reflective of a banana republic.
Manteca thankfully has a city attorney who has no aversion to being a broken record when it comes to council individuals crossing the legal limit line when conducting city business.
The rules are in place to assure transparency and orderly government. Mistaking being deliberate and following all the rules as incompetence because the world isn’t changing fast enough for you as an individual council member is something you’d expect of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland not of an elected official conducting the people’s business.
While it is true that some city managers were a poor hire or a bad fit, you’ve got to ask how Manteca that has had at least three modern Insanity Eras (the recall of the 1980s was the first) where councils, city management or both went haywire, why is the rapid city manager turnover a Johnny-Come-Lately a more recent development?
There’s always been a wide array of applicants that are gluttons for punishment when the city manager job is advertised.
Are the latest versions of city managers faint of heart, grossly incompetent, more susceptible to fragile ego syndrome or have fear of commitment?
Or have councils gone wild opting not to respect decorum, do grunt work to build consensus, or follow the rules of engagement?
The frustrated public may misunderstand the legal constraints cities have to operate under but elected officials after they have served a month or so should know better.
Manteca is a general law city. The city manager is hired by the city to run the city on a day-to-day basis. Council members are elected to hire a city manager who in turn runs the city.
Council members only have one vote and cannot act unilaterally. The mayor’s extra power is to run meetings and not micromanage the city.
Individual council members cannot direct the city manager to do their bidding. That only happens when the council majority agrees on a course of action.
The tendency for people is to be cynical.
As such there are some who are likely making odds as you read this on how long Wells will survive before he has even officially been hired.
It is everyone’s best collective interest if Wells succeeds and excels as city manager.
To do that the council needs to not pile on projects, to be very clear on the directions they want Manteca to take, and refrain from promising the moon to residents.
Making everything moonshots as Manteca has done way too often over the years is a boom or bust proposition that has landed the city some impressive success stories but has led to implosions or efforts that fizzle out more than once such as drives to build a new police station, build a new library, add more recreation amenities, and even build a new city hall.
And for those that come out on the losing end of a council decision, keep in mind you’re supposed to bury the hatch — preferably not in the back of those with opposing views — and move on.
The biggest disservice an individual council member can do to the community when they come out on the losing end is to take the hatchet and do a non-stop Lizzie Borden act to prevent the will of the majority from moving forward.
Hopefully Wells will be able to navigate the challenges this city is facing which includes the need for a laser focused city council.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at email@example.com