We’ve seen this scenario before.
A recently minted Manteca City Council eager to change the culture at City Hall while at the same time pushing for economic expansion.
New labor contracts put in place within the past year.
Reserves are at record levels.
Spending plans are being revved up to implement a new vision for Manteca.
A first-time city manager, interim or not, picked by the council majority with the expressed purpose not just to run the city but to boldly go where Manteca has never gone before.
There is the birth of a radical idea for a San Joaquin Valley town of Manteca’s size. First time around it was a massive indoor waterpark resort at a time when there were none west of the Mississippi River. This time it is the possibility of an ice arena that could morph into a 5,000 seat event center.
Meantime the fruits of long-term endeavors started by previous councils have just opened — Bass Pro Shops and the rest of Orchard Valley as well as Costco — following on the heels of Big League Dreams. Great Wolf resort is now within months of opening.
Among all this a crisis is brewing. Back then it was the mortgage meltdown triggered by liar loans that was posed to plunge the country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The Great Recession, as many dubbed it, is about to appear more like a bump in the road in the rear view mirror given what economic collateral damage the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to create.
And before the plunge starts, the neophyte city manager — put in place by the council majority — is sounding the alarm that there is an ice berg ahead and scrambling to alter course realizing the only way to keep Manteca afloat and providing day-to-day services is going to require deploying life jackets in the form of reserves and preparing to make unpopular decisions.
The last time around it was a collaborative effort. The city manager opened the books and shared the probable scenarios going forward not just with the council and employees but the community as well.
A 15-member blue ribbon committee was formed by the council at the city manager’s suggestion to pour over the financial data and trends and weigh course of action to advise city leaders on the best way going forward.
The committee was carefully crafted from a broad base of citizens from retirees to young professionals. Employee group representatives and department heads sat in on the meetings.
The buy-in from this process and how those 15 people helped “educate” community members as to the extent of the perils Manteca faced if the city didn’t make tough decisions that required everyone to take the proverbial bitter medicine was key to Manteca addressing financial pitfalls ahead of most cities. It also allowed Manteca to keep economic growth going fairly strong as the recession unfolded while it came to a virtual halt everywhere else. It also allowed the city not to slip into 100 percent survival mode as almost every municipality did and to keep major initiatives moving forward such as efforts to secure an indoor waterpark resort.
Had the city relied on consultants and not simply been transparent but actively engaged those on the frontlines as well as taxpayers in helping shape the solution the outcome would have been different while distrust and acrimony would have skyrocketed. It also helped at the time that then Mayor Willie Weatherford refrained from lecturing everybody and telling the world how brilliant he was — the same course taken by the rest of the council — so a true community grassroots solution could take hold to make sure Manteca not only survived the Great Recession but would end up thriving.
The city manager last time was Steve Pinkerton, the redevelopment guru who helped Stockton secure its major public amenities and private sector investment to start turning that city’s downtown around.
Pinkerton had his detractors before his first day in the job. The assumption was an RDA guy who could make economic development happen he would come up with deals that would imperil the city by leaving taxpayers holding the bag. There was also talk about what does a RDA director know about keeping water flowing and a city safe.
Miranda Lutzow is the current city manager with the qualified “interim” in front of her title for almost four months after spending nearly three months as the acting city manager.
Prior to Manteca both Pinkerton and Lutzow pursued career paths through various endeavors at other cities in a bid to prep them for their personal goal of one day working as a city manager.
Pinkerton was intrigued by what Manteca was pursuing to strengthen the local economy. Lutzow is intrigued by the desire of the council to change an entrenched municipal culture that can have a life of its own in a bid to further empower city workers and improve services for residents.
Pinkerton was hired through an application/recruitment process that the council at the time opted to pursue.
Lutzow was hired as the city’s administrative services director — overseeing human resource and risk management in addition to the added on responsibility of the information and technology department — by an application/recruitment process that then City Manager Tim Ogden instigated.
As a footnote in the middle of the Great Recession, when Pinkerton opted for take a job in the City of Davis the council did not due a search for a city manager after making Karen McLaughlin acting city manager. Instead after a few months the council at the time outright appointed McLaughlin city manager.
It is against that backdrop the current council will decide Tuesday night how to go about putting in place a city manager that has neither the words “acting” nor “interim” before their title.
What they do — or don’t do — will reverberate through Manteca’s economy for years to come.
It will lay the foundation for how the city weathers the economic free fall we are now in and how we climb out of the hole it creates.