“If I had known that Modesto would become like it is, I would never have moved here.”—Casual comment from an elderly lady walking her dog.
Modesto residents who have lived in the community for many years are wondering when the city will hit bottom. The number of citizens contemplating a move to a better community can’t be determined, but the lack of population growth during the last ten years is an indicator.
With the departure of Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff at the end of May, the city may be at a turning point. Or it may be poised to continue its downward spiral. City manager is the key position in the guidance of a community towards prosperity or ruin. The city council MUST get this position filled with a highly competent individual.
In 1999, the city council under Mayor Carmen Sabatino hired Jack Crist as City Manager. Under his leadership, city government was streamlined and made more efficient. By 2003, the unemployment rate in the community hit its lowest level in 40 years. City finances were put in order.
For reasons that have never been disclosed, Jack Crist was fired by the Ridenour city council. Modesto has been in a downward quality of life spiral ever since the firing.
Sales Tax Measure Defeated
Mr. Nyhoff has not been as effective a city manager as the community needed him to be. His accomplishment was hampered due to inadequate tax revenue and bad economic conditions nationwide.
The recent defeat of the one percent sales tax was blamed on the lack of confidence in the Modesto City Council. However, the defeat may also be pegged to a lack of confidence in the city government run by Mr. Nyhoff. If residents truly believed that city government properly spends tax money and would prudently use additional tax revenue, the measure would probably have passed.
How has Mr. Nyhoff handled press relations? Good relations with the media are essential for the creation and maintenance of a positive public image. The local newspaper has recently published a number of complaints about the lack of openness and transparency in Modesto government. The Modesto Bee took the unprecedented position of opposing the sales tax increase ballot measure on the grounds that the government could not be trusted. This reflects the poor media relations.
A city manager has the duty to advise council members about wise and unwise courses of action. One has to wonder what advice Mr. Nyhoff has given his city council regarding an assortment of spending decisions. For example, has he ever told the city council that the budget cannot afford an expensive general plan update, especially since a new plan will be largely ineffective in doing more than redrawing lines on a map?
Jack Crist regularly met with every council member and provided subtle advice wisely and timely. We don’t know whether Mr. Nyhoff has done the same. If he has not, then he has not done his job as it should have been done. If he has, then one may question some of the advice he has provided during his time in the office.
Greg Nyhoff may have done an excellent job as City Manager. Council members who have worked with him tell this writer that they think he has done a good job. Unfortunately, those on the outside of city government might not be able to see that this is the case because the city appears worse off than when he assumed office. The best compliment that can be given by outsiders is that he helped the city survive tough economic times. But did the times have to be as tough as they were? Success and failure are attributed to a city manager regardless of whether he deserves praise or blame.
Difficulty Finding a Competent City Manager
The difficulty in finding a competent City Manager can’t be overstated. There aren’t many competent people who can get things done, period. An incompetent city manager can do an incredible amount of damage to a community.
Competent city managers tend to go where the big money is: to the big cities. Jack Crist came from Sacramento. He accepted a salary that was beneath his level of competence because he wanted a challenge to top off a successful career. He knew exactly what he needed to do and how to do it.
As one head hunter told the 1999 City Council, filling Modesto’s city manager position is a challenge because the salary isn’t high enough and the city is not considered to be top tier. Any manager accepting the job would only use it as a stepping stone in a career with a goal of working in a top tier community. Because Modesto has exceptionally large problems, the probability of failure in the position is a deterrent for someone who eventually wants to run a large city.
Whoever Modesto hires will probably not have the experience needed to tackle the city’s problems or may come from a smaller community and see the job as a short term stepping stone to something better. The city manager job can easily become a revolving door if the council hires someone flashy rather than a person of substance who would commit to the community like Jack Crist did.
The candidate pool may be too shallow to enable the hiring of a competent city manager. If a good candidate does not apply for the job, perhaps the council may want to consider providing a temporary promotion to a current employee within Modesto city government, a person who has moxie and intelligence and who is fully committed to the community. If he or she does a good job, then make the position permanent.
Hiring a city manager is the toughest decision a city council can make and it has to be the right decision.
The present leadership vacuum is a very bad situation. One has to wonder whether the community has finally reached rock bottom or is destined to become unlivable. Let us hope we don’t become like Detroit, the model of community misfortune.