A day in the life of Tom Lando
Chico’s city manager enters his 12th year as the man behind the curtain
At 7:45 on the first Monday morning of the year, Tom Lando was standing behind the desk in his third-floor office, a cup of coffee in hand. His City Hall office window, which runs floor to ceiling and wall to wall, provides a view that looks down upon the red-roofed Chico City Council Chambers, the back of the old Chico Municipal Building and out to the intersection of Fourth and Main streets.
Lando was polite but not entirely comfortable when he greeted me. A few days earlier, he had strained his upper back while playing basketball. But, more than that, he did not want to do this story. He’d tried to get out of it at least three times since I’d asked him about a month earlier. And he’d try a couple of times again before the story was finished.
His reluctance was understandable. There is no profit for Tom Lando in having his face on the cover of the News & Review and his daily routine spilled across its inside pages.
Lando, arguably the most powerful man in Chico, is not a politician. He has no reason to woo the electorate. As city manager, Lando is charged with carrying out the wishes of the seven-member City Council—seven politicians Lando must keep happy; seven people with wildly ranging political views.
And he serves a community that is politically volatile, with two strong lobbies—the development industry and the environmental community—that wrestle with the town’s major concern, which is growth.
Lando has, in the words of former City Councilmember David Guzzetti, “the hardest job in Chico.”
At $167,543 per year, not including benefits, he is the highest-paid city employee and, including the fire and police departments, is supervisor to more than 400 employees. By most accounts, he earns his keep. Conservatives and progressives seem to agree that Lando is one of this town’s best assets.
Since 1992, when he took the job, Lando has successfully walked the perilous political line that separates the right and the left, the pro-business/pro-growthers from the old-school environmentalists.
“I hope the liberals think I’m conservative,” he said, “and the conservatives think I’m liberal.” He’s only half joking.
In fact, it’s hard to find a chink in Lando’s armor. I tried to run down some of the things I’ve heard over the years—unflattering rumors, mostly—and now can confidently chalk them up to disgruntled employees or misinterpretations that in the end gave way to misinformation.
That’s not to say Lando’s perfect.
“Tom’s job is to keep seven bosses happy, and sometimes that means being everything to everybody,” said one city official. “That’s not the easiest role to be in. You can’t please everyone all the time. He has a tendency to want to make everyone happy, which sometimes may not be the best public-policy direction.”
And he’s been accused of micro-managing. One key city employee, when asked, sighed and complained that at times she feels “like a glorified stenographer.”
But for the most part, Lando is well liked and respected.
Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, elected in 2000, has chaired the City Manager Performance Evaluation Committee for the past two years.
“I have had the opportunity to review Tom Lando’s work for the city in detail,” Nguyen-Tan said. “He is a dedicated professional, smart, energetic and has built an incredible team around him.
“What I like most about Lando is that he can present multiple perspectives on an issue in a clear, logical manner. When I ask for his opinion, he feels comfortable sharing it with me, even if he thinks I may disagree. I don’t want a city manager who agrees with me on everything. I want a city manager who is bold enough to speak out.”
Back in his office, Lando offered me some coffee and said we had a few minutes before the morning meetings with staff and department heads began. There would be five meetings in all that day for Lando, separated by a short interview with a local television reporter, a call from a radio reporter asking about the next City Council agenda and a visit from a sub-committee of the Butte County Grand Jury. And there would be the flurry of everyday office matters to tend to.
But for now we could talk.
Lando, 50, is slender and looks to be in great physical condition. His salt-and-pepper hair has receded over the years, and gray flecks have invaded his thick but well-trimmed moustache. He comes across as confident and knowledgeable but not arrogant. In fact, he is quite patient. At City Council meetings he takes his time to carefully explain complex matters to councilmembers who either fail to grasp the nuances of public policy or else simply have not done their homework.
Lando was born in Washington, D.C., where his father was a syndicated columnist and hosted a five-minute radio program. His father became disillusioned with D.C. in 1968, Lando said, and within a year he packed up the family and moved to California. Lando, a senior in high school at the time, stayed behind to graduate.
The old man arrived in Los Angeles with plans to buy a newspaper, but L.A. had changed so much since he’d last seen it 25 years before that he turned and headed north and ended up buying radio station KIQS in Willows. He eventually bought a movie theater in Orland and a music store in Colusa.
Lando said he enjoyed the move from the nation’s capital to California’s rice country.
“I loved it,” Lando recalled. “There was a real openness, and people were really, really friendly.”
After joining his family in Willows that June, Lando enrolled at the University of the Pacific in fall 1969 as a liberal-arts major.
“Midway through my senior year, the provost of the college asked if I’d ever thought about city planning,” Lando recalled. “I had never heard of the discipline, never even thought about it.”
He got a job as an intern for San Joaquin County and said he was “amazed at how disorganized they were.
“Of course I was just an intern, so they didn’t give me any work to do.”
At that point, he decided to go into planning. Upon graduating from UOP in 1972, he enrolled at Ohio State.
“I was ready to go to Santa Barbara in econometrics, and the Ohio State dean called at lunch hour,” he said. “I mean literally. I was ready to go to the bank and pull the money out and pay Santa Barbara.
“I’d written the dean a letter saying I’m this brilliant person and if you’re not going to give me money or if you don’t want me. … So I called him up and he turned out to be a bigger bullshitter than I was.”
At Ohio State, Lando earned two master’s degrees, one in city planning and one in public administration. He stayed around and worked. He and his first wife, whom he had met and married in California, had their first child in 1977.
“In January [the temperature] didn’t get up to zero, and at the same time they had this phony natural-gas shortage,” he recalled.
That was enough.
"'Both sets of parents are in California,’ we told ourselves. ‘What in the hell are we doing in Ohio?'”
So they came back, and Lando got a job in the Visalia Planning Department, where he stayed for three years, working at times for a private company. He came to Chico in June of 1980, where he was hired as planning director at the age of 28. In 1985 he became community services director.
By now Lando and his wife had three children.
“Every time we moved, we had another kid; Columbus, Visalia, Chico. So we said let’s quit moving.”
But they were divorced a few years after moving to Chico, and Lando married again in 1987. Today, he and his wife, Tina, have five grown children between them.
In 1992 Lando was named city manager, replacing Fred Davis, who’d held the job since 1959.
“I hired him, actually, when he first came to Chico,” recalled Davis. “I was very impressed with his background. He had experience in both the private and public sectors in planning. That was a good combination, and he was a darn good choice.”
Davis said the role of city manager changed greatly between the time he started and when Lando got the job 33 years later.
“When I took over, planning, public works, building and development were all separate departments,” Davis said. “I recommended to the council that they should all be combined because there was a need for coordination, for these folks to work closely together.
“So I appointed Tom to do the job. He was concerned about doing it because of his background. He was a planner, not a developer. But he did a great job.”
Davis said he was probably most impressed with how fast Lando learned on the job.
“The way he was able to keep up with this stuff like redevelopment was tremendous,” Davis said, referring to the city’s new program that was designed to produce revenue in the wake of Prop. 13, the 1978 state initiative that greatly reduced property taxes, until then the mother’s milk of funding for municipalities.
Davis did not hire Lando to replace him, the council did, and he was not involved in interviews of candidates for city manager. He said he did speak with some councilmembers and that he thought Lando was an outstanding candidate.
David Guzzetti, who was on the council at the time, recalled how Lando got the nod.
“Tom wasn’t really on Fred’s short list for succession,” Guzzetti said. “But the list he offered wasn’t considered satisfactory, especially by those in the [political] middle.
“When Tom applied for the job, he sort of rose through the ranks of the process as we went through a series of interviews. He was very impressive and a voracious learner. It wasn’t that Fred didn’t want Tom, he just didn’t think he was ready. He thought Tom was the manager of the future.
“In the end he was like the horse that came out of the back of the pack to win the race, and he got the job.”
Guzzetti, one of the most progressive councilmembers the city has known, thinks highly of Lando.
“Tom has done an excellent job considering how the political winds have blown here, especially in recent years,” he said. “He is very bright, very energetic and puts in a ton of work. City manager, it would appear to me, is the hardest job in Chico.”
The job, Guzzetti said, can wear on anyone.
“Maybe there have been times when he may have said he’d do a little bit more on something and not come through on it. It goes with the job. And he can turn real strident and become real brisk and just be spitting out orders.”
Guzzetti was first elected to council in 1981, a year after Lando came to Chico and 11 years before Davis would step down.
“I do have a lot of respect for Fred and was close to him for a number of years,” Guzzetti said. “As I saw it, Tom played a little bit more of a middle role as city manager. I don’t think Fred was always in the middle.
“And of course Fred ran the city for like a century or something before a more active council arrived. It all changed in the ‘70s, with a council more on the liberal side and more PACs [political-action committees] involved.”
Former Police Chief Jim Massie, who started with the department in 1966 and retired in 1999, said there is a fundamental difference between Davis and Lando and their respective approaches to the job.
“When the council would tell Fred they wanted something,” Massie explained, “he would put it back on them and say, ‘OK, where do you want the money to come from?’ For Tom, if the council wants something, he figures it’s his job to find the money.”
Davis said that, when he became city manager, he had to concentrate on taking care of the city’s basic infrastructure, which had suffered from neglect due to a lack of funds during the war years. Chico was a very small community at the time, with most of the growth taking place outside the city.
“Early on the councilmembers were young business people, and they thought about what was best for the community,” Davis said. “Today you’ve got special interests on the council who get along magnificently until a certain issue comes up. As city manager, you have to understand who the hell you are dealing with.”
Today, he said, the city manager’s time is taken up more by personnel issues and negotiations with service employees.
“You have to have a strong gut, a good sense of humor, and an understanding of the political process of both the councilmembers and the community,” Davis said.
“Understanding of the political process means you have to be politic. That does not mean you practice politics, but rather that you understand councilmembers and the community. Things have changed a lot.
“Of course I left him with a damn good staff, including [Assistant City Manager] Trish Dunlap.”
Lando agrees that Dunlap is invaluable to his success as city manager.
“She sees things in black and white,” he said. “She the one who tells people no when we can’t afford something. She’s very tough.”
At meetings, whether with staff or department heads, all cues are taken from Lando. At 8:20 a.m. he met 13 people in Conference Room 1 in the council chambers building.
He joked with City Clerk Debbie Presson.
“You’re sitting down there; you must be mad at me,” he said with a big grin.
“This is my normal seat,” Presson shot back. “You’re just putting on a happy face for the press.”
(Lando has a healthy sense of humor, as evidenced last summer, when a group of citizens donned Groucho Marx disguises—glasses, big nose and a moustache—and came to a City Council meeting to protest Councilmember Steve Bertagna’s ethnic slur at an earlier meeting. “I looked and saw these people in the audience and thought, ‘Why are they making fun of me?'” Lando joked the next day.)
At the meeting of department heads, Lando took charge and, referring to an upcoming City Council meeting, warned, “[Park Director] Dennis [Beardsley] will be eaten alive over this trail stuff.”
He was referring to what has become a controversial matter over the building of the Annie Bidwell Trial through Chico’s beloved Bidwell Park. Trail promoter Michael Jones’ abrasive manner has rubbed local environmentalists the wrong way, and they are hoping to derail the trail by having its approval appealed.
“I think council is becoming pretty fed up with it,” Lando told the department heads. “Jones wants the trail where it is. Other people don’t want anything. So good luck council.”
He moved on.
“Steve Bertagna wants to talk about train speeds—any data anybody has, get it to me.”
Lando, facing a whole morning of meetings, kept things moving. He turned to E. C. Ross, the director of public works.
“E. C., can you check out the crosswalk that our friends at the Enterprise-Record decided to make an editorial out of?”
On the Saturday previous, the local daily criticized the city on its editorial page for an apparently crooked crosswalk line near the Madison Bear Garden restaurant.
“I think what they are saying is Petromat [the spriping material] slipped by the Madison Bear,” Lando said. “Go look at it and give me a note on it because what I’ll do is I’ll e-mail [E-R Editor] David [Little] and say, ‘First of all, David, why the hell didn’t you call us instead? You are citizen of the community.’ It’s funny how that happens. And if it is bad, fix it, E. C.”
“My largest task is to make sure that what council’s requested gets accomplished,” is how Lando explained his job.
“We all know who the boss is,” he continued. “I hear this thing about Tom Lando running the city, and that really is hogwash. The City Council sets the direction. My job is to make sure that direction gets done. I’m almost a trouble shooter. I make sure each department is doing what they should be doing, what they said they’d be doing.”
Lando cautions staff to be realistic with council.
“Council will say, ‘I want a tree ordinance,’ and staff will say, ‘We’ll have that out next week’ because that is all they are focusing on. They don’t remember they have all these other things going on. That is where I come in. First of all, don’t tell them next week because you know it won’t happen. If you tell council it’s going to be six months they are happy with it.
“What happens is that we tend to say one month when we know it’s going to be four months, and everybody gets upset at us. It is strictly self-imposed.”
Something Lando said he never expected was all the time and energy he spends on personnel matters.
“We are a large organization; we have 400 people who by and large are very good people. But one or two personnel issues can drag you into the mud forever. And we’ll always have four or five personnel issues going on at any one time because of the size of the organization.”
Lando says, despite whispers to the contrary, he tries not to get too caught up in the day-to-day operations of the different departments.
“My desire would be to delegate a lot to the departments,” he said. “I get involved in those things that are going to cross council’s desk.
“On the other hand, I know that for quite a while the rumor in the Police Department was that it’s ‘Chief Lando.’ I don’t think that was true ever. But clearly, if the need comes to step in and make important decisions, then I’m going to do that. I’m not going to sit on the sidelines.”
Bob Koch, who’s worked for the city for 31 years, was hired by Fred Davis as an administrative assistant. Today he is the city’s risk manager.
“Fred was an engineer and took a little more of a conservative approach,” Koch said. “He liked to protect the city. Tom, on the other hand, takes more chances and risks. Fred was more of a CEO-type leader; Tom is more of a team player.
“I was happy to see Tom hired because it was a nice change for me. I had some baggage in that I was Fred’s hatchet man. I was the first to deal with the unions, and I got some negative press. After Tom took over my life improved.”
At just before noon, a television reporter from Channel 24 arrived to interview Lando about a matter on the upcoming council meeting agenda.
“Ha. A real reporter wants to talk to me,” Lando joked after he hung up the phone, directing the comment at me.
He walked out to meet the reporter and agreed to go on camera.
“Can we use your office?” the reporter asked.
Lando agreed and they headed back to his office. The city manger sat at his desk and explained, in response to the reporter’s questioning, what the city hopes to do with the old municipal building.
The reporter monkeyed with his camera while Lando answered. Then the reporter handed Lando a microphone and asked him the same question. Lando repeated himself. Finally, the reporter turned on his camera light and said, “Look at me.”
Lando put on his microphone, squinted into the bright light and patiently answered the question one last time as the video camera rolled.
The reporter, who said he was back after a two-year hiatus at school, then asked Lando about the father of a girl killed in an accident a year earlier during a police chase. Lando gave him the story, and the reporter thanked him.
“I don’t want to look like a goofball when I interview this guy,” the reporter said, thanking Lando again as he walked out the door.
“There is always this buzz in the background about micro-management,” Lando said about his job, or at least the public perception of his job. “Fred was really hammered on that, justified or unjustified. I haven’t been hammered as badly, but there are the same people making the same buzz, and that is just human nature.”
As he explains it, department heads, including public-safety chiefs, call and talk to councilmembers about special programs and ask why something is happening or not happening in regard to their programs.
“Chiefs are geared to do a lot of things, but no chief that I’ve seen for police or fire is good at reining in the troops,” Lando said. “Their function is to do their job as best they can, and that usually means bigger and better [in the way of equipment and personnel]. So usually I’m the inhibitor and therefore the translation—as I read it in my own narrow fashion—is, ‘Get Lando out of the way because we want this special toy.’
“On the other hand, you give some latitude and autonomy. If they screw up that’s just the nature of the job. I think we have very good people, but there is no doubt we make mistakes from time to time.
“One of the things it took me a long time to learn is the best thing to do with a mistake from day one is to say, ‘I screwed up.’ When [former Police Chief] Mike Efford started, he made a couple of pretty bad errors. I said, ‘Look, Mike, here’s what I’d do. I’d go to council and say, “I screwed up,” because it gives them no place to go. They can’t blame you when you already blame yourself.’
“Unfortunately, you can’t consistently say, ‘I screwed up.’ After a while it doesn’t work anymore.”
Lando said he is not sure how much longer he will stay on the job, maybe four, maybe six more years. When he got his doctorate a few years ago from the University of Southern California, paid for by the city, he thought he might take a job teaching at Chico State University. But he’s ruled that out because, for one thing, he said, doing so would screw up the retirement package he has with the city.
“Whether I’m on a 10-year plan or five-year plan, one of the things that I feel real serious about is that we leave this city with people who can move into all the key roles,” he said. “Council may choose the next manager, and it may go outside and get people. And that’s fine. But still, to give the people inside the organization the ability to compete here or elsewhere, you are making them better employees, and I think that is our duty.”
At the same time, he is typically modest when describing his own attributes.
“I think anybody could do this job,” he offered. “I just think it’s being a traffic cop. There are many people both in this organization and outside this organization who could do my job. I’m just fortunate enough to have it, and they have to put up with me.”
I ran into Jim Massie at Home Depot a few months after he’d retired as chief of police in 1999. Massie, who now lives in Paradise, told me he’d been doing a lot of yard work since his retirement.
“I’ve got a grinder, and every time I shove branches into it, I imagine that it’s Lando I’m shoving in there,” he said.
The statement surprised me, and I never forgot it. So in my effort to balance this story, to find a source with something less than praise to heap on Lando, I thought of Massie.
I called him one day last week, caught him working in his garage and tried to remind him of our Home Depot encounter. He laughed and said he didn’t recall saying such a thing.
“Being a police chief, there are days when you come home and you have that shredder in the back yard and …,” he said. “You know, in my mind I probably shredded all the councilmembers. And you, too, for that matter.”
Looking back now, Massie said, he has nothing but respect for his former boss.
“I’d go to Tom for advice and kept him in the loop as to what was going on. I think he does everything that is in the best interest of the city.
“I can’t say I agreed with everything he did, but in the public eye I supported him. I enjoyed a close relationship with Tom. Behind closed doors I could say anything. I could say, ‘Tom, that is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,’ and he’d be fine with that.
“Tom, you have to understand, is a straight shooter."