Nakamura backers step forward

City employees say changes are much needed

Chico City Manager Brian Nakamura.

Chico City Manager Brian Nakamura.

Photo By robert speer

Not everyone who works at Chico’s City Hall is unhappy with the changes occurring there. This week, three city employees contacted the CN&R in an effort to counter the bad press new City Manager Brian Nakamura has been getting since he began restructuring city departments.

Two of those employees, a man and a woman, came to the CN&R office for an interview; the third submitted her thoughts in writing. They asked for anonymity to avoid retribution in the workplace, so we’ll call them James, Karen and Anne.

Their conclusion: Some people simply don’t like change. They’re accustomed to the way city government was managed in the past, like a big, happy family where, as James put it, “jobs were protected at all costs,” work demands were moderate and there was a good pension down the road.

Nakamura was brought in, they say, because that model wasn’t meeting the city’s needs at a time when the one-two punch of a state budget crisis and the national recession had depleted revenues to the point where, as James put it, “we didn’t have pencils to write with.”

Nakamura’s marching orders from the City Council were to restore the city’s financial health and make it solvent, and that’s what he’s tried to do, the employees say. As an outsider, he’s been able to see the city from a business-like perspective and make the changes needed to restore its health.

He’s getting a bad rap, they insist. As Anne put it in her written comments, “Between the recent articles and anonymous city employee comments, it sounds as if Brian is walking around City Hall, pointing his finger at people saying, ‘You’re fired!’”

In fact, Nakamura has let just two people go, former Assistant City Manager John Rucker and former Building and Development Services Director Fritz McKinley. Neither James nor Karen knew why they left, but both assumed there were good reasons for the separations.

Some city employees have actively tried to undermine Nakamura, they said, by publicly questioning why he met with certain people, canceling scheduled meetings without approval, counseling other employees to disobey his directives and sending anonymous complaints to the media.

Contrary to their accusations, Nakamura has been “very open from day one,” Karen said, adding that he was completely forthright at department-head meetings, explaining the challenges the city faced and how “right-sizing” would be needed to meet them.

James and Karen weren’t surprised when Nakamura announced that Mark Orme, who had been his assistant at his previous posting, in Hemet, would replace Rucker as assistant city manager. “He needs somebody he can absolutely trust,” Karen said, “not a team that is going to be undermining him.”

To these employees, the easy familiarity and feeling of security that had prevailed before had led to “a sense of entitlement and complacency,” as Karen put it. Many employees—though certainly not all—were in “no rush to get things done,” she explained.

Since Nakamura began shaking things up, she continued, quite a few people have sharpened their work habits and become more productive. There’s a renewed interest in performing well from people who want to keep their jobs.

What’s happening at City Hall is similar to what happens when a floundering corporation gets a new CEO, James said. A shake-up is to be expected.

Mayor Mary Goloff, like most of the council members, agrees that Nakamura is taking the city in a positive direction. She too has heard from city employees who support him. “The hostility is from people who are resistant to change,” she said.

Historically, she said, the city has been run by people promoted from within who have strong relationships with city employees. Being an outsider, Nakamura “brought a level of objectivity that enabled him to take the city in the right direction.”

It’s not easy. “I’m having a difficult time because so many of the city employees are people I care about. I care about their families. But my obligation is to serve the city.”

She said she has no problem with Orme’s hiring, which she called a “non-issue.”

“Am I surprised Brian went after a person he knew? Not at all,” she said, adding that it was understandable that he would want to build his own team.

“I think a year from now we’re going to see that these changes have been good for Chico,” she concluded.