Remaking city government

Nakamura unveils dramatic restructuring of city staffing

Those who attended the first of the Chico City Council’s two so-called goal-setting sessions last Thursday (Jan. 24) but not the second one on Tuesday (Jan. 29) missed the dramatic conclusion of this two-act play.

“Goal-setting sessions” doesn’t really describe what happened here. The meetings were actually two acts of a mostly one-man show in which new City Manager Brian Nakamura proffered his analysis of city government and his solution for its problems.

Over the course of several hours Nakamura outlined, using PowerPoint slides, the financial problems facing the city, including a $3.24 million structural deficit, before finally, at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, unveiling his dramatic cost-saving solution: a wholesale reorganization of the city’s staffing structure.

If the council approves his plan—and it appeared likely to do so, perhaps with minor changes—the number of city departments will go from 12 to five: Police, Fire, Public Works/Airport, Community Development and Administrative Services. Several current departments—Finance, Housing and Neighborhood Services, Capital Projects and Planning, among others—would be subsumed under one or another of these five, meaning their directors’ jobs likely would be either eliminated or substantially revised.

Leading up to the unveiling of the reorganization plan, Nakamura warned council members that solving the city’s financial problems would be like taking off a bandage: You can do it fast or slow, and fast is better. Yes, it will hurt, one of his slides read, “but the city needs to immediately get on the road to recovery.”

It’s important to “separate people from the problem,” he said, and “focus on interests, not positions,” hinting that in the process of returning the city to full financial health some people and positions would be sacrificed.

Heretofore the city has responded to the loss of revenue caused by the recession and state take-backs of redevelopment and vehicle-license funds by reducing staffing through attrition, cutting salaries and benefits, deferring maintenance and upgrades, borrowing internally from specialized funds, and dipping into its emergency reserves.

This has allowed the city to get by without reorganizing, but it’s also created a permanent structural deficit, depleted reserves to dangerous levels, and made it difficult to finance important technological upgrades, including much-needed new radio and computer systems in the public-safety dispatch office at a cost of $1.7 million.

For a long time it wasn’t clear what all this financial bad news was leading to. At one point Mayor Mary Goloff asked Nakamura, “What’s the goal of these sessions? Where are we going?” However, he wasn’t ready to reveal his reorganization plan, so he gave her a roundabout non-answer and went back to his PowerPoint presentation.

After a discussion of the importance of “right sizing” the organization and “right funding” individual departments, Nakamura finally unveiled his reorganization chart, saying it would reduce expenses and foster greater efficiency. Council members stared at it intently as it dawned on them just what he had in mind.

Councilman Sean Morgan was immediately supportive. Warning the plan’s implementation “would have pitfalls,” Morgan said that nevertheless the status quo was no longer feasible. “This is fantastic!” he exclaimed.

But his enthusiasm was nothing compared to Councilman Scott Gruendl’s. “I think tonight we’re turning a huge corner,” he said, addressing Nakamura. “It’s why we brought you in as city manager.”

He said he was “really proud because this represents a significant shift in this organization.” And he began choking up when he added, “If this community fails, it’s not the staff who will be blamed, it will be us.”

Nakamura’s proposal came without numbers, however, and some council members wanted to know how much money it would save. Nakamura promised to come back with that information at next week’s council meeting, on Feb. 5.