So long, Nakamura

City manager leaves the same way he came in, quickly and quietly

Brian Nakamura is leaving Chico for the Sacramento County suburb of Rancho Cordova.

Brian Nakamura is leaving Chico for the Sacramento County suburb of Rancho Cordova.

CN&R file photo

When Brian Nakamura first came to Chico almost two years ago to take over the post of city manager, he did so quickly and quietly. For his former employer, the city of Hemet, his short notice and rapid departure after just three years on the job came as an unwelcome surprise. In fact, it was this newspaper that inadvertently alerted Hemet officials to Nakamura’s intentions to leave his post. So last week’s scramble to announce Nakamura’s next move before the city of Rancho Cordova put out a press release welcoming him felt like déjà vu.

“It caught us a little bit off guard,” said Mayor Scott Gruendl, who received Nakamura’s resignation letter last Wednesday (May 28) during a breakfast meeting. “I wasn’t really stunned, I would say, at the time that he told me. I expected it would happen at some point, just not this soon.”

But Nakamura has a track record of relatively short stints on the job. He’s held 10 positions in the past 21 years.

“Looking at Brian’s employment history, he has this cycle of two or three years. That was a concern that we had,” Gruendl said. “In our contract with the recruitment firm that brought Brian to us, it says if he left before two years, they would have to re-recruit for free. They have validated that they will do that.

“So it was a surprise-but-not-surprise kind of thing,” he added.

When Nakamura arrived in September 2012, the city was in a bad place financially and it was his job to fix it. About six months into his time in Chico, Nakamura laid out his three-part plan to Gruendl. Part one was to identify the problems. Part two was to put a team in place to remedy those problems. Part three was to step back and allow the town to heal.

“He pulled the covers back on stuff, and also came up with responses on how to deal with it,” Gruendl said. “That meant a lot of layoffs, unfortunately. What was devastating for a lot of people is how many people we had to let go. Each time, it was more seasoned and experienced people, and it got harder. There was no good way to reconcile that.”

Nakamura had a difficult job from the get-go, Gruendl said. Identifying major financial oversights and mismanagement and taking the steps to stop them were not easy tasks. Several times, he referred to Nakamura as a “sacrificial lamb”—referring to part three of Nakamura’s plan—or a “lightning rod” who will take all the negativity built up over the past two years and lead it out of Chico.

“He’s the lightning rod for the hard decisions that were made—the significant number of layoffs that we did, the collapse of 11 departments into five, the actual moving out of key management people who, for no better explanation, blatantly fucked up,” Gruendl said. “We had people who had good intentions but really didn’t know what they were doing. Brian dealt with it.”

Gruendl said he stands behind Nakamura’s actions, because more than any other city manager during his time on the City Council, Nakamura followed direction.

“He did exactly what we asked him to do, he followed instructions to a T,” Gruendl said.

But the drastic reorganization of city departments has certainly left some with a bad taste in their mouths. Layoffs included many employees who had dedicated years—decades, even—to the organization, and key positions were eliminated, leaving things like the city’s trees untended.

Looking forward, Mark Orme—who was promoted from assistant to interim city manager at the City Council meeting Tuesday (June 3)—said he’s excited to work with Chico to begin the healing process.

“There’s been a lot of pain and heartache. That takes time to heal,” Orme said. “There are also external challenges. There’s been a lot of impact on the community financially as it relates to community organizations and a lot of the norms Chico was used to.”

Nakamura did not return several phone calls or a text message seeking comment.

“His strategy in leaving is to be quiet. He wants a clear transition of authority, with no confusion,” Gruendl said. “You’re probably not going to get an interview from him.”

Just before press time, Nakamura did send a short email expressing his love of Chico and support of Orme. “The time has come to allow a new leader to move the organization forward,” he wrote.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Gruendl said the city would finalize a transition agreement with Nakamura before he leaves, but that Orme is officially the interim city manager until further notice.

“As to how will the community view his departure, there are people who will be upset or feel it’s too soon, or that he’s abandoning the city,” Gruendl said by phone. “And there will be people who will say, ‘Good riddance.’”