Welcome to Chico

City manager reflects on a rough first year on the job

City Manager Brian Nakamura in his office on the third floor of the Chico Municipal Building.

City Manager Brian Nakamura in his office on the third floor of the Chico Municipal Building.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

On Aug. 22, this comment was published in the Chico Enterprise-Record’s Tell It to the E-R: “Well, it seems watching the news on Aug. 6 that the city manager is looking for input about what to put in the new couplet area in the roundabout. I’ve got an idea. How about his head, his assistant’s head and everybody on the City Council, and I don’t mean a bust made to look like them. I mean their heads on a stick the way it should be so we can all go by and throw rotten vegetables at them because they’re doing such a lousy job at what they’re doing downtown, the amount of money that they are wasting. We could have multiple police officers still on the payroll helping to protect this community. So honestly I think the best decoration there would be to have all of their heads on sticks there just for the whole public to view.”

City Manager Brian Nakamura responded to that comment the day after it was published during an interview for this story about his first year on the job. That anniversary took place last Tuesday, Sept. 3.

“That one I have to say concerned me the most,” he said, referring to the suggested decapitation and mounting of the heads of city management and the council. “Not from a selfish, personal-threat perspective, but the fact they called nine people and basically said, ‘I’m going to invoke physical harm on you as a person.’ That concerns me.

“You can criticize my decision-making and my professional skills, but when you make it personal, that is where I draw the line.”

In his first year on the job, Nakamura’s made major changes to the city-government organization, which has led to the layoffs and departures of a number of employees. Most high profile among those were the sudden and mysterious departures of former Assistant City Manager John Rucker, who’d also applied for the vacant city-manager position, followed soon after by Fritz McKinley, director of the city’s Building and Development Services.

Next came the voluntary exodus of Sherry Morgado, the director of Housing and Neighborhood Services, and then Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy. Other city employees have left as well, though not by choice.

Nakamura, citing a bleeding budget that was uncovered by Chris Constantin, the new administrative-services director (aka finance director), cut the number of city departments from 11 to five. Budget cuts of $4.8 million led to elimination of the city tree crew, and reduced the staffing of a fire station, which triggered the empty threat of no more commercial flights into and out of Chico Municipal Airport. Another result was a reduction in hours of operation of Bidwell Park’s Caper Acres, the popular children’s playground that has recently been reopened, at least temporarily, thanks to a private company volunteering to aid in maintenance elsewhere in the park, freeing up city staff to care for and open the facility.

These things have raised great suspicion and accompanying criticism of Nakamura, who came here from the Riverside County city of Hemet, where he served as city manager for three years. He was greatly critiqued there as well in the reader-comment section of the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper.

In addition to the E-R’s “Tell It,” there are plenty of other criticisms under the shield of anonymity, such as an Aug. 16, 2012, language-butchered comment on the Topix section in the online version of the Press-Enterprise regarding Nakamura’s planned departure from Hemet that reads: “oh, and case anyone’s interested, the reason nakadickwad is going to chico is to ‘privatize’ the parks there. … the parks are actually the biggest thing going on in that area; together they will contract out the ‘maintenance’ of them and skim a nice tidy sum off the top.

City Manager Fred Davis (1959-1992).

Photo courtesy of the city of chico

Bob F. of Riverside.”

Nakamura, 47, was born and raised in Lodi. He now lives in Chico with his wife, Sharon. They have two sons, one currently attending Fresno State in pursuit of a doctorate degree in mathematics, and the other attending UC Davis and majoring in English literature.

In the past 20 years, Nakamura has held 10 jobs, beginning in 1993 as a budget analyst for the city of Elk Grove, then as a land-use planner in Winters, a budget manager for Yolo County, then three years as the Sutter Creek city manager, four years as the city manager for Oregon City, Ore., two years as the public-works director in Riverside, four years as city manager in the Fresno County town of Reedley, and one year as city manager in Banning followed by three years in Hemet.

Despite the threatening critiques and his history of short stints on the job—Nakamura said he hopes to stay in Chico “for a very long time. I love the community. We have a lot of opportunity and a lot of potential here.”

He was hired at a salary of $217,000 a year by a unanimous vote of the City Council after its members had interviewed a number of candidates. Nakamura’s application was noted in this paper after he was reported visiting a local downtown business with former City Manager Tom Lando. The two had met in 1994 while attending the University of Southern California for post-graduate degrees, and they’d kept in touch ever since.

Nakamura said the Lando connection has had its drawbacks.

“There were certain perceptions that went with that,” he said. “You’re trying to establish your own identity, but you’ve already got people with perceptions based on what they’ve read in the paper, online, and based on who I knew, who I didn’t know.”

Nakamura is also the first City Manager in 20 years who didn’t have previous work experience in Chico, as had former City Managers Lando (1995-2005), Greg Jones (2005-2007) and Dave Burkland (2007-2012), all of whom served as assistant city manager before taking over the top seat.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to fully embrace the community and the passion and ‘the Chico way,’ as people have referred to it,” Nakamura said about that lack of experience. “I wish there had been opportunities this first year to get to know the citizens and the community without having to jump in with both feet by making difficult budget decisions.

“The council offers me the job and, most times, transitions take 45 days to two months. I was given two weeks. First, I had to get the council in Hemet convinced that it was OK for me to leave in that short period of time. Then I had to find a place to live, get in my office and try to get to know the staff and the citizens. ‘Hi, I’m Brian Nakamura, your new city manager.’”

City Manager Tom Lando (1992-2005).

Photo courtesy of the city of chico

He said he came to town a few days before his interview and visited local business owners to get a grasp on what was happening here.

“I didn’t tell them why I was here exactly, but asked them if they could tell me about the community,” he explained. “So I had a good perspective of the community itself. I was very excited about what I was walking into, which was a community that cares and where there’s a lot of passion.”

As for the reportedly shaky city budget, Nakamura said he was not surprised because cities up and down the state are facing tough times due to some things beyond local control, such as state budget decisions, the dissolution of money-generating redevelopment agencies and a lackluster nationwide economy.

“I knew that we had some budget issues because cities are cities,” he said. “You have budgets and you have enterprise funds and general funds. I knew that we had some concerns about the general fund, and about the private-development fund and the capital-projects fund.

“But looking back, I’d have to say I didn’t know that it was as bad as what we’ve unfolded,” he said. “I knew we had some deficit issues. The one thing that maybe I missed was the cash-flow issue. That was something that I probably had not focused on like I should have. I was more focused on the structural imbalance we had with the budget.”

Still, he holds out hope for the future.

“For the most part, the problems are not insurmountable. It’s just going to take some fortitude and discipline on our part. Eventually we will come back,” Nakamura said.

He pointed to the new businesses that are coming to town, as well as builder Tom Fogarty’s resumed effort to build the Oak Valley residential development off Bruce Road near Highway 32.

“I think we are on the upswing, if you look at the opening of the BevMo!, whether you sit on one side of the alcohol issue or the other,” Nakamura said. “And we have Dick’s Sporting Goods here. Plus, we’re now getting inquiries from other businesses, and have seen growth in the building of homes. The reality is the market is starting to show signs of coming back.”

He said the city must build its revenue base by focusing on economic development.

City Manager Greg Jones (2005-2007).

Photo courtesy of the city of chico

“Yes, we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions with respect to expenses; we’ve had to cut,” he said. “More importantly, what we need to do is grow revenues. I don’t mean tax people, but rather grow our tax base—our property-tax base and our sales-tax base. That’s how we are going to grow our economy and that is how we are going to grow Chico.”

With construction apparently making a rebound, should the city consider increasing developer-impact fees?

“You want to encourage development so it’s a balance,” he said. “We talk about full cost recovery and charging the appropriate fees. Those fees are established by studies, and then you have to put that in front of the council and they have to make policy decisions. That means they have to establish a balance between what is sustainable for the community and what is the proper rate for growth and development.”

The “retirements” of Rucker and McKinley earlier this year were never fully explained and led to much nervousness in city hall among employees. That tension remains to a certain degree. There’s been a literal shifting of employees in the city building, with some moving to different floors and behind counters now fortified with bulletproof glass protecting offices that are locked off to the public.

Recently, a city employee speaking quietly said there’d been a 180-degree change from how things used to be, and that there is a lack of information filtering down from top management to the city employees during the past year. However, in recent weeks, the employee added, things had improved a bit and fellow employees seemed to be holding onto some hope of better times ahead.

New Assistant City Manager Mark Orme, who worked for Nakamura in Hemet, called the current atmosphere of the city “mind-boggling,” as far as public criticism goes.

“It was never like this in Hemet,” he said. “I worked with [Nakamura] for a few years. He’s a great guy—very honest. Of course, people will write off my opinion because I know him.”

Nakamura did weigh in a bit when asked about Rucker and McKinley.

“I respect what Fritz offered,” he said. “I respect what John has done for the city, and the years of contributions they made should not go unrecognized. At the same time, the council said, ‘Brian, we need to have a team built that goes in this direction.’ So I had to do what I needed to do to make sure that was fulfilled. I feel we did the best we could as a group, and now that we have a new team in place, we are going to continue to fulfill the endeavors of the community [and] the council, and build a better city. Our job is to be efficient, effective, accountable and transparent.”

For his part, Lando, a former city manager and Nakamura’s friend, said the city’s budget problems are real and that Nakamura, Orme and Constantin are confronting them.

City Manager Dave Burkland (2007-2012).

Photo courtesy of the city of chico

“It’s incredibly tough to address this because you are affecting people’s lives,” Lando said. “I know Brian well enough to know that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Laying people off is incredibly challenging, and having people bump each other [the hierarchy structure in which senior employees have the right to replace lower-ranking employees in their positions during a lay-off process] and move into new positions is tough for the organization. But the fact is, the city was and maybe still is in a deep financial hole, and action had to be taken.”

Public criticism, Lando said, comes with the job.

“There are always a few people who don’t agree with how you approach things,” he said. “It’s magnified a thousandfold when you have to make the cuts the city’s had to go through. It is a very tough position to be in, and I can’t speak to specifics, but I do know the issue had to be addressed, and at least the council and the management are addressing it finally.”

Does Lando miss the job?

“I used to miss being in the middle of issues and problem-solving, but it’s been just long enough now—eight years—where, no, I don’t miss it. I see Brian every once in a while, and we probably communicate less now that he’s in town than we did before.

“I have absolutely no role in decision-making for the city now, but I think there was some perception when Brian came in that, ‘Oh, he’s Tom’s friend and he’ll do what Tom wants.’ But we don’t talk at all about city issues.”

City Councilman Mark Sorensen, a fiscal conservative who claims to have recognized the city’s financial problems well before they officially came to light this spring, says Nakamura is the right person for a tough role.

“I think he’s done an excellent job with the terrible hand that he’s been dealt,” Sorensen said. “Here is somebody who actually took a reduction in compensation to come here and help us clean up a huge mess, and I think he continues to do an outstanding job.”

(In fact, according to public records, Nakamura was making $205,000 a year in Hemet and, as mentioned above, is making $217,000 in Chico.)

“Here, we are faced with some choices that are not necessarily palatable, but there are some things that we absolutely have to do to get our financial house in order,” Sorensen said. “I’m a little amazed that some people think that we could have just continued to spend money, when that is not the case. The city was headed for insolvency, so action—difficult, painful action—absolutely had to happen, quickly.”

Dave Burkland (left) and John Rucker, Chico’s former city manager and assistant city manager, respectively, pictured during a City Council meeting in 2012.

Photo By robert speer

Has the new team of three saved the day?

“Yeah,” he said. “We backed the city away from insolvency. Had this correction been started much later, I think things would have been far more harsh and far more abrupt than they have been in the current situation.”

The criticism of Nakamura, Sorensen said, is simply proof that you can’t please everyone.

“No matter what, somebody is not going to like the changes necessary to achieve the expenditure reductions that we absolutely had to have to even attempt to make the budget balanced,” he said. “I’m not even sure we are quite there yet. But clearly we are going in the right direction.”

However, at a recent press conference, Sorensen predicted the city’s solvency is still a decade away.

If there is a Nakamura critic on the City Council, it would be Ann Schwab, who was mayor when he was hired. She has questioned some of his opinions and voted against some of his recommendations at council meetings. She did not comment for this story, but last year at this time, she did speak well of the man headed here from Hemet.

She said he had a wealth of experience that would greatly benefit Chico and that his $217,000 salary was the result of a highly competitive market.

“We felt we wanted to have the best city manager for the city of Chico,” Schwab said at the time. “As people get to know him, when they get to meet him, I hope they’ll support the council’s decision in finding the city manager that this city deserves.”

Mayor Scott Gruendl supports Nakamura and the actions he’s taken, including the changes in department heads.

“That is what kills me about Chico City Hall,” he said via email. “There were things happening that give those of us that bust our ass every day for the public a bad name for their own selfish reasons and their incompetence in public service. Most if not all are now gone, and regardless of what some narrow-minded folks think, these folks are never coming back, never. I tried for 12 years to get rid of some of these bad public servants, based on my professional experience, and Brian was the first administrator to get it.”

Assistant City Manager Mark Orme.

Photo By tom gascoyne

Another city employee who supports Nakamura is City Clerk Deborah Presson, who until just recently reported to the city manager. A measure passed by voters last year has the clerk now reporting directly to the City Council.

“It’s been a challenging year,” she said. “I think that [Nakamura] came into a situation he didn’t fully understand. But he continues to brave the battle and the criticism.”

She said it is a pleasure to work alongside the city manager.

“He never says a negative thing about anybody, even though they are beating him to death,” she said. “It is very sad to know that a person can move his family to a community that he thought was beautiful, and some citizens want him out because he is coming from a different area. I’ve lived in Paradise but worked in Chico for 14 years. Am I not welcome here because I live in Paradise?”

Presson said Nakamura helps keep up morale in the city offices during what she sees as trying times.

“Whenever I want to give up, he says, ‘Deb, keep goin’. It’s gonna be OK.’ He never ever wavers from the optimistic approach that he has. To me, that is inspiring because he is under stress and under fire.

She argues that he is simply doing his job, and that the conspiracies offered about his intentions are hogwash.

“He has no hidden agenda, none. He knew nothing about our community other than what he did in his research to get hired. The thing that saddens me is I know Chico is a beautiful community, and I don’t believe that the majority of the people in the community hate Brian just because he came from another community,” she said.

The misgivings and tension among city employees is misplaced, Presson said.

“He’s been criticized for not speaking to and communicating appropriately with the employees,” she said. “I can tell you, as a department head, I have sat in every single department-head meeting that he has had since his arrival a year ago and he’s always told us to go out and tell our staff what was going on. If the employees don’t know, shame on the department heads.”

What does Nakamura want the public to know that perhaps hasn’t been shared?

“The difficult decisions I have to make as a professional do not reflect who I am as a person,” he said. “I am a caring person. It’s hard to sleep at night. It’s not easy knowing you’re going to come into a city and probably be the most hated person there.”

On his office bulletin board is a letter to the editor that was published in this paper that mildly criticizes Nakamura in lyric, as sung to the tune of “That’s Amore.”

“I put things up that I really appreciate,” he said. “It goes back to the passion and caring in the community. I had no problems with that letter because it didn’t get personal; it stayed on task and it shared with me that the writer put some time and energy into thinking about this. And that’s good. She’s been following what’s going on. I’m being held accountable. And it’s a great sing-along at a campfire.”

There is another item tacked to his bulletin board, right next to the Nakamura lyrics: A Krispy Kreme Doughnuts employee hat.

“My son and I went to Krispy Kreme when it had its grand opening,” he said. “He grabbed me a hat and said, ‘Hey, Dad, it’s a backup plan in case this other job doesn’t work out.’”