Do you know the Most Powerful Man in Sacramento?

Not many people do. It’s strong manager Bob Thomas and he runs the city his way.

Do you know the most powerful man in Sacramento?

Do you know the most powerful man in Sacramento?

Photo By Jill Wagner

City Manager Bob Thomas is the big man on the dais. Literally. At 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, he is physically the most imposing person on the city council platform.

But during council meetings, the city manager is mostly a silent, hulking figure, who shuffles through his papers while the mayor and council debate and question and grandstand.

When Thomas does speak, it’s in the deep, smooth, patriarchal voice of authority. In contrast to the councilmembers, who have all the questions, Thomas has all the answers.

But unlike the mayor and council that he shares the dais with, he wasn’t elected. Very few people in Sacramento—except for city employees, community activists and developers—even know his name, or exactly what he does. But although he’d never say it, his power rivals—and in some ways exceeds— that of the mayor who sits immediately to his right.

In person, Thomas isn’t much easier to read than the taciturn figure one sees on the dais. He can be charming, persuasive. But for the most part he doesn’t show much emotion and is far from ebullient. He knows what he’s going to say and he says it with certainty.

In interviews, Thomas answers questions carefully, without much elaboration. Even when talking about his own life, he’s the kind of person who rarely takes off on some tangent, or offers some amusing anecdote.

When others were asked to describe Thomas’ personality or something about the way he manages the city, many people responded with some variation of “You know he’s a military guy, right?” That image is reinforced by Thomas’ no-nonsense speaking style and disciplined work habits—he reports to work every day at 6:00 a.m., usually after reading the newspaper and a brisk, two-mile walk.

In fact, Thomas is a colonel in the California Army National Guard. He’s been in the guard for 30 years. In part because of military background and management style, Thomas has accumulated a number of nicknames during his years of public service. “Colonel Bob” is one often heard around City Hall. “Take That Hill Bob” is another. Despite his tough-guy image, many don’t know that Thomas joined the guard after college to avoid military service in the jungles of Vietnam.

He’s built a reputation as being a very bright, very energetic manager who gets things done. Among the adjectives that people use to describe him: hard-driving, forceful, tough, no-nonsense, direct, powerful.

Thomas also has a bit of a reputation for being an authoritarian and a bully, of using intimidation to get what he wants.

Councilmember Lauren Hammond explains it this way: “He’s a big guy. Big

guys have a way of using their size. He intimidates people.” She added, however, that he doesn’t intimidate her. Which is a good thing since she sits next to him on the dais. The real problem for Hammond is that someone is always sitting in her seat—usually another councilmember or a city staff person—bending Thomas’ ear when she’s ready to sit down.

He also has the reputation for being a straight-talker that is rare in someone in a political position. As downtown developer David Taylor puts it, Thomas never minces words. “If you come before him with an idea that doesn’t make much sense to him, you will become acutely aware of it pretty quickly.”

Thomas makes no apologies for his hardball style. “I’m probably really direct. I may rub people the wrong way, but I think it’s important to be honest. I don’t pretend to think that 418,000 Sacramentans are going to like my management style.”

As the city’s top bureaucrat, he has far-reaching responsibilities and the power to go with it. That power comes in part from the tremendous amount of information at his fingertips and the 5,000-person city staff that he commands.

Thomas oversees the formulation of the city’s $900 million budget, and gets first crack at deciding exactly where our tax dollars are spent. The council comes behind and tinkers with the foundation that Thomas and his staff have already laid. He oversees the day-to-day operations of all of the city departments. Everybody from department managers to garbage collectors, from the cops to the dogcatcher, all ultimately answer to Thomas. He is responsible for hiring and firing the top city posts, including the police chief. It takes six council votes to fire him.

Sacramento has a strong city manager form of government—or a weak mayor form if you prefer—a system that evolved during the progressive era of the 1920s and ’30s as a reaction to deep corruption and autocracy exhibited by many East Coast mayors. A strong, independent top administrator was seen as a buffer against political patronage and cronyism that had become rampant in many cities, and the form has become the dominant one, especially in California (notable exceptions being the Bay Area mayoral powerhouses of San Francisco and Oakland).

By virtue of his personality, and the energy he puts in to the job, Thomas has become “a strong city manager among a class of strong city managers,” according to professor Robert Waste of California State University, Sacramento.

Although he pulls the levers of Sacramento’s sizable bureaucracy and he’s the go-to man when things need to get done, Thomas objects to the notion that he is the most powerful man in city government.

“The mayor and council are paying me for advice,” he explained. “We aren’t always going to agree. But once they make a decision about where they want to go, it’s my responsibility to make sure we get there.”

Head-to-head: Thomas and Mayor Fargo don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As city manager, he’s proud of the direction Sacramento has taken and its investment over the last two-and-a-half years in “quality of life” issues. $56 million in tax money has created a new swimming pool in Meadowview, the Natomas Community Center and Library, new fire stations and a 9-1-1 call center, as well as many other projects. Compare that to the period before Thomas arrived (and before the economy rebounded) when the city regularly earmarked a mere fraction of the current budget for such amenities.

Thomas, however, refuses to take credit for any of it. “These aren’t Bob Thomas’ ideas. They come from the council. What I want to take credit for is helping the council establish policies that make this a great city.”

And so, the city manager’s power is as hard to measure as it is ubiquitous. He does not approve building projects, he recommends them. When a developer comes in with a proposed project, the staff, under Thomas’ direction, gives a yes or no recommendation, or sometimes suggests changes. He doesn’t pass new ordinances, he prepares them through his staff for the council to vote up or down.

To take one example, city Councilmember Dave Jones pushed the city to adopt a new policy on affordable housing, one of the most “progressive” laws in the nation. It was clearly Jones’ crusade. But once he sold Thomas, he had valuable help from the city manager who worked out the details and helped convince the business community, and to a certain extent the other councilmembers, to get on board.

Having Thomas’ political will was critical, said affordable housing developer Stan Keesling. “There were probably a majority of the council that would not have supported it if Bob hadn’t told them that they should.”

Just as Thomas can facilitate a councilmember’s pet project, he can slow them down as well. Councilmember Hammond says she waited for months to get information from staff for an ordinance she wants that would curb predatory lending.

“Can I prove it’s being held up? No,” said Hammond. But she added that she suspects the city manager, being a bit conservative, is reluctant to take on the banks.

One of the strongest, albeit indirect, indications of Thomas’ power—or his perceived power—is the fact that many people contacted for this story steadfastly refused to talk about him on the record.

“Frankly, I don’t want my neighborhood leveled,” remarked one community activist. “He could really screw us up,” said another.

At 52 years old, Thomas has already had a remarkable career in local government, one that has required him to move more than once, just as it was in his earlier years.

He attended San Juan High School, but he grew up all over the country. His father was a dispatcher for the Southern Pacific Rail company. One year, his family moved thirteen times. “Once, we were driving and I asked my dad where our house was, and he said ‘It’s in that trailer behind you,’ ” he says with a laugh.

He got his master’s degree in parks and recreation administration from CSUS in 1977. He then served for 10 years as the director of the city of Sacramento’s Parks Department, a job he enjoyed so much that he sometimes wishes he never left.

Thomas rose to the rank of deputy city manager where he untangled some of the city’s trickiest planning and land use issues. He was the city’s point person on a legal settlement in North Natomas when developers and environmentalists tangled in the early 1990s over growth.

Later he was the driving force behind the Water Forum, a comprehensive regional water agreement that had the dual purpose of removing a host of water rights disputes from the courts and simultaneously protecting and restoring the lower American River.

Then in 1997 Thomas made what seems in retrospect to be an unlikely move—to take the top spot in Sacramento county government, that of county executive.

He is credited among county officials for streamlining county government and he also built a reputation for his tough management style, which many there have described as military-like: top-down, with clear lines of command, little effort to spare people’s feelings, but ultimately capable of instilling a great amount of loyalty.

“When you made a mistake, he’d take you behind closed doors and rip you a new one. But when you did well, he’d pin a medal on you right in front of everybody,” said one county official.

He quickly became embroiled in a rancorous labor dispute with the county employee union when, responding to the county’s ragged financial state, he tried to farm out jobs to temporary workers. So poor were relations between Thomas and the union that his home in Woodlake was picketed by protesting workers and the tires on his car slashed.

His turbulent and short two-year tenure at the county was capped off by a quick exit that still has some county officials fuming.

In 1998, then-Sacramento city manager, Bill Edgar, announced his retirement. The city had a few candidates to take his spot, but the word was that mayor Joe Serna had his heart set on Thomas.

According to county supervisor Illa Collin, Thomas left the supervisors guessing until the last minute, when the Sacramento city council offered him the job and he accepted.

Chamber of Commerce president Rusty Hammer is pleased with the city’s new “customer service” approach to economic development.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“There were a lot of people on the Board who felt that Bob had led them down the primrose path,” said Collin, explaining that the rumor was that Thomas was simply biding his time at the county, waiting for Edgar to retire.

Thomas’ return was controversial at the city as well. Many neighborhood activists were nervous because they felt that, as a deputy city manager, Thomas had been hostile toward their efforts. Labor unions were wary as well, and local newspapers complained that the search wasn’t thorough enough.

When it came to the council, however, only Heather Fargo, who had built a strong reputation among grassroots groups, openly complained about the hiring process, saying she preferred to see a more careful, nationwide search. Despite Fargo’s concerns, the council unanimously voted to hire Thomas.

Those early suspicions among neighborhood groups were partially borne out after Thomas assumed the job of city manager.

In the early 1990s, a sort of revolution happened in city government. Voters elected a council that was less white, less male, and less business-oriented due to the redistricting that followed the 1990 census.

At the same time the “neighborhood movement” came into its own in Sacramento. Thomas’ predecessor, Bill Edgar, encouraged the revolution by establishing the neighborhood services department.

Although the city government was cutting staff because of the recession, Edgar led the effort to turn over more of the decision-making to neighborhood groups and community leaders. Edgar had an informal “kitchen cabinet,” a loose group of respected community activists who he would call in to his office to build consensus around sticky issues.

When Edgar left and Thomas came over, many say a counterrevolution occurred.

Jack Crist, former deputy city manager who left to become city manager of Modesto shortly after Thomas took the reins, described the shift like this: “Bill [Edgar] emphasized building relationships with the neighborhoods and building trust with community leaders. Bob has less patience with that kind of process. His emphasis is on results.” Crist explained that Thomas tended to work more at arm’s length from community members.

That disconnection can be seen in a number of controversial projects where community groups have been heavily at odds with city staff, particularly the economic development department, which Thomas recreated upon taking office (it had been cut during Edgar’s tenure due to budget shortfalls). The most high-profile issue has been the abandoned rail yards on Richards Boulevard and the proposal by Southern Pacific to move Amtrak operations out of the city’s historic rail depot and realign the railroad tracks.

The proposal to move the depot was pushed heavily by a number of transportation interests but opposed by community groups who saw the plan as a ruse to quickly open up a parcel of land for Southern Pacific to sell off to developers.

The community folks and preservationists formed a group called Save Our Rail Depot (SORD) and opposed the plan on the grounds that it would cut off the transit hub and surrounding new development from the central city. They offered an alternative plan that would keep Amtrak operations where they are and build a multimodal transit hub around the existing depot.

The problem, said many, was the city’s economic development department under Thomas’ direction, which appeared to have already made up its mind to support the interests of Southern Pacific.

To others, the depot became emblematic of the rift that had opened between the neighborhoods and city hall. Neighborhood activist George Bramson says that rift was in evidence early on, when, about a year ago, Thomas invited several neighborhood activists to a meeting in his office to discuss the future relationship between city staff and community groups. “I came away with the distinct impression that he viewed neighborhood input as a pesky irritant to be tolerated while the city went about the business of doing whatever it had decided to do in the first place.”

That early impression, said Bramson, was borne out in the way city staff, under Thomas’ direction, then dealt with the S.P. rail yards and the historic depot.

Another project, a downtown infill housing project by Dallas developer Post Properties, fell apart after neighbors complained vociferously that they were left out of the loop. When meetings were held, they basically served to tell residents what was going to happen, not to seriously consider community input.

The dynamic appears to be repeating itself now in Natomas, where residents are fighting a proposed auto mall that would include an SUV test-driving range. The neighbors aren’t completely opposed to an auto mall, but they’d prefer to see it on another site, one that isn’t already zoned residential.

Again, neighbors complained that the city seems to have already made up its mind, that community meetings on the project were geared toward promoting the project, rather than asking what the neighbors wanted.

“When Mr. Thomas came back to the city of Sacramento, many neighborhood leaders were concerned,” said Mary Brill, who acts as a den mother to neighborhood groups as president of the Sacramento County Alliance of Neighborhoods. “Since Mr. Thomas has come to the city it has been harder for us to get a seat at the table. Generally, we are viewed as part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

In some cases, the shift has been a subtle cultural change throughout city staff, rather than an overt suppression of community involvement.

“Before, some staff would smile painfully and give you a limp-wristed handshake,” explained Midtown activist Dale Kooyman. “Now those people don’t even talk to you.”

My kind of guy: Developer Buzz Oates says Bob Thomas made him want to build in the city again.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Not everyone in the neighborhood movement agrees that Thomas is entirely to blame for the disconnection. Midtown activist Paul Harriman said if Thomas is guilty of anything it is simply that he is not Bill Edgar.

“People often want to assume that they aren’t welcome just because they don’t get an invitation,” said Harriman.

Thomas said that if there has been a “disconnect,” he isn’t aware of it. He acknowledged that he would like to see community groups work more closely with councilmembers, and perhaps less with his office. “I’m sure there are neighborhood groups that aren’t happy with me. But I don’t think anybody could say I’m not accessible,” he added.

Interestingly, in each case—the depot, Post Properties and the flap over the auto mall—it has been Heather Fargo who has stepped in and smoothed things over, and insisted on greater community involvement.

Fargo said she has heard complaints from neighborhood groups and has had a number of conversations with Thomas about the issue. But she added that the system is basically working as it should. “My job is to monitor the pace and to make sure that people are included, versus his job, which is to make sure things get done,” said Fargo.

Still, many community activists would like to see neighborhood power restored to the status it once enjoyed.

“The people of Sacramento have the right to provide input and decide the future of their neighborhoods in partnership with the city staff and their councilmembers. We will never be a first class city until we value the most important asset this city has—its citizenry. Without them we are nothing,” said Brill.

Even as those in the neighborhood movement began to see the door close on their efforts, the business and development community saw the door open for those who want to build in the city.

For builder and developer Buzz Oates, it was a welcome change.

“The change in city manager has made all the difference in the world to this builder,” said Oates, who had angrily pulled his business out of the city while Edgar was the manager. “I didn’t like Edgar and I was glad to see him go,” said Oates, explaining that he has seen more cooperation and accessibility under Thomas. “I can call his office and talk to him just about any time. He’s pro-developer and the climate is better for builders.”

The president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, Rusty Hammer, described the change as a “culture shift” in city government since Thomas returned, one that’s led more developers to be willing to consider projects in the city than they have been in the past.

“He’s done a fine job. The staffing changes he’s made have made the building and planning departments more responsive,” said Hammer, explaining that Thomas has brought more of a “customer service” philosophy to the planning and economic development departments. He has added to staff to streamline the building permit process and to process development applications more quickly.

“I think people generally believe now that the city is interested in responding to the needs of developers.”

Hammer disagreed with the notion that Thomas is simply “pro-developer,” but said that developers, who are frequently faced with enormous financial risks, are better off under Thomas because they get information about projects more quickly, and they know sooner where they stand.

It’s not just the day-to-day, project-by-project pace of development where Thomas has an impact; it’s also the big picture.

A vision of what the city is going to look like when it is finished growing is something Thomas acknowledges he wants to nail down, the sooner the better.

“The city needs to decide what it’s going to look like in 20 years. And we need to decide that soon, because we’re growing so fast. We know we don’t want to look like San Jose, we know we don’t want to look like Santa Clara County.”

Much of that vision of future build-out is centered on North Natomas and that area of the Natomas basin farther north of the city to the Sutter County line, the so-called Northern Territories. That area is currently controlled by the county and is off-limits to development. But land speculation there has sparked a quiet war between the city and county over who is ultimately going to control the area, and who is going to benefit from the tax revenue that development brings.

Thomas believes that in order to save as much of the area as possible in open space and farmland, the city must annex the area and open it to urbanization. He is suggesting a plan that preserves one acre of open space for every acre developed.

The city manager’s suggestion for the area scares the hell out of local environmentalists.

“By advancing the idea to expand the city’s sphere of influence further into northern Natomas, he has been feeding land speculation and raising prices for habitat preserve lands,” said Vicki Lee, chairwoman of the Motherload Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Big Man: Is Bob Thomas merely a humble (and highly paid) public servant, or the most powerful man in Sacramento?

Photo By Larry Dalton

Lee said Thomas’ scenario of protecting habitat by approving new growth areas and then charging fees to preserve land is backward. If land weren’t urbanized in the first place, which is what is required under the county’s current general plan, there would be no need for a one-to-one mitigation to protect them.

“And farming in the Natomas Basin would not have to become a footnote in history. The leadership he has offered moves us closer each day to becoming another Los Angeles,” Lee added.

The pace and extent of growth envisioned for the Natomas basin makes Mayor Fargo a little nervous as well.

“I think [Thomas] is a little more openly pro-development than I am. As far as I’m concerned there isn’t enough open space permanently set aside.”

Ultimately, it’s the mayor and council’s decision, with plenty of input from the manager and community alike, to decide how fast and how far the city grows. Still, it is hard to deny the strength of the city manager’s suggestion.

“I think that if Bob had not focused the council on the issue of annexation, it wouldn’t have been a priority,” said Sacramento County supervisor Roger Dickinson.

Thomas has now served with three mayors. When Fargo took office, it didn’t take long for rumors to begin that the two were not getting along, which both now deny. No doubt those rumors are fueled in part by the skirmishes between Thomas and neighborhood groups, which are by and large Fargo partisans. The public disagreement between the two over the fate of the Northern Territories has also contributed to the perception that the two are at odds.

Thomas stopped just short of publicly chastising Fargo during the mayor’s race, when she suggested that any move by the city into the Northern Territories be put to a vote of the people.

The early conflicts between Thomas and Fargo may be just a matter of growing pains, with the mayor needing a little more time before she can truly emerge as a countervailing force to Thomas’ “take that hill” style.

“Part of what her emerging means is that she is going to butt heads with Thomas. That’s not a bad thing as long as it doesn’t become a Cold War,” said professor Robert Waste. He suggests that the problem is not that the city manager is too strong, but that the mayor is too weak.

Ironically, one of the things Thomas has on his to-do list is a ballot measure that would make the mayor and council full-time jobs, which could theoretically give Thomas less power. Councilmembers now make $24,000 to $26,000 a year and work about 30 hours a week. Some, including the mayor, work day jobs to make ends meet. Compare that to Thomas’ $157,000 a year salary and 10- to 12-hour work days.

Simply giving the mayor and city council full-time compensation for what should be full-time jobs may seem innocuous. But with full-time status, the mayor and council would also likely gain larger staffs. That would mean a greater ability to gather information, and, in local government, information is power. At the very least, supporters say that a full-time mayor and council would do a better job of “minding the store.”

“It seems to me like the city manager has a decided advantage. He’s in a position to nudge things in the direction he wants,” said economist and city hall watcher Jock O’Connell. “I for one feel more comfortable with vested power being in the hands of someone elected.”

Thomas sits behind a stretch of orange plastic fencing that contains the VIP section at the Meadowview Jazz Festival. He’s hunkered over a plate of ribs, hot links and potato salad.

The jazz festival is held every year at Meadowview Park in Councilmember Bonnie Pannell’s district. It’s a big deal in this neighborhood that doesn’t see very many big deals.

If there is a neighborhood that could use some help from the city manager, it is Meadowview. The area is riddled with empty lots, there are few economic opportunities, few new developments going in and few amenities.

“What we need here is a regional park and we need jobs,” says Thomas as he gazes on a broad swath of stubbly yellow grass just south of the park.

This is the future home of Delta Shores, 800 acres that Thomas would like to see developed into additional parkland, creating a regional park that would draw people from all over the city, as Land Park does now. Delta Shores would also include a healthy mix of housing and new offices.

The project would be a huge shot in the arm for Pannell’s district, and she’s counting on Thomas to get it done.

When asked if he plans on sticking around as city manager until retirement age, he says no, his tour of duty is up fairly soon. “This just isn’t the kind of job you can stay at for years and years. The amount of work, the stress, the tough decisions, really begin to take their toll.” He adds that he’d like to stay for about five more years, just long enough to get a handful of the big things done.

After that, he says, he’d like to teach, most likely at Sacramento State, and will probably do some consulting on the side.

When asked what he thought about having a reporter following him around, analyzing him, asking other people about him, he doesn’t hesitate in his answer.

“It’s just part of the job. When you take the job of city manager, you know you’re going to be exposed to a certain extent.” Not that Thomas will voluntarily step into the spotlight.

Some will like what he has done, and of course others won’t; still others won’t like the way he did it.

“I just need to be myself. Just be myself and let other people make their own judgments.”