Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thanking Rick Cole ... and moving forward

Back in August, as I was sitting on a float waiting for the Ventura County Fair Parade to start, I saw Rick Cole, the Ventura city manager, riding his bike down Main Street, returning home after meeting a friend for breakfast at a local (and locally owned) restaurant. Here, I decided, was a guy who had truly embraced Ventura as his town.

Rick's moving on now to become the parish administrator of Mission San Buenaventura. That's a good thing for Ventura. Like so many of his predecessors, including Ed McCombs and John Baker, Rick cares so much about the town that he wants to stay and help Ventura even though his tenure as city manager is over.  But as the City Council contemplates who should replace him, it's probably a good time to reflect back on his accomplishments -- and consider how Rick's record can inform the council's deliberations in choosing a successor.

Rick came to Ventura as city manager in 2004, right at the height of the real estate boom. He came in with an unusual background -- he had served three terms on the Pasadena City Council and then stepped into the city manager's job in Azusa with no previous experience. In both cities he’d compiled a noteworthy record of leading successful revitalization efforts. It was an unusual time in Ventura and we needed Rick's special skills.

In his first couple of years in Ventura, Rick intervened in the approval process of a few development projects to make them better and he drove the long-delayed General Plan update over the goal line in 2005 -- something nobody had been able to do in the previous four years. Faced with an almost complete turnover of department heads, he did a great job of recruiting top-notch folks -- Pat Miller as police chief, Jay Panzica as chief financial officer, Elena Brokaw as community services director. All this may seem like ancient history now, but it was a pretty significant set of achievements at the time.

When the economy began to weaken, Ventura faced a whole new set of issues that we hadn't contemplated when we recruited Rick. But he handled the situation as well as or better than any other city manager in the county. He foresaw the severity of the economic crisis quickly and pushed us in 2009 to make deep cuts. He resisted the temptation to paper over problems with financial gimmicks or dip into reserves to keep things going. And he collaboratively negotiated the most aggressive union givebacks in the county. As a result, in 2010 and 2011, when other cities were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Ventura had stabilized -- and we even saw our credit rating go up!

Meanwhile, he continued to bring in great department heads such as Jeff Lambert in community development and had the foresight to move our water and sewer utility into a separate department (with another great director, Shana Epstein). He negotiated a franchise renewal with Southern California, Edison, created innovative partnerships with community groups on projects like Grant Park and ArtWalk, got the trestle bridge painted and even squeezed a few more cops out of this year's budget.

And he saved the city a lot of money while accomplishing all these things. Rick made about $170,000 a year as city manager -- a lot for most people, but  at least $50,000 less than most of his peers (and more than $100,000 less than Ed Sotelo in Oxnard). He never took a raise, accepted a 5% pay cut for a while, and volunteered to pay his 7% share of his pension cost. He was making less money when he left this fall than his predecessor made when she left at the end of 2003.

The city got a great deal when Johnny Johnson agreed to serve as interim city manager for free -- kudos to Mayor Mike Tracy for that -- but let's be clear: replacing Rick will cost the city a lot of money. They'll have to hire a recruiter and then pay the new city manager $40,000 to $60,000 a year more than Rick was making.

Not everybody liked Rick's style. He could sometimes seem like a blue-sky guy -- remote and even arrogant -- and a lot of folks would have preferred a more hands-on style. But I always thought it was perfectly appropriate for the city manager to keep the big picture in mind, focus on the important items like painting the trestle bridge, and hire great department heads to get things done on the ground.

And I think that's an important point for the city council to keep in mind in selecting a new city manager. Those of us who have been elected to the council always want the city manager to be detail-oriented. But in a place like Ventura -- with seven strong-minded individuals on the council -- the city manager is always under pressure to make the individual councilmembers happy by focusing on the details that matter to them that day. That doesn't always reflect what the majority of the city council wants -- or what even what most voters want. It's always better -- not to say consistent with the city charter -- for the city manager to focus on doing what the council has voted in public on Monday night to do, rather than what seven councilmembers tell him to do in private meetings every day.

Rick Cole wasn't a perfect city manager. But he was great for Ventura because he knew how to balance the big picture and the little details and he tried hard to stick to what the whole council had voted on, not what individual councilmembers were trying to get him to do. Yes, maybe Ventura needs somebody a little more hands-on these days. But the council would do well to look for somebody who also embodies Rick's sense of balance and his commitment to implementing the policy of the council, not the agendas of individual councilmembers.


  1. Thanks for laying this out, Bill. The Council will have a very difficult time filling Rick Cole's shoes by finding someone as ethical and devoted to our community's fiscal and environmental health as he was. I am still shocked that they let him go.

  2. Bill,
    You need to update your profile! It still states that you are the Mayor of Ventura.

  3. won't you just go away. We know you brought him here and you care more about liberal causes than tax payers. get lost.


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