Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 36
Love him or hate him, he's leavingSanta Maria says goodbye to City Manager Tim Ness and hello to Rick Haydon
BY SHELLY CONE
People react to change in different ways. Some embrace it, while others view it with suspicion. Reactions of all types kicked into high gear after the recent cluster of retirement announcements within Santa Maria city management. Fire Chief Jeff Jones announced he would be retiring Dec. 19, Chief Deputy City Clerk Pat Perez will step down Dec. 16, and Mayor Larry Lavagnino said he wouldn’t seek re-election next year.
Then Santa Maria’s top dog, City Manager Tim Ness, mentioned his retirement in an informal announcement that offered few details. While some locals say something is afoot, others say sometimes change is simply in the air.
When Ness passes the torch to his successor on Dec. 30, he’ll leave a city that has successfully weathered some rough economic times and a citizenry ready for what comes next.
The Ness Years
Throughout Ness’ career, Santa Maria residents have loved him and hated him, lauded him for his fiscal sensibility and attacked him for the way he’s handled community relations.
Ness began his career at the city as deputy city administrator, becoming city manager in 1995. As a public official, he’s always shied away from having attention drawn to his personal life. He even declined interviews with media after announcing his retirement. Even so, Ness and his administration have faced several contentious issues.
He was personally named in a lawsuit, along with Police Chief Dan Macagni, against the city of Santa Maria by Sgt. Greg Carroll who claimed he was discriminated against when he didn’t receive a promotion to lieutenant.
In 2003, Ness’ strained relationship with then-police chief John Sterling made headlines—even appearing in the L.A. Times—when Sterling was fired from his position for allegedly threatening to sue Ness. Sterling hired an attorney to try to get his job back; the city ultimately bought out Sterling’s contract, paying him a severance and benefits. Sterling died in 2009.
But Ness didn’t only face controversy over his actions as a city official. Personal controversy spilled over to City Council chambers when an alleged affair became public, brought to the spotlight by an accuser during a City Council meeting.
On the other hand, Ness has a reputation for running a tight ship. Even though he’s seen a 62 percent population increase during his tenure, Santa Maria runs lean compared to other cities of similar size. The city has a low employee to population ratio compared to cities like Santa Barbara. And even Ness’ salary, at just more than $200,000, is less than that of city managers in most comparably sized cities.
Some city officials believe it’s Ness’ conservative fiscal tendencies that have helped Santa Maria remain stable during an economy that’s had significant negative impacts on other cities.
“He is absolutely in my opinion the best city manager in the state of California, bar none,” Mayor Lavagnino said. “I know Santa Maria would have had a hard time coming through the rough time we’ve had if it wasn’t for being under the direction of Tim Ness.”
Ness, in turn, shares the credit with other city officials—like Lavagnino and the city staffers he’s worked with—for many of his accomplishments. In an e-mail to the Sun, Ness shared his thoughts on city government, his career, and city accomplishments.
During his time at the top, the city has seen many changes for the better, including securing state water and the construction of the new Santa Maria Public Library, the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center, and the new transit center. The city has also seen the addition of two new fire stations (with two more under construction), repair of the Santa Maria River Levee, the acquisition of Los Flores Ranch Park, and the development of eight new parks. There have also been some controversial changes, like the Union Valley Parkway extension and fluoridation of the city’s drinking water.
Ness said he’s proud to have been a part of all of those changes, as well as actions that helped gain the city recognition as an All-America City and receipt of four Helen Putnam Awards of Excellence for innovative programs from the League of California Cities.
The city has received many other awards of recognition under his leadership, including several for excellence in financial reporting and budget operation and reporting.
“We’ve boasted about this before, but the Santa Maria city workforce is second-to-none when comparing their productivity through employee-to-population ratios of other cities. Our success truly is achieved through a team effort. Collectively, our departments have found ways to tighten their belts for several years in a row, in most cases without substantial service reductions,” Ness said, praising the efforts of city staff.
Assistant City Manager Rick Haydon had similar high praise for Ness: “I worked for six city managers in my career. No disrespect to the others, but Tim is by far the most professional city manager I’ve ever worked for.”
He also acknowledged the controversy that at times surrounded Ness.
“Everyone has a perception of Tim. And a lot of times it comes from reading the newspapers and the blogs, and usually the people who have written those things have an axe to grind,” Haydon said. “It’s unfortunate, because Tim is a nice man. I’ve seen him in the trenches in good times and bad, and he has an even keel about him.
“He went on to say that there are always two sides of a story, and that sometimes the other side simply can’t be revealed.
“Because of privacy rights, we’re not in a position to tell—like Ed Harvey would say—the other side of the story. We can only give the facts, and sometimes we can’t always give that.
The Reign of Rick
Shortly after Ness announced his retirement, the Santa Maria City Council went into closed session. When the members emerged, they announced that Assistant City Manager Rick Haydon would become city manager in December, upon Ness’ departure. The action was hardly abrupt, however. Haydon has said he was mentored to eventually take over the position.
Nor was Ness’ retirement announcement abrupt. Ness, though declining to be interviewed about his retirement, did state publicly that he had been considering retirement for a while.
Ness also told the Sun that Haydon leads by example and with integrity, with a “results-oriented” approach.
“He is extremely hard working, conscientious, a team player, and he is always thoroughly prepared,” Ness said. “He is an excellent financial manager.”
People who have worked with both Ness and Haydon echo those sentiments.
Lavagnino said he has every confidence that Haydon will continue to lead the city much in the same way Ness has.
“I have no doubt Rick is going to be a great city manager,” the mayor said. “He’s passionate about it, he’s meticulous. I have no fear leaving as mayor with Rick Haydon at the helm.”
Haydon said he and Ness have many of the same attributes that have contributed to Santa Maria being so fiscally fit.
“We’re very similar—aside from him being seven inches taller than I am and having some very big shoes to fill,” Haydon said jokingly.
“My background is customer service, and customer service is near and dear to my heart as it is with Tim,” he continued. “We need to provide good customer service to our constituents, fiscal accessibility, and transparency.”
He added that, much like Ness, he favors resourcefulness and accountability and prefers to run the city as a business rather than a government organization with a lot of bureaucracy.
Haydon has served as assistant city manager for 11 years, having come to Santa Maria in 1996 when he was hired as assistant to the city manager. He became assistant city manager four years later and served for 11 years.
He sees the city’s future as promising because of the stability built over the last decade by city management, but acknowledges there are many challenges to overcome first.
Haydon is inheriting a city that has faced a $10 million budget shortfall each year since 2007. When that loss is hitting a general fund budget that’s only $53 million (the city’s total budget is $134.9 million for 2011-2012), it makes a significant impact,
He explained that city management could normally factor into the budget a forward-thinking strategy that counts on improvement in the economy. However, with a drop in sales tax revenues from 16 to 18 percent to the current amount, which falls at less than 16 percent, even with an increase the expenses far outpace the revenues.
While other municipalities are closing libraries and municipal pools to offset such losses, the city of Santa Maria has had to do some personnel restructuring, keeping vacant positions open and implementing furloughs and a hiring chill.
“So I see the future challenge is financing and coming up with an identified revenue source to help balance the budget this year and for future years,” Haydon said.
The city also recently went to a two-tier retirement system for new employees and is considering trying to get a bond measure passed to get funds. Haydon said the new Suey Creek fire station will be complete next September, but there’s no financing mechanism to hire the nine firefighters needed. City staff may bring a proposal to City Council to take a bond measure to residents, predicting that would be the best way to get resident support.
Some of the biggest challenges for the city in the next few years remain financial.
“Of course, we’re just barely seeing indications that we’re coming out of the economic slump,” Mayor Lavagnino said. “Of course Santa Maria is going to be affected by that for years to come. No doubt in my mind that’s the main one.”
Lavagnino said that at one point car sales in Santa Maria dropped 35 percent. But Iversen Motors now has new owners, and Walmart officials are talking about a grocery store where Linens and Things used to be. Lavagnino said these are positive signs that the city is rebounding.
Though Ness’ guidance may have steered the city out of the worst of the recession, there are still rough waters ahead.
The outgoing manager said that one of the most important aspects of the job, with the current financial challenges, is being a financial “wizard.”
“There are many other traits and skills to be effective; some of the most important [are] being a proactive leader; a results-oriented, effective multi-tasker who possesses a passion for excellent public service; a diplomatic, flexible but decisive, politically-sensitive manager who desires to make a difference,” Ness explained. “Being a good listener, thinking several steps ahead, and selecting and delegating to effective members of our team also are vital. It’s all about supporting our team with the tools they need and encouraging them to do their very best.”
Those skills will be of the utmost importance to take on the financial challenges resulting from the economic downturn. He said the city will be required to further re-invent how, and which, services will be provided to residents and identify what sources of revenue can be obtained to maintain current service levels.
“Effective succession planning on the part of the city will help reduce the challenge of ‘change,’” Ness continued. “The new city manager and new fire chief come from within the organization, so they are well-suited and prepared for the challenges ahead.”
Considering his familiarity with the city’s situation, Haydon knows what lies ahead. He estimates it will take $1.5 million to $1.6 million to staff the Suey Creek fire station. Putting an end to the employee furlough is another challenge.
“We’ve had employees on furlough two years in a row, and it will probably be three years in a row,” he said. “One of these days, they are going to say, ‘We’re done with furlough.’”
Haydon said he also plans to make finishing the river levee a priority, and even though it’s not specifically the city’s responsibility, he believes that mindfully supporting economic development—especially when there’s a 13.5 percent unemployment rate in town—is important. Haydon believes the city is doing that with projects like the airport business park, which has the potential to bring jobs to the community when the economy picks up.
It’s that kind of forward thinking that former City Council member Hilda Zacarias sees as necessary for the city to continue to thrive.
“I truly appreciate Tim’s technical skills. He did a good job representing the City Council’s values. I truly appreciate his leadership and mentor skills for employees,” she said. “But what transition does for any organization, it gives you an opportunity to create a vision that is different. I hope that this is an invitation to all of us to envision what we can do to enrich our community and revitalize downtown.”
Zacarias suggested creating a bigger farmers market event and other ways to bring people downtown. She said that people need to stop thinking the city ends at Betteravia Road and realize that Santa Maria is one community that needs to embrace the concept of “love thy neighbor.”
“All of that takes leadership,” she said. “While the city manager’s job is the day-to-day operations of the city, it’s also to be a champion for the community.”
Arts Editor Shelly Cone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.