SHORT TIMER: Santa Cruz City Manager Dick Wilson leaves his job this July.
Filling Wilson's Wingtips
Who will replace longtime City Manager Dick Wilson?
By Curtis Cartier
IN A CITY where constant change is the only guarantee, Santa Cruzans have been able to count on one thing for the last 28 years: that City Manager Dick Wilson would show up to work every day, a steady hand at the tiller. During his tenure, the tall, soft-spoken Wilson answered to more than a dozen city councils, steering city staff through an earthquake, an expanding university and more budget crises than just the most recent one. When Wilson retires in July, he'll be leaving the Santa Cruz City Council with what Mayor Mike Rotkin calls "the most important decision the council will make in its tenure."
That decision: hire a replacement for a man most consider irreplaceable. The most common assessment of Wilson is that he's a penny-pinching budget hawk, a man who, despite a public eager for services and elected officials looking to please the voters, has found creative ways to deliver what was asked while keeping the city's bottom line in the black.
City leaders have been loathe to utter names as to who might be in the running for Wilson's job, but a few, nonetheless, have begun to surface. The obvious choice for most, though not a shoe-in by any means, is Wilson's understudy, Assistant City Manager Martin Bernal. Bernal's résumé boasts a Stanford education and 21 years of city planning and managerial experience, including 13 years in Santa Cruz at his current job. One city official, who asked his name not be used, went so far as to predict Bernal would get the nod.
"I'm obviously interested in the position," says Bernal, choosing his words carefully, as he very often does. "The City Council is going to look a lot of places, though."
Another name being bandied about is that of former Santa Cruz Planning Director and current Los Gatos Town Manager Greg Larson. Larson, who says he's happily employed in Los Gatos, took the time to lay out some of the qualities he thinks will be sought in candidates.
"I think the City Council will look for someone who can keep an eye on the bottom line," says Larson. "In this economy that's the biggest challenge facing every city. Dick taught me that one of the biggest core responsibilities at any time is to focus on fiscal responsibility."
Others on the unofficial short list are Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher and Soquel Creek Water District General Manager Laura Brown. Neither Kocher nor Brown returned messages seeking comment as to their interest in the position. And while councilmembers express some preference for hiring from within the ranks of city employees—only partially, Rotkin says, because they could likely pay such a person less than someone from outside the city—the selection may indeed come from far beyond Santa Cruz's bubble. To this end, Rotkin says, the city has hired a consultant to help form a detailed hiring strategy that can both sift through local applicants and woo qualified folks from other cities.
"No one imagines that we can find another Dick Wilson," the mayor says. "The first question we have to ask is:
'Are we looking for someone to run the city as it's been run or someone to come in and make radical changes?' Whoever it is, it has to be someone who can run a 500-plus person organization and make it run well."
As for Wilson himself, he says he'll play no part in helping choose his replacement and is quick to point out that he still has about five months left on the job and plenty of loose ends to tie up. Once he's done, however, he says he's got "a stack of books to write," the first of which will be about local governance. One thing he will say: whoever sits in the high-backed chair of the Santa Cruz city manager will have plenty of variety.
"The one thing I've never felt is that I've been in the same job this whole time," Wilson says. "Every day there are new challenges, and whoever takes over will get their chance at dealing with them."
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