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Czar or Bust

[whitespace] After 20 years of running redevelopment his way, Frank Taylor wasn't about to become anybody's team player

By Will Harper

AT 9AM ON FEB. 4, a familiar red-bearded, flushed face arrived in the sixth-floor reception area of City Hall. He had been here countless times before during his 20 years with the city, visiting with San Jose's three previous mayors to talk about multimillion-dollar projects that would resurrect the downtown.

But today the czar of redevelopment, as Frank Taylor is unofficially known, had other things on his mind.

After Taylor checked in with the receptionist, new Mayor Ron Gonzales emerged from his office and invited the redevelopment director in.

In the past, Taylor regularly talked one-on-one with mayors Tom McEnery and Susan Hammer about upcoming business.

But under the new leadership, things were shaping up to be different. Gonzales, a former Hewlett-Packard executive who had vowed to make the city more team-oriented, had earlier in the week assembled the very first of his weekly "one-team" management meetings, where Czar Taylor was forced to share his one-on-one with acting city manager Debra Figone, her staff and the mayor's top aides.

Shortly after that inaugural team meeting, Taylor asked Gonzales if they could meet later in the week--alone. Gonzales penciled him in for a Thursday morning sit-down.

Once they were alone inside the mayor's office, Taylor handed Gonzales a one-page letter. He wanted off the team. "Dear Mayor Gonzales and members of the Redevelopment Agency Board," the letter began. "This is to notify you I intend to retire from city service."

Gonzales scanned the text and looked up.

"Are you 100 percent sure?" the mayor asked.

"Yes," Taylor answered.

They talked for another half-hour. After Taylor left, Gonzales quickly huddled with his staff and vice mayor Frank Fiscalini to figure out their next move. Within an hour, Gonzales summoned Taylor back to his office to discuss the mechanics of his departure. Taylor agreed to stay through June into July--he initially wanted to leave in April--and come back as an unpaid special adviser, even though Gonzales offered to pay him for his services.

They scheduled a press conference announcing Taylor's decision 10 days later on Feb. 18.

Before the press conference began, Taylor kept a smile plastered on his face as photographers snapped away. But when he approached the podium, the smile suddenly disappeared. His voice trembled. "I have an announcement to make today. ... I wish to retire from city service," he stammered, using the language from his resignation letter.

At age 61, the executive who oversaw downtown San Jose's billion-dollar revitalization program reasoned, it was time to take it easy, maybe do some painting and write poetry on the beach.

JUST THREE MONTHS EARLIER, Taylor and his handlers were telling reporters that, contrary to predictions during the election, he had no plans to retire and looked forward to working with the new mayor. Gonzales, who beat out longtime redevelopment ally Pat Dando, was cautious about publicly criticizing Taylor, though the candidate made it clear he opposed redevelopment's planned demolition of two downtown landmarks, the Jose Theatre and the Montgomery Hotel.

There were reasons for Gonzales and his advisers to be skeptical of Taylor. Gonzales' opponent, Almaden Valley Councilwoman Pat Dando, had worked four years as Taylor's top assistant, from 1991 to 1995. Before that she spent four years as an aide to ex-Mayor Tom McEnery, a close friend of the redevelopment chief.

But after the election there were signs that Gonzales might not want to chase Taylor off--at least not right away. When city manager Regina Williams unexpectedly resigned to take a job in Virginia, closer to her family, advisers thought a second departure of a major department head might be too much.

So talk of Taylor's imminent demise subsided. And the redevelopment czar seemed freshly optimistic about working with Gonzales. That is, until the new mayor took office in January.


In redevelopment, huge cost overruns were the rule.

With few exceptions, history took a back seat to the wants of favored developers.


WITHIN A MONTH of his inauguration, Gonzales made it clear to Taylor who was going to be boss the next four years. The mayor immediately declared that he was going to try and save the Jose Theatre from demolition, scheduled because of a deal Taylor had struck in private almost three years earlier with developer Jim Fox.

Soon after, the mayor stacked a special redevelopment advisory task force with people who had been critical of Taylor and the agency in the past. Then Gonzales took away Taylor's control of the board's meeting agenda, forcing the redevelopment director to get a public sign-off from the City Council Rules Committee.

If all that wasn't bad enough, the mayor wanted to hold Redevelopment Agency board meetings the same day as council meetings.

Under previous mayors McEnery and Hammer, Taylor enjoyed unusual freedom for an appointed department head, especially one overseeing the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

McEnery even led the charge to make the agency independent of the city manager, thereby allowing the redevelopment director to report directly to the mayor and council.

Hammer subsequently gave Taylor the authority to negotiate contracts and "change orders"--amendments to contracts--for up to $75,000 without having to get a nod from the City Council. Before, anything over $20,000 had to go to the council.

Gonzales' early actions sent Taylor a clear message: the new mayor was going to keep him on a short leash and not let him stray too far away from the pack.

When asked by a daily newspaper reporter during his press conference what he thought about Gonzales' plan to integrate the agency into the city hierarchy, Taylor replied tersely, "It's achievable."

AT THIS POINT, Gonzales says no one has been tapped to take over as interim director when Taylor leaves. Privately, mayoral advisers are hopeful they can recruit a replacement before Taylor's final day on July 24.

Whoever succeeds the czar will have a tremendous learning curve.

As legend has it, only Taylor knows where all the money is kept in the agency's $745 million five-year spending plan. "It's no myth," assures Bob Brownstein, formerly the budget director for Mayor Hammer.

Had the outcome of the November election been different, Taylor might have another mayor inside City Hall who would allow him the flexibility to which he had become accustomed. Dando, after all, owed Taylor her previous $72,500-a-year job.

But at his farewell press conference Taylor insisted that even if Dando were mayor right now, he would be calling it quits. Afterward, when the cameras were turned off, Taylor said he had thought about retiring--or at least taking an extended break--since he was 55, back when Dando served as his assistant. "I told Pat before she became a councilmember [and while Susan Hammer was mayor]," Taylor said, "that I wouldn't stay through any new mayor's term."

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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