P.G. City Manager Jim Colangelo dishes on his decision to quit.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
At first it’s hard to recognize the dude strolling up to Monterey’s East Village Coffee Lounge. In a black shirt, dark shades and a new circle beard, Jim Colangelo looks hipper than usual. And trimmer. He speaks more frankly and laughs more often.
But it’s not just the new style or the lost weight that gives the Pacific Grove city manager a certain bounce. After three turbulent years in the post, Colangelo announced his resignation in early July. The shucking of political baggage has replaced his bureaucratic stiffness with a cavalier confidence, not unlike Al Gore after the 2000 election.
During his tenure in P.G. government, Colangelo pushed change on an organization historically enamored with the status quo. With the City Council’s support, he eliminated more than 20 departmental positions and created roughly the same number of new jobs at the central level. He imposed service and staff cuts that pulled the city out of financial quicksand but sent his critics into an uproar. Yet in June, P.G. residents did something unexpected: They approved an increase in the local sales tax, providing desperately needed flow for the city’s silted revenue stream.
With his departure date set for December, Colangelo opened up to the Weekly.
How are you approaching your last months of work?
It’s gotten better than it was. When I made the decision and I hadn’t told anybody yet– and I didn’t want to do it because the sales tax election was going on– that was really difficult, because I was conflicted over it. Once I announced, there was some relief, and I could get back to doing the job. Everybody recognizes what my timeframe is and what kind of things I can get done.
Why did you decide to resign?
I turned 49 in December of last year and knew then that taking retirement was an option in a year. That’s when you’re eligible [for benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System]. In the early part of this year it finalized in my head that I should do that. On one hand, it’s a decision to leave the city because so much significant change has occurred while I’ve been there. It’s hard to implement that much change and continue to run the organization. You upset so many people. People’s feelings about the issues become very personalized, and it becomes more about whether they like me or dislike me than what’s right for the city. It’s the right time for somebody to come in who’s got a clean slate and will be judged more on their ideas than on their personality. For my own personal reasons, with my youngest son graduating high school, and [my] turning 50, it seemed like a good time to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Did you time your announcement in advance of the November City Council campaign?
I certainly didn’t want be the focus of another campaign if I didn’t have intentions to stay a long time. I actually was going to announce a little bit earlier, but with the sales tax measure [in June], I didn’t know how my announcement would impact the vote. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was affecting the vote one way or the other.
What brought you to P.G. in the first place? You had a pretty nice position at the county.
Yeah, I was the number two person at the county, and I applied for the number one job and didn’t get it. It became clear at that point it was a good idea to start looking at other things. And surprisingly to me, the City Manager of Pacific Grove announced that he was quitting. Having lived there, I felt like it was an organization that needed some improvement.
What was your initial concept of what you were taking on as city manager?
My sense of the organization, being someone who’d worked in local government and lived [in P.G.] for 10 years, was that it was really heavily criticized for its lack of openness. And so we needed to do a better job of being more transparent about what we do. There’s a downside to that: Everybody sees your mistakes. I recognized that it wouldn’t be easy to change, but I didn’t realize that there would be people in the organization working as hard as they were against change. They were holding onto the old ways so strongly that they were really going to discourage anybody from acting differently.
Are those the department heads who are gone now?
They include those people. When I showed up, I think there were 12 people in that first staff meeting of people who reported directly to me. There’s only one left at this point, and that’s Andrew Miller, the fire chief. Without any other experience, there was nothing for them to compare this organization to, to say, “There is another way.” There’s a good side to it: It creates an incredible loyalty among staff. Even now, we’re talking about getting rid of PERS, and a lot of the employees haven’t had even a cost of living increase in the last three years. There’s not a lot of them going off to work for other jurisdictions, which is what you might expect. It’s just trying to figure out how you get that balance: the loyalty that you want from a staff, but also the recognition that you can’t keep doing things exactly as you did them in the 1960s.
How do you feel about the layoffs?
If you had told me at the time I went into that meeting that three years later only one of them would be there, I would have said you’re crazy. It is not what I intended to do walking into the organization. Some of them left on their own through retirement or resigned and went to other places. And many of them were laid off. From a personal standpoint, it’s tough. I liked many of the people who are no longer here. I don’t know if they like me anymore. Given the fact that we had very finite resources to spread around, there really wasn’t the ability to carry positions that weren’t absolutely essential.
What are you the most proud of?
Getting the fiscal picture straightened out and getting the message out to the public that there truly were some issues with our finances, and that the public had a choice. It was a significant reduction in services or entrusting the city with additional resources. For the last tax measure to pass as strongly as it did– I feel good that we were able to get that message out and people were able to make an informed decision. The reorganization and the changes that we went through, as difficult as that was on a personal level for many of these people, was the right thing for the organization. The organization was too top-heavy. It had way too many department heads for the number of line staff that it had. We needed to figure out how to put more of our resources towards direct services and less towards management.
As I told the staff, we have to take this above ourselves and look at what is good for the taxpayers. In the future, small towns like ours are going to have to consolidate with other jurisdictions for a lot of their services, even at the city manager level. If I felt like this city was ready to give up its local identity, I wouldn’t have had any problem recommending that they eliminate my position. Any of us in public service should be willing to recommend eliminating our own jobs if we thought that’s the right thing for the organization.
How easy was it to work with the council?
It’s been a different group of people throughout the process. I’ve had different relationships with each one of them. Some of them were great relationships, and some of them were more strained. The council we have right now, of all the elected officials I’ve worked with in my career, is the most intelligent group of people across the board. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can be very easy to explain complex issues and have them understand it. On the other hand, sometimes it tends to lead them towards getting too involved in the management of the city rather than setting the policy. That’s always a fine balancing act for elected officials.
How about working with Mayor Dan Cort?
Cort’s been great to work with. He is relatively new at being an elected official, and he recognizes that. He’s always willing to listen. Best thing about Dan is that his heart’s in the right place. He really wants to serve the community, and it’s less about his individual agenda than about asking what the public wants and then carrying that out. Dan wants to be a team player; he wants people to get along. When I’ve been advising him, one of the things I’ve said is, “You need to manage the council a little more strongly at council meetings.” I think it is because he wants everybody to get along so well and feel so much like a team that he does let ‘em go. A lot. And let them have debates, which they love to have.
Tell me about your relationship with your critics.
It’s gotten to the point that some of them don’t even talk to me anymore. With others, walking down the street they’ll say hi. There’s a certain group of people that has been taking ads out in the [P.G. Hometown] Bulletin, and they certainly don’t support anything I do. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good time for change in the city manager position: That group of people becomes anti-anything that I propose. We need to get past that as a community.
When you took this job, how long did you think you would be staying?
At the time, I certainly wasn’t thinking about retiring before 55. On the other hand, you recognize in these positions that you’re always serving at the whim of the majority, and political changes can happen. I really didn’t have any idea that I would be leaving in the near future, so this is a little faster than I thought. But we had to make more changes than I thought, too.
Why did you bring in some of your former colleagues from the county?
When you have that much criticism against you, it’s tough for people from the outside who don’t know you very well to get a sense of who you are. “Is he this really mean, horrible boss, or is he fair and trying to do the right thing and just making tough decisions?” We had to bring competent people into the organization. We tried to hire people from the outside, but this is such a high cost of living area and we don’t pay health insurance benefits like most other local governments do. And part of it was, I was really looking for people I knew that I could trust. They were more willing to come because they felt like they knew who I was, so they thought I’d be fair and I’d respect them. It was never a conspiracy to bring all my friends in.
What about the green conspiracy– the idea you are working with your sister [Joy Colangelo] and Mayor Cort to force a Green Revolution on Pacific Grove?
If we were, I don’t know what would be so bad about that. But I don’t think we’re trying to force anything on anybody. Sustainable Monterey County was a group I was completely unfamiliar with when I became city manager, so I went to one of their board meetings to talk to them about what they were doing. It wasn’t that they were “green,” whatever that means; it was that they were talking about how to create sustainable organizations and sustainable communities in the face of dwindling resources. That, to me, is not an environmental issue; it’s a survival issue, something we should all be interested in. Sustainable Monterey County was trying to set up individual sustainable groups in different communities. Dan [Cort] got interested in setting up a Sustainable Pacific Grove, and I talked to Annette Chaplin, who I had worked with in the county on the General Plan, and she got interested. Then I told my sister, and she got involved. It was really Annette and Joy who got it off the ground. If the conspiracy is that I support what Sustainable Pacific Grove is trying to do– help the city become more sustainable and locally reliant– yeah, I’m doing that. And if people think that’s a bad thing, they can think it’s a bad thing.
Will you be active as a citizen of Pacific Grove after December?
I think so. There are still some things I’d like to see us do. I really think that our downtown is under-utilized. It could be such an incredible asset. And the first three Farmers Markets really bring that home. You see all these local people walking around downtown and reconnecting with each other. But there needs to be something downtown to bring people there on a regular basis. It’s something I wish I could work on as city manager. But one of the things that’s frustrating is, I feel like it’s my job to take on other people’s issues. Working on a long-term plan for downtown always can wait another day.
Do you see any hopeless cases in Pacific Grove?
I don’t think there’s anything that’s hopeless. Like all communities, it’s got its challenges. With what we had to go through with our fiscal issues and re-organizing city staff, I think we may be a little bit better off than other jurisdictions facing our economy. I also think that our real estate market, while certainly we’ve seen declines in value, is certainly more stable than you’d see in Marina or Seaside and Salinas, where you’ve seen huge losses in value. The biggest thing is trying to figure out how to capture some of the money that our residents are spending in other areas, whether it’s on the Internet, or in Sand City or Marina at the big box stores, or whether it’s here at Del Monte [Shopping Center]. Part of the reason they’re shopping in those areas is because there are no equivalent stores in P.G., so they have no choice. But part of the reason, too, is that they’re going there to save a buck. How do you overcome that and convince people that with the money they’re spending on gas, and the time that they’re taking, maybe spending 10 percent more on a product in P.G. is actually more cost-effective? If you can find the thing in P.G. That’s part of the challenge: getting merchants in P.G. to start selling things that residents would really buy.
What do you think people most misunderstood about your work as City Manager?
There’s an idea out there that I’m a really cold person who doesn’t care about anything or anybody. I don’t think people recognize how hard these decisions were to make. As I’ve said before, this is the only place a lot of these people have ever worked, and I know that emotionally it’s a really hard thing to go through. It’s never any fun when you lay people off, and I think there’s a sense out there that I didn’t care about people’s feelings. I do. I just think that in this public sector environment we really need to answer a different question. It’s not what’s good for the employee; it’s what’s good for the community.
What’s your ideal next job?
Major league baseball pitcher. [Laughs.] There’s certainly a part about community building that I’m still very interested in, and I’m trying to figure out if there is a better institution to get things done than local government. Local government has become very constrained in what it can and can’t do. We don’t have a high credibility in government, period; we could do 10 good things in a week and if one employee does something wrong, that would overshadow the 10 good things. How do you get the best of the nonprofit world and the best of the government world and put them together to try to get things done? So there’s that aspect. But on the other hand, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to have any responsibility for anything for a while.
Where will your resignation leave the people you put in place during your tenure?
Hopefully it doesn’t affect them at all. The ones who came in the last year or so, I was very clear with them, given how controversial the job had become, and knowing that there were people out there talking about the next City Council election being about getting rid of the City Manager. I said, “You shouldn’t take a job here solely because you want to work with me, because either by choice or by the choice of the council, I may not be here that long.”
Deputy City Manager Charlene Wiseman, who you hired two years ago, is also resigning.
The idea in her coming over here was for us to work together and combine our strengths in organizational development. We always talked about it as a team. We decided in the end it would make the most sense for us to leave at the same time.