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Petaluma City Manager John Brown to retire

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Petaluma City Manager John Brown, who led the city through a decade of necessary austerity during the recession, announced Monday he is retiring at the end of November.

Brown, who turns 60 next week and recently marked 10 years leading the city, said he is looking forward to traveling and spending more time with family and friends after a 35-year career in public service.

“As I’ve contemplated these particular milestones in the last several months, I’ve thought a lot about what I’m doing with my life, what I’m accomplishing, what I might do instead that would provide greater personal fulfillment,” he said at Monday’s city council meeting. “Although I think I have a lot to offer the profession, I’ve also done much of what I planned to do three decades ago when I set my sights on becoming a city manager ... I think I’m ready to enjoy Petaluma full time and not just on the weekends.”

Brown came to Petaluma from the city of Woodburn, Oregon, where he was city manager, in April 2008 during the height of the financial crisis. He saw the city’s reserves plummet from $8.5 million to a low of $5,000 in 2011. Through belt tightening measures he introduced, including reducing General Fund spending by a third in his first three years, Brown increased the reserve fund, which is forecast at $8.7 million for fiscal year 2019.

The city shed more than 20 percent of its workforce from 359 positions to 282 positions in 2012. This year, the city expects a full time staff of 316 as essential workers continue to be added to the payroll.

Mayor David Glass credited Brown’s budgetary acumen for keeping the lights on during tough financial times.

“There was a big thing called a global meltdown, if you might remember it. It was scary times,” he said. “I’m sure there was a lot of internal juggling on cash flow issues to keep the bills being paid on time.”

An innovative manager, Brown privatized several city functions, including planning, animal services and custodial functions, to contain costs and improve customer service. He oversaw the completion of Petaluma’s $127 million Ellis Creek Wastewater Treatment facility.

He prioritized economic development, attracting two large retail centers, two hotels, three mixed-use developments and several residential subdivisions after years of sales tax leakage and slow housing growth.

“I’ve been delighted with your performance for the last 10 years,” City Councilwoman Teresa Barrett, who was on the council when Brown was hired, said at the meeting Monday. “I can’t imagine how we would have gotten through the perils of 2008 without your leadership, your technical skills and your determination to get us through that. ... You have really allowed this city to perform at an incredibly high rate with almost a skeleton crew. I think that we owe a lot of that to you.”

Brown kept a firm grip on city operations but had a low-key managerial style mostly free of drama. His administration dealt with two scandals, both coming from the fire department.

Andrea Waters, one of Petaluma’s only female firefighters, sued the city for harassment in 2014, alleging she was denied training routinely given to her male counterparts, held to different standards than her male colleagues, and was deprived of separate changing, shower or sleeping facilities. The city paid her a record $1.25 million to settle the suit in 2017.

In late 2017, firefighter Brett Hughes admitted to having consensual sex in Petaluma fire stations while on duty. He resigned in the face of immediate termination.

Brown also never succeeded in his goal of passing a revenue measure to fix the city’s streets and offset the cost of rising pension obligations. Voters rejected a 2014 sales tax measure, and subsequent attempts at a sales tax increase never made the ballot.

Still, Councilwoman Kathy Miller said Brown skillfully led the city.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you, not always on pleasant topics,” she said. “I think you’ve done a tremendous job leading the city. I wish you well in your retirement and I look forward to seeing you out and about enjoying yourself.”

A graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge, where he earned a master’s in public administration, Brown said he has no plans to continue full time work. He plans to spend his retirement doing volunteer or part time humanitarian work, and possible interim city manager assignments, “to keep my hand in the game.”

Married for 35 years, he has four adult children and six grandchildren. He is looking forward to improving his foreign language skills, hiking, biking, backpacking, fishing and non-fiction writing.

Brown said his successor will likely come from outside the city as no current city staff are interested in the job. He recommended Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun to be interim city manager during the four- to five-month recruitment process. Brown said the city would hire a recruitment firm next month.

In the meantime, Brown said there is still a lot of work to do.

“I have no intention of coasting to the finish line,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a lot over the last several years and I aim to stay fully engaged until my last day here advancing the council’s stated goals and clearing the way as much as possible for my successor.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)