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For future city head, look to past

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The Petaluma City Council has an important task on its hands for the new year — it needs to hire a new city manager.

City council members, incoming council members-elect and city department heads will meet later this month with several candidates for the top job in Petaluma government, and they hope to make a decision by the first council meeting of the new year.

In case the decision makers are wondering what traits to seek in a good city manager, here’s a bit of advice: Start by cloning our previous city manager, John Brown.

After 10 years of adept leadership, Brown leaves large shoes to fill. Our next city manager should have most of his skill set, including financial acumen, experience with transit-oriented development and an ability to work on issues from all sides.

Brown’s legacy in Petaluma is defined by his steady navigation through the financial crisis. He was hired in April 2008, just as the recession was crippling municipalities across the country, and he was forced to take austerity measures to get the city back on a square financial footing.

Brown cut positions, privatized city functions and found efficiencies, eventually replenishing the city’s nearly depleted reserves. While he brought Petaluma back from the brink, the city’s budget is far from thriving. Staff positions, especially in public safety, are still below pre-recession levels. Pension obligations, due to decisions made a decade before Brown arrived, will eat up a much larger chunk of the budget in the coming years.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the city will need a new revenue source, potentially a tax measure, in the near future. Our next city manager hopefully will have the financial skills to build upon Brown’s budgetary management.

The incoming city council has pledged to tackle the housing crisis, and they will need a city manager well versed in the kind of transit-oriented development that the new leaders say they want to see. Several large mixed-use development deals were approved during Brown’s tenure, including the Riverfront project and the North River Apartments, which when completed will add much needed high-density commercial and residential space.

With plenty of opportunity for more of this kind of infill development, especially near downtown Petaluma, our new city manager should have experience attracting projects like this and streamlining them through the planning process.

One of Brown’s strengths was his ability to work with city leaders with a multitude of different perspectives and expectations. The Petaluma City Council is an opinionated bunch, and council members haven’t always agreed on the direction the city should take.

Brown had to decipher the intentions of seven strong-willed council members, interpret consensus when it was not always clear, and formulate and enact a policy based on the feedback from our elected representatives. He articulated recommendations based on what was best for the city of Petaluma, but without his own personal bias. We hope our next city manager is as successful at managing his or her bosses as Brown was.

Petaluma’s government runs on a so-called weak mayor system. While we elect our mayor, and our council members, it is the city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of the city and is the most important figure in city government. The choice of a new city manager is probably just as, if not more, important than our recent local election.

In choosing a future city head, we hope the decision makers look to the past and tap someone with the qualities of our recently retired city manager.