A historic city manager
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 3:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 3:29 p.m.
Back when, the Argus-Courier produced an annual publication, the Top of the Bay edition, a multi-section effort with stories about the various aspects of our community. A few days ago, friends gave me a copy of the February, 1969 edition of the TOB publication.
It is fascinating to read about how our community saw itself then, through the prism of more than four decades of history telling us how things actually turned out. This paper was produced at the front end of the massive building boom that led to the famous growth control plan three years later. But, in the innocence of 1969, all was well with the world.
For example, the edition reported that the city gave out 400 residential building permits in 1966, 448 permits in 1967, and 610 in 1968. The story reported that prospects “for 1969 look even better.” In fact, about 1,000 permits would be issued in 1969, touching off the citizen's revolt that was to alter Petaluma's future.
One interesting tidbit from 1969 was that the trustees of the Sonoma County Junior College district were warned by the state to begin planning a junior college in the South County. Took a few years for that one to happen.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this edition, at least to this writer, was not what it included, but what it did not include. The section on local government was full of goodies about City Hall staff and programs. City Manager Bob Meyer had his picture in three places. And the City Council? Nowhere to be seen. Not a single picture, no story about them, not even the names of the members were listed.
There was a short item about upcoming council elections and, in a full-page spread on the city's annual report, there were about three inches of copy on “City Council Activities” with gems such as “many abandoned chicken houses in the area were demolished as the result of the Mayor's Second Beautification Conference. It was a positive, action filled year.”
The rest of the page was about City Hall departments. The annual report to the community message was signed by the City Manager, not the Mayor.
And therein is a significant difference between then and now. Then, the City Manager in the person of Meyer truly ran this city, and the council may have advised, and even objected, but most of the time the final decision was Meyer's.
Meyer did not just run the city. In the words of one person who served on the council during Meyer's reign, he was “a dictator.” That observation was offered only partly in jest.
A good example of Meyer's management style is his handling of staff. Most department heads were sharply restricted on their contact with community groups, particularly speaking engagements, and had to clear all such with the City Manager. About a decade later, the city appointed a task force to review the first five years of the fabled environmental design plan, and the subcommittee on parks and recreation, trying to find ways to expedite the development of the Lucchesi Park center (an unfunded project that had been in the proposal stage for about 20 years,) invited the Parks Director to meet with them for a background briefing. He dutifully reported the request to Meyer, and the City Manager forbade him to meet with the group. Meyer apparently felt that an uninformed committee was not likely to make recommendations that would challenge his own agenda.
The Task Force chair, John Balshaw, still a year away from being a council member, fired off a letter to the council, saying in essence, “either you let us have access to information so we can do our jobs, or we all resign.” It didn't happen often, but that time the council did buck Meyer and directed him to let their appointed task force talk to city staff.
What drove Meyer? He was a true fiscal conservative before the term had layers of political meaning. His goals boiled down to generating as much tax revenue as possible while obligating the least amount of demand on the city's general fund. And, he dealt with critics with all the finesse of a proctologist using a jackhammer.
(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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