Who’s that guy picking up trash? It’s Arroyo Grande’s new city manager

You won’t find Arroyo Grande’s new city manager at his desk on Saturdays — though he will be working to improve the city.

Most likely, you’ll find him out on the sidewalk picking up trash.

“That’s when you really learn your community,” Jim Bergman said. “When you are out walking, you really have a chance to see things. I’m trying not to just stay in my office.”

Bergman was chosen from a pool of 50 applicants in March to replace former City Manager Dianne Thompson, who was fired for unknown reasons in June 2016. Bergman was hired with a total compensation of about $237,100 annually, including a base salary of $179,000 (the same as Thompson’s).

Bergman began work May 1, but his connection to Arroyo Grande goes further back than that: His first job after earning his master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly was actually an internship with the city of Arroyo Grande planning department. After completing that internship, he stayed with the department in various positions until he was eventually promoted to planning manager. He left that job in 2011 to move to Windsor, before returning to the area in 2014 to be planning and building director for San Luis Obispo County.

He, his wife and two young children also live in Arroyo Grande.

“A.G. is our home,” he said. “It’s where all our friends are and the people who are really important to us. So then I was able to talk my way into this job, and it’s wonderful.”

Now Bergman has returned to the city where he got his start, just when the city is tenuously poised to undergo some massive transformations.

In addition to numerous developments that are changing the look and feel of town, the city — and City Hall especially — has been embroiled in conflict in recent years amid scandal, council disputes and a revolving door of city management that has had many questioning the workings at City Hall.

Though he was mum on his exact thoughts on the circumstances of his predecessor’s abrupt departure from the city, Bergman said he intends to stay out of troublesome city politics and instead focus on what’s really important: the people.

“I’m just going to be Jim,” he said. “It comes down to trying to look at the human level, listening, being much more creative in, ‘OK, this is the general spirit of what we are trying to do here, how do we solve this problem?’ And sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t.”

In fact, Bergman has built an entire metaphor for how he wants residents to view their city.

On a drive through Arroyo Grande, Bergman pointed out new developments, the aging recreation office near Elm Street Park and an affordable housing complex on Courtland Avenue, and explained how he views the city as an inheritance: Residents are the owners of the 5.25-square-mile plot of land that makes up Arroyo Grande, but they entrust much of its daily operations to a qualified group of individuals and experts to handle the minutiae that keeps the city running smoothly, as well as a five-person group of volunteers that act as their voice to help make the city a better place.

“Each person who lives in the city, we are all co-owners of all of this stuff,” he said as he gestured at the recently renovated shopping center along Grand Avenue that houses Five Guys Burgers, among other businesses. “I don’t think a lot of people think of it that way.”

When viewed through that lens, it’s easier to understand why you might find Bergman trawling the city’s streets picking up trash in his off time — the way he sees it, he’s just as responsible for the city’s well-being as a city manager as he is as a resident. And he urges other residents to take up that stewardship of their city themselves.

“There’s things I’d like to fix if I can, but volunteerism, I think, is a big part of that,” he said. “You know, we all complain about taxes, but I think that most of the time people would prefer to volunteer a couple hours on a Saturday and have things nice and avoid new (expenses). … It’s really up to us to make it better and make it work for everyone.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

Quick facts

Name: James Bergman

Hometown: Lakewood

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Cal State Chico and a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly

Family: Wife and two children, ages 4 and 1

Base Salary: $179,000 per year