Arroyo Grande’s new city manager opens up about her goals for the city

Arroyo Grande's new city manager Dianne Thompson.
Photo by Joe Johnston 08-27-15
Arroyo Grande's new city manager Dianne Thompson. Photo by Joe Johnston 08-27-15 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Arroyo Grande city management has had a whirlwind of a year.

Following the highly publicized incident in which former City Manager Steve Adams was found alone at night in City Hall with a subordinate, and his subsequent departure from city management in November, Arroyo Grande was without a permanent top administrator.

That changed in April, when the city announced Dianne Thompson would take the helm.

Thompson, who came to Arroyo Grande after a brief stint as interim town manager for Ross, Calif., officially began her duties Aug. 1. She replaced interim City Manager Bob McFall.

After several weeks as the city’s top administrator, Thompson sat down with The Tribune to answer six questions about herself, her goals for the city and how she hopes to move beyond the controversy of her predecessor’s departure.

KL: Let’s start out with the easy question: Tell me about yourself.

DT: Sure. Most recently I did an interim position as manager for the town of Ross in Marin County — a small, very affluent community. It was an interesting experience to sort of come into a community and quickly get to know it and determine what needed to be done and what could be accomplished in a short period of time. That was a very enjoyable experience.

Prior to that, I worked for many years as the city manager for the city of Cotati in Sonoma County — a small community of about 7,000 in the midst of a much larger area in Sonoma County. Sonoma State (University) is next to Cotati, so Cotati really functioned as the downtown for Sonoma State University. It had a big influence in terms of lots of students and professors, and of course, the normal mix of families.

Cotati was a challenging experience as a city manager initially because of the economic downturn. It hit Cotati kind of early and hard, and we went through a series of cost-cutting measures and revenue enhancements in a number of efforts to get the city on track financially. At this point, the city is financially sustainable going into the future.

Prior to that I worked for the city of Santa Rosa as their architect for about 12 years, and I was responsible for design and construction on city-owned property. The most interesting project I think I did in Santa Rosa was restoration of the 100-year-old railroad depot in Railroad Square. It was a fun project. The building — I don’t know if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”? — that building was featured in the beginning and ending scenes of that film. Anyway, that was a fun project — I could talk about it for hours. But we got some grant money and a local match, and were able to renovate that building after it had been vacant for about 20 years as a visitors center. And then that led to restoration of the park around the building and also improvements throughout the historic district. That was really gratifying, because it was an opportunity to work with not just the city, but the merchants and the property owners to revitalize that community. That was a really fun project, and even during the economic downturn, that area stayed busy and active.

KL: So you’re background is in architecture. What drew you to that, and then on to city management?

DT: Prior to working in Santa Rosa, I was working in the private sector for a few years in the Bay Area and I worked on retail projects, hospitality projects, as well as government buildings. Initially in college I studied art history, specifically architecture history.

I’m interested in old buildings. Of course those have been some of my favorite projects along the way. When I was at Berkeley, I moved into the art history program for a few years, and was kind of drawn to architecture as a way to put my energy into improving communities. At the time I was focused more on individual building design.

After I graduated and worked in the field for a number of years, I became interested in communities on a larger scale, as opposed to just working on a single building. I suppose that’s what really drew me to the position in Santa Rosa, working as an architect, and having a real opportunity to improve the community by improving the facilities.

KL: Now that you’ve moved down here, what are your first thoughts about the Central Coast?

DT: The Central Coast is a fabulous place to be. My husband and I, we feel really fortunate to be able to move here. In terms of Arroyo Grande, I see Arroyo Grande really as a hidden gem. A lot of people will bypass Arroyo Grande on the freeway — the focus is on Pismo and Santa Barbara and other communities.

But Arroyo Grande, as you know, is a beautiful town with a wonderful historic downtown and some beautiful parks. It’s a special place. I’m still in the learning and listening mode. Even though I did my research prior to coming here, and I’ve been here now a full (four) weeks as city manager, I am still very much in that mode of learning and listening and getting to know the community, getting to know the council better, getting to know the staff, and hearing about the priorities and the goals that the council has, and accessing the organization and putting together a plan.

KL: What is the plan? What are you hoping to address for the city?

DT: At the top of my list is financial sustainability. That really needs to be the cornerstone for any public agency, to assure that you will have the resources in the future, to meet the needs of the residents. So that is something I’m looking at carefully, and will continue to look at carefully and work with the council on.

And of course the other critical issue is water. As a limited natural resource that has to be looked at carefully. It has been looked at here in Arroyo Grande; great strides have been made. In fact, we just found out within the last few weeks that our citizens achieved a 41 percent reduction (in July compared with 2013). That’s terrific. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to keep conserving, but that’s really a great indicator of the citizens’ commitment to conserving water and the city’s ability to effectively put together water conservation programs.

Looking toward the future, I think we are going to be looking now very carefully into how we are going to provide adequate water resources. There has already been a lot of work put into that effort. It will involve partnerships to our neighboring cities. It will involve recycled water, perhaps desalination through another agency. Who knows? But we are going to have to look at all of those opportunities and work with our neighboring agencies to make that happen.

KL: I’m sure you are aware of the controversy last year that brought about the former city manager’s departure. What are your comments on the lingering tension from that incident and how do you expect to help the city recover?

DT: My sense is that the community has been very welcoming to me and they are ready to move forward from what happened. The past is to some degree, old news.

KL: Do you have anything else to add?

DT: I think that what is important to the citizens is that their management is responsive to them, and that we are transparent in how we conduct business. Those are always aspects of city management that are important to me. From my observation of the staff, they provide excellent customer service. They are very professional — we have really good staff. And we have a really good council. They work well together. So I’m very optimistic about the future.