Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: His civics lesson: Build trust

“I’m tired; I think it’s time to go home.” And with those words, after criss-crossing the country several times over a period of years, Forrest Gump suddenly stopped running and walked home. People were surprised.

People were kinda surprised last July when I announced my plan to leave city management. But after a near lifetime of “running,” I had my Forrest Gump moment. The time had come to change the pace and today is my last day on the job.

City management is a wonderful, but relentless profession. A city manager is like the CEO of a corporation, except that a city manager presides over a corporation that trades not only in “product,” but also in the reconciliation of “values” … the messy business of democracy.

In SLO, the city manager oversees a $100 million dollar budget and 360 full-time employees. Our employees fall into one of seven groups, five of them organized as formal “unions.” The city manager directly supervises 10 people, including nine department heads — for example, the police chief, fire chief and public works director. The manager is supervised by five elected bosses, each having different values and views about what ought to be done.

There is a multitude of external relationships in the mix — the media, advocacy groups and service clubs, advisory bodies, and other local, state and federal agencies. And there are the programs, services and controversial issues to worry about, too.

I could go on and on, but I will sum up by saying that it has been the challenge of a lifetime, and an absolutely great ride. The job demanded much; but it has given back in ways that can’t be quantified.

Over the years, I have grown quite protective of my city, and I am relieved to be passing the baton to a talented and experienced manager, Katie Lichtig. I commend the council for recruiting and selecting the best; there is a lot riding on the skill a city manager brings to the job.

But even the best manager in the world cannot succeed in a city that has lost its ability to solve problems in thoughtful and civil ways — a phenomenon all too common today.

Like everywhere else, there are some people in SLO who are angry about virtually everything. But for communities to work, we must have citizens who are willing to invest themselves in constructive and civil ways.

Fortunately, SLO remains a thoughtful and civil community. We are passionate about the issues, but the vast majority of people argue their positions respectfully and without going for the jugular. Ultimately, we work together.

Looking back at the big accomplishments over the last 20 years, each has been the result of collaboration; a team effort involving healthy citizen participation, competent staff and wise council leadership. Positive outcomes don’t happen in communities that are toxic because smart people don’t run for office, caring citizens step back and quality employees go to work elsewhere.

So the most important message I wish to send on this last day is this: Meaningful community and organizational achievements are accomplished collectively; problems are solved by working together as a community. And to do so, together we must protect the “magic ingredient” — trust. Trust is at the heart of communities that work.

When trust is lost, culture changes, positive energy is replaced by negative energy, and almost nothing good gets done. We not only move further away from solving problems, we create new and very ugly ones. It takes a very long time to restore trust, if you are lucky enough to restore it at all.

Trust must be earned, and we earn it through the way we govern, the way we serve and advocate, the way we educate, the way our private sector, not-for-profits and service clubs contribute and participate and, in particular, in the way we solve problems, especially when we have different views about the best course of action.

A healthy civic culture must be sustained in order to protect trust, and we sustain it by practicing the following things:

• Communication and respect

We talk to each other; we don’t burn bridges; we treat each other with civility and respect.

• Engagement

We do more than talk; we participate and don’t only sit on the sidelines and criticize.

• Investment in people

We invest in one another through volunteer efforts, training and programs that broaden our understanding of our community and our mutual dependence.

• Honesty and transparency

We practice ethical behavior and are open and honest about our goals, agendas and actions.

• Quality leadership

We appoint and elect wise people to lead our community efforts, and we constantly work to develop the leaders of tomorrow.

• Humor and fun

We take the issues seriously but not ourselves so seriously; we share in positive community traditions because we know that these build the vital social glue necessary to tackle the hard problems.

And we check the evil-twins — excessive ego and dogma — at the door.

In closing, I wish to express my appreciation to all council members with whom I have worked, to my former boss John Dunn, to my leadership team, to city employees at all levels who do heroic work every day, and to a community that participates constructively and gives so much. And, of course, I must especially thank my family for their support and sacrifice.

It has been an honor to be a part of San Luis Obispo democracy over the last 20 years. I am “going home” with nothing but profound gratitude for the journey.