Introducing the Long View
June 29, 2016
by Rick Cole
Exactly a year ago I became the twelfth City Manager to serve Santa Monica since local voters adopted the Council/Manager form of government back in 1947.
The City Manager’s role has evolved over time – and it will continue to do so in the future. The City’s Charter designates the city manager as “the chief executive officer and the head of the administrative branch of the City government . . . responsible to the City Council for the proper administration of all affairs of the City.” The powers and duties are to “appoint and remove” department heads and oversee the entire City staff; prepare the annual budget and administer the City’s finances; advise the Council on “future needs of the City and make such recommendations as may seem desirable; and “perform such other duties as may be prescribed by this Charter or required of the City Manager by the City Council.”
Key to the job is taking the long view -- keeping an eye on “the future needs of the City.” In these times of rapid change, it’s not enough to administer our ongoing services and programs. We need to continue to re-evaluate what we do as a city – and how we do it.
Often we compare our performance to other municipalities. On that scale, Santa Monica does extremely well. Santa Monica is one of fewer than a dozen of California’s 482 cities which has a AAA credit status from all three of the financial rating agencies. The Santa Monica Fire Department is one of fewer than a dozen California fire departments with a Class One rating from the insurance industry. The Santa Monica Library is one of just two California library systems with the top Five Star rankings from Library Journal magazine. The list of superlative rankings and awards goes on . . .
Yet increasingly we have to be conscious that citizens compare us to Google, Apple and Amazon. Are we applying new technology to solving problems? Are we providing excellent 24/7 access and service? Are we achieving the results that matter most to our citizens?
To better understand both our challenges and opportunities, I focused my first couple of months as City Manager practicing what the Japanese call “genchi genbutsu” – roughly translated as “go look” or “go see.” The phrase comes from a Toyota training engineer who insisted that top executives have first-hand understanding of what’s happening on the front line of the factory floor or the customer showroom.
For me, that meant getting out to our five libraries, our historic pier, our controversial airport, our parks and water facilities, our unusual cemetery and our unique municipal mortuary. It meant sitting down with our around-the-clock shifts at our firehouses and going out on patrol with police officers – and having coffee with library pages, traffic control officers, city planners, bus drivers and fleet mechanics. I also spent time in our neighborhoods getting to know the landscape and starting a dialogue with our active citizenry.
I learned some important lessons. The most significant were these: Santa Monica is the most complicated 8.3 square miles in Los Angeles County; we have an amazingly talented and committed city staff; and our citizens expect us to deliver the highest standards of public service.
That means the job of City Manager in Santa Monica is never going to be easy, but it is always going to be rewarding. We have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to set the bar for excellence in public service – not only to better serve our community, but as a model for other communities.
I hope this forum can contribute to our public dialogue and help build the vital partnership between our citizens and our government. I chose the title “The Long View” because sometimes it seems we live in an “attention deficit democracy.” Soundbites don’t do justice to the complexity of our challenges. I hope to offer substantive thoughts about “the future needs of the city” -- and enjoy your thoughtful feedback on how we work together to tackle them.
Our City’s motto is: populous felix in urbe felici. The Latin phrase is variously translated as “a happy (or fortunate or prosperous) people in a happy (or fortunate or prosperous) city.” Regardless of the literal meaning, it does set a high bar. Our job is not just to administer the affairs of government. Our responsibility is to promote the wellbeing of this remarkable community. That is a shared effort – and I look forward to what we can accomplish together.