City Manager Koester Is Power Behind the Scenes in Simi : Government: During more than a decade on the job, he has gained a reputation as a man who expects much of workers and himself.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Confronted with a tangle of federal laws that stalled elderly residents in need of affordable homes, Simi Valley City Manager Lin Koester called Washington.

With little delay, the process was streamlined and the senior citizens got their homes.

The task was a cinch for the former submarine officer, who has guided the transformation of a nearly bankrupt backwater town into a fiscally responsible mini-metropolis in the past 14 years.

Along the way, Marlin L. Koester, 52, has gained the admiration of his peers and impressed the City Council with his levelheadedness and ability do get things done.

"If there's a problem facing the city, Lin can pick up the phone and call me, and I don't question his agenda, said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a former Simi Valley mayor. "I'm absolutely convinced he would never lead me in the wrong direction."

City employees say Koester is an exacting boss who balances a demand for excellence with an acute sense of fairness. Council members characterize him as a reliable, fiscally conservative resource who can guide them through even the toughest tasks.

"Most City Council members hold down full-time jobs, so the city manager is your information pipeline," said state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), another former Simi Valley mayor. "You count on him to give you the straight scoop, day in and day out."

Koester's critics warn that the council may be surrendering control over the city by leaning so heavily on him for direction.

"Nothing happens in this town without Lin Koester's permission," said Steve Frank, a local political consultant who often attends City Council meetings to air his views.

"By controlling the flow of information, he has full control over City Hall and an overwhelming impact on the City Council."

Koester dismissed the contention.

"It's come up a few times in the past--'Gee, the city manager is too powerful'--but I'm just an extension of the City Council," Koester said. "I don't have my own agenda. I'm not out in front. That's not my role."

Leaning his tall frame against the back of an armchair in his corner office at City Hall, Koester described his role as that of a catalyst, giving council members the best information he and his staff can muster, and then carrying out the council's decisions.

"If the council votes to do something with three votes or more, it is my job to do that, regardless of my personal beliefs."

Mayor Greg Stratton agreed.

"Lin doesn't get in the way of council decisions," Stratton said. "Of course, if you're trying to do something wild and woolly, he's not going to go for it."

Councilwoman Sandi Webb clashed with Koester the moment she took office three years ago.

Webb said she went to Koester with a range of proposals, demanding staff feasibility studies. He responded by telling her first to seek the backing of two more council members.

"At first, I was like 'Grumble, grumble, grumble, why isn't he letting me do this?' " Webb said. "Then I realized he could read the council, and I didn't want him doing studies on some harebrained scheme we didn't have the votes for."

Over the years, Webb's respect for Koester as a manager has grown, as well as her fondness for him as a person.

"I thought that the city was poorly run and he was partly to blame," Webb said. "What I discovered is that our city is run one heck of a lot better than I thought it was."

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Recently, when Koester was laid up with pneumonia, Webb whipped up a cherry pie and delivered it to the door of his home, a modest three-bedroom ranch house near Sinaloa Junior High School.

"He loves cherry pies," she said. "I soak the cherries in brandy first. It's wonderful."

To keep up with the council, the city's 520 employees and its $90.5-million budget, Koester works long hours.

He often arrives at City Hall before 8 a.m., works through lunch and takes lengthy reports home, waking up in the middle of the night to struggle with a sticky problem or scrawl a possible solution.

"I'm always thinking about the job," Koester said. "It's not something I can leave behind when I walk out the door of City Hall."

An avid carpenter, Koester slips away one Friday a month to Pismo Beach, where he and his son, Jeff, labor over a fixer-upper one-quarter of a mile from the ocean.

"I love construction projects," Koester said. "It was a basket-case house, but we've totally restored it."

Koester also recently purchased an empty lot outside the city limits near Santa Susana, where he hopes eventually to build a home for himself, his wife, Suzette, and his 15-year-old stepson, Aaron.

His daughter Jennifer, 28, and stepdaughter, Michelle, 24, both reside in Simi Valley, and Jeff, 29, lives at Mammoth Lakes.

Koester learned the intricacies of construction as a boy growing up in Portland, Ore.

His father worked as a carpenter remodeling homes. His mother took odd jobs as a typist and inventory clerk.

Koester himself landed his first job--a newspaper route--when he was 9. By the time he was 13, he was working on a local farm harvesting green beans, strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes.

He still enjoys working the earth, tending to his back-yard garden.

Other than that, Koester has little time for recreation. He loves old cars, and two years ago, he donated his father's 1927 Model T Ford to the Simi Valley Historical Society.

When asked if he takes time to read, Koester leaped from his office armchair and rummaged through his desk, quickly producing a science-fiction paperback entitled "The Great Explosion," by Eric Frank Russell.

"It's kind of a junk book," he said sheepishly, explaining that he enjoys a light read after plowing through a novel's worth of staff reports a day.

Koester's rewards for his commitment are his longevity and ample compensation--his $185,160 annual salary and benefits package is the highest among city managers in Ventura County. And he has held the position longer than most, serving through nine different councils.

Colleagues ascribe Koester's success to his ability to combine people skills with the know-how to scrutinize reports and smooth out wrinkles.

"During my seven years on the council, there was not one department head that escaped the criticism of council members who wanted to get rid of them," Gallegly recalled. "But never once did any member complain about Lin Koester."

Koester gained his technical skills at Oregon State University, where he earned his bachelor of science in civil engineering in 1963.

At 22, Koester embarked on a six-year stint as a Navy submarine officer, receiving a Vietnam Service Medal for keeping watch in the battle zone.

"In that type of situation, every job is extremely important," Koester said. "You have to be able to work together with people, and you have to be able to trust the people you're with."

He went on to earn a master's in public administration by taking night classes at Pepperdine University while working as director of Ventura County's Environmental Resource Agency, a job he held for five years before coming to Simi Valley.

Richard Wittenberg, Ventura County's chief administrative officer, praised Koester for his work with the county.

"He has the knowledge to see through the rhetoric, and the ability to get to the heart of issues," Wittenberg said. "He is able to get people who are wrapped up in an issue to see past their immediate anger or frustration to look at the bigger picture."

Those skills brought a desperately needed stabilizing force to Simi Valley at a time when the city was in crisis.

The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and motorists throughout the United States lined up for hours for a tank of gas.

The infant city of Simi Valley, staggering under a 40% population explosion, was further crippled by accusations of police brutality, lawsuits over development of a controversial sewage plant and squabbles over a planning department in disarray.

"These were complex problems, but many of them stemmed from a lack of leadership that a good city manager can bring," said Wright, who was mayor at the time. "The manager we had didn't make any decisions. He would sit around having meetings with his staff all the time to talk about every little thing."

Fed up, the voters of Simi Valley recalled two council members and applauded the decision of the remaining three to oust the city manager.

Hoping that Koester would use his engineering knowledge to speed up approval of several log-jammed development projects, the council hired him as interim manager.

Four months later, they hired him as permanent manager.

"When we met Lin, we knew we liked him; we just felt he was right for the job," Wright said. "We were breaking the mold by hiring somebody who had never managed a city before, but we felt we were doing the right thing."

During Koester's tenure, the city has nearly doubled in size. With that growth came the amenities of a city with 100,000-plus residents: a bus system, a new City Hall, a senior citizens center.

As those developments occurred, Koester reshaped city government, folding six departments into four, standardizing staff reports and completely rewriting the city's General Plan--all the while working to improve the city's image.

To implement such sweeping changes--and maintain them--Koester demands quality work from city employees. He has no patience for long meetings, whiners and shallow thinkers.

Errors in number-crunching or grammar drive him up the wall.

"When you come to see me, you better have your act together," Koester said. "If there's a problem, you better have a recommended solution."

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The quest for perfection keeps city staffers on their toes.

Hired by Koester 13 years ago, Environmental Services Director Diane Davis-Crompton said, "Working with Lin is almost like a game--can I think of everything he's going to think of before he has a chance to think of it?

"It's a constant challenge," she said. "He's brilliant and has a memory like an elephant."

Koester says his role as a demanding, exacting boss is crucial to running a respected city.

"Everything we do, down to the smallest detail, projects our image," Koester said. "If you lose your credibility, you might as well pack up and leave."

A year and a half ago, the city's carefully built reputation collapsed.

A storm of negative publicity slammed Simi Valley--host to the Rodney G. King beating trial that triggered the Los Angeles riots.

Angry protesters hurled rocks at Simi Valley school buses and flooded City Hall with calls and letters denouncing the verdict that acquitted four police officers of using excessive force when King was beaten.

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Koester kicked into high gear, abandoning his normally media-shy demeanor to take phone calls and appear on radio programs, his main goal to get the word out that only two of the 12 jurors were residents of Simi Valley.

"The verdict did not reflect the mood and values of this community," Koester said. "It was a dark moment in the city's history."

Since then, Koester and the City Council have worked hard to recover the city's pretrial image as a safe, pleasant and tolerant community.

Koester's commitment has gained him the respect of fellow city managers, who seek his advice on county matters.

"If I have an issue I need to deal with the county on, I'll call Lin and ask him how do I approach these people, who do I talk to," Ventura City Manager John Baker said. "His county experience gives him a perspective no other city manager in the county has."

Thousand Oaks City Manager Grant Brimhall concurred: "When you consider both county and city duties and responsibilities, Lin is really one of the most knowledgeable people in the county. I don't think they come any better than Lin."

Marlin L. Koester Biography

Age: 52

Education: B.S., civil engineering, Oregon State University; M.P.A., Pepperdine University.

Career: Director of the Ventura County Environmental Health Department, 1971-73; director of the Ventura County Environmental Resource Agency, 1974-79; Simi Valley city manager since 1979.

Salary: $185,160, including benefits.

Family: Two children and two stepchildren, in their teens and 20s; wife, Suzette, administrative clerk for the Arts Council of the Conejo Valley.

Hobbies: Carpentry, gardening.

Quote: "Everything we do projects our image. If you lose your credibility, you might as well pack up and leave."

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