New City? It Takes a Midwife

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are known as the "old pros," a trio of city hall veterans who come armed with the experience, the connections and enough room on their credit cards to get a town up and running.

Together, they have dominated the narrow niche of running start-up cities in Orange County--places like Dana Point, Rancho Santa Margarita and now Aliso Viejo, towns that sprung up without city halls, without employees and without any money.

The three men are expected to draw up organizational charts, make key hires, teach rookie council members the ropes and go without a paycheck for weeks. Sometimes they even have to pay the bills.

And then they leave.

William Woollett Jr., William Talley and Daniel T. Miller--almost as if running a municipal relay--have served as the first civic CEOs of nearly all the cities born in Orange County since the late 1980s.

Orange County has been fertile ground for incorporation. Eight of the 28 cities that have incorporated in the state in the last 13 years are in Orange County.

Of the eight, seven were guided into being by Woollett, Talley or Miller, who sometimes worked in combination. Right now, Talley is the interim city manager of Rancho Santa Margarita, Miller the temporary city manager in Dana Point and Woollett has taken the same reins in Aliso Viejo, which will become Orange County's newest city July 1.

For Woollett and Talley, the hired-gun work began in Los Angeles County in the late 1950s when the San Gabriel Valley was going through a cityhood boom. When a similar trend began to unfold in Orange County, they moved in. Miller worked for the county of Orange for 12 years before getting into the business of helping launch towns.

In the world of city managers, the task of starting a city can be frustrating, even extreme. But hanging in there, they say, is the thrill.

"A lot of city managers fantasize about a brand-new place where they can start from scratch," said John Thompson, 51, city manager of Vacaville in Northern California and president for city managers of the California League of Cities. "It's very interesting and challenging, and the old pros are very knowledgeable."

Talley, Woollett and Miller are known widely for their ability to bring order to start-up cities, Thompson said.

When a city is incorporated, it comes with precious little in the way of bureaucracy. Budget, employees and ordinances have yet to materialize. There are details to work out with the county, everything from arranging to get a fair share of tax dollars to contracting for street maintenance, animal control and police patrols.

A steady paycheck is nearly impossible since the interim city manager generally is not paid until the city begins to receive its share of tax dollars from the county. That can take months.

"It's risky and an incredible amount of fun because it's almost like being born," said Woollett, 72. "You don't know who or what you are going to be. You were part of something else and now you are a separate entity."

Yet the city managers are not expected to linger long once a new city is running smoothly.

"Starting a city is a very active time and it's very fast-paced and I enjoy all of that," Talley said. "But when the routine gets off, I set into the sunset."

Without a city hall to call home, Woollett, 72, is planning the city of Aliso Viejo from his kitchen table in Irvine, reviewing contracts and paperwork. He meets up at a local community room to interview potential city employees and school the newly elected council members on the basics of city government.

"You kind of have to teach them," Woollett said.

Woollett was the first city manager of Rosemead and Temple City and later was the chief executive in Monterey Park. When Irvine was incorporated in 1971, setting the tone for the incorporation boom to come, Woollett became city manager and served until retirement in 1989.

He remembered when City Hall was a single room he shared with the city clerk and the local newspaper. While Irvine was establishing itself, Woollett switched roles until employees could be hired. At one time, he was Irvine's police chief.

Woollett, who collects retirement benefits he earned while working in Irvine, charges a flat fee of $10,000 a month, or $125 per hour for his part-time work getting Aliso Viejo on its feet. The pay is standard in the city manager-for-hire business.

According to the state's League of Cities, $120,000 is about average for city managers in California, ranging from $80,000 in smaller towns to $200,000 in larger cities.

There are advantages to hiring someone who has been around the block a few times.

Talley, 68, used his wife's business credit card to buy furniture, telephones and office supplies for Dana Point when it became a city in 1989.

"You have to recognize the fact that you begin with nothing," Talley said.

Talley spent 19 years working for Long Beach as a junior analyst and later as the director of administration before coming to Anaheim to be city manager. He retired from Anaheim in 1987, then took the same position in Oceanside later that year.

Talley eventually teamed up with Miller and the two often alternated in the positions of interim city manager and transitional consultant as the flurry of incorporations sped up. Together, they helped establish Mission Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Chino Hills, Laguna Woods and Rancho Santa Margarita.

All three have gone through the lean times that come with the first days of cityhood.

Talley, for instance, began his Rancho Santa Margarita stint working mostly from his car, doing business from his cell phone. Eventually, he got a single office with three desks but only one phone. "That was the most low-tech starting I've ever done," he said.

Marsha Miller, who as deputy city clerk shared the cramped office with Talley, recalls having to hold the receiver until her boss or his assistant sat at her desk to take a call.

Dan Miller said his city manager stints have also been filled with such challenges.

"There's no place to go, so you have to meet in someone's living room, and it's difficult if someone's trying to get in touch with you," Miller said. "We would carry our operation out of a post office box and out of my consulting room. I would have to put the city clerk and others in my office."

While Talley said he enjoys the challenge of starting a city with the fewest employees possible to keep the budget tight, Miller sees it as a time for imagination.

"You are starting afresh, so there are no preconceived or set ideas," he said.

Aliso Viejo Councilwoman-elect Carmen L. Vali, who worked toward cityhood for six years, said she and her colleagues went out of their way to find someone with experience and a good reputation in the county.

"The first year of a city is different from the second year," Vali said. "Starting a city is definitely a skill few know of."

If a city starts out on the wrong foot--misinterpreting laws or failing to bargain aggressively for tax dollars--it can take years to undo the damage.

Citrus Heights, a city of nearly 90,000 in Sacramento County, took years untangling its finances, said Henry Tingle, the town's new city manager, who inherited the budget problems.

"There is not a more important time in the evolution of a city than those beginning years," Thompson said. "It can create longtime ramifications. I've known of cities who are in dire straits because of deals that were made when the city was started, and it may take years to recover."

For someone like Woollett, though, such challenges sharpen the job's edge. "We need to be taking risks," Woollett said. "It's kind of like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. If you're kind of crazy, it helps."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2001 Orange County Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction City manager--A biographical box accompanying a story Monday about three city managers misstated Daniel T. Miller's role with the city of Laguna Woods. Miller was a consultant for the county's Local Agency Formation Commission and worked with the city on its incorporation.
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