If You’ve Heard of Santa Paula, It’s Because of Him
How far will Wally Bobkiewicz go to put Santa Paula on the map?
He recently won a campaign to have his small century-old city named the hometown of a fictional presidential candidate on television’s “The West Wing.” And a year ago, after the Los Angeles Times dropped the blue-collar community from the newspaper’s weather page, he led pickets outside the paper’s local office, ultimately pressuring the paper to reverse its decision.
Since becoming Santa Paula’s city manager in 2002, Bobkiewicz, 39, has become the city’s chief cheerleader, never missing an opportunity to promote the Ventura County community of 30,000 or defend it when it’s getting pushed around.
“When I got here, Santa Paula had a little bit of an image problem,” said Bobkiewicz, who spent his high school years in Camarillo.
“One of the reasons we’ve done some of the crazier things we’ve done is to help people understand that there is more to this community,” he said. “There’s a richness to Santa Paula you have to look for.”
To be sure, when Bobkiewicz arrived from Novato, a small Marin County town where he was assistant city manager, Santa Paula had its share of problems.
It was experiencing its bloodiest year ever, recording six homicides in 2002. While other cities cashed in on the region’s retail boom, Santa Paula languished as an isolated outpost of shuttered storefronts and stagnant economic activity.
In late 2003, the community suffered a major blow when Santa Paula Memorial Hospital declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. The city had an unsavory reputation, cast by outsiders as an unsafe place that people wouldn’t want to visit.
Bobkiewicz helped drive revitalization of the city’s historic downtown and played a key role in efforts to revive the hospital, which is scheduled to reopen early next year.
He has led efforts to clean up graffiti and pushed for new law enforcement strategies that have helped reduce crime to its lowest level in years.
Violent crime fell by more than a third from 2002 to 2004, from 98 incidents in 2002 to 61 incidents in 2004. There was only one homicide last year.
But mostly Bobkiewicz has reawakened the city’s slumbering pride, injecting City Hall and the community at large with a unique brand of energy and enthusiasm for all things Santa Paula.
“We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for having a city manager who had enthusiasm, who was very creative and who didn’t know the word no,” Mayor Mary Ann Krause said. “People have always viewed this as the little town that couldn’t, but he’s proving that wrong.”
To do so, Bobkiewicz has become a pitchman. He eagerly tells anyone who doesn’t know that Santa Paula is the citrus capital of the world, although the city has bestowed the title upon itself. He is quick to correct any slight -- real or perceived -- that arises in the media and to shine light on even the smallest city achievement, noting, for example, that the city’s 56th annual Christmas Parade, held Saturday, is the oldest celebration of the holiday season in Ventura County.
He has even launched an Internet blog, www.ci.santa-paula.ca.us/blog/, updating it late into the night with City Hall news, community happenings and a smattering of attaboys for employees and residents who clean parks, fight fires and launch new businesses.
“Santa Paulans needed to feel better about themselves, and I think they do,” Bobkiewicz said. “We live in a special place, and we need people to think well of Santa Paula. We need people to come here and we need people to invest in our community.”
No one who has worked alongside Bobkiewicz is surprised by his zealousness. Wielding a bachelor’s degree from USC and a master’s from Syracuse University in New York -- both in public administration -- he went to work for the city of Long Beach in 1989 before becoming assistant city manager in Novato nine years later.
“He was very young and had not had as much experience as a number of other candidates, but the guy could think and reason through a problem as well as anyone I’ve ever met,” said Beverly Hills City Manager Rod Wood, who was city manager in Novato at the time and hired Bobkiewicz. “If you asked him to do something, you never had to worry about whether it was going to get done,” he said. “Wally is one of my heroes in the business.”
Bobkiewicz took a $22,000 pay cut to go to Santa Paula, jumping at the opportunity to return to Southern California and run a city that he believed was simply in need of a little attention and a pat on the back.
“In many respects, Wally is the ultimate city manager -- he eats, lives and breathes the profession,” said Thousand Oaks City Manager Scott Mitnick, who went to graduate school with Bobkiewicz and remains a close friend. “He puts the needs of his City Council and his community way above his own.”
If pushed to pinpoint the call to public service, Bobkiewicz talks about his grandfather, a World War II veteran who stormed the beach at Normandy and went on to work a blue-collar printing job in Chicago.
His grandfather also was active in the American Legion, and Bobkiewicz spent many weekends accompanying him to meetings, absorbing the group’s commitment to bettering its community and nation.
“That really had a profound impact on me,” said Bobkiewicz, who went on to become senior class president at Camarillo High School and student body president at USC. “I really think it was those times with my grandfather that crafted who I am.”
In that respect, Santa Paula and Wally Bobkiewicz were made for each other. The America he saw as a youngster in American Legion halls is reflected in the slice of Americana found in Santa Paula, where rows of stately Victorian homes and a picturesque Main Street still beckon Hollywood filmmakers seeking to re-create the small-town ideal.
On spiffed-up streets and in newly opened storefronts, Bobkiewicz sees a return to the glories of years past. It’s why he works so hard to promote and defend the city, even if it means bombarding the writers of “The West Wing” with e-mail and a crate of oranges to get them to name Santa Paula the hometown of the presidential candidate played by Alan Alda.
The lobbying paid off last month when the show posted a biography on its website listing the character as a former Santa Paula lawyer, library volunteer and city councilman.
“In Santa Paula, when the community puts its mind to something, it gets done,” said Bobkiewicz, launching into another promotional outburst.
“Sometimes you just have to think big,” he said of his sometimes unconventional approach. “If I were selling a product, I don’t know if people would be surprised.
“My product is a community of 30,000 people, and I’m going to do my best to sell it.”