Al Zelinka relishes new city manager role in Huntington Beach
Al Zelinka said he never aspired to be a city manager. Instead, a career of service led him to be asked to step into the role in Riverside in 2018. Four years later, Zelinka came to Huntington Beach.
He was approved by the City Council on May 3, and started as Surf City’s city manager on June 27.
Zelinka took the seat once held by Oliver Chi, who resigned last November, with Sean Joyce serving as interim city manager for several months.
Zelinka, 54, earned a bachelor’s degree in public planning from Northern Arizona University and a master’s in regional planning from Cornell University. He lives with his wife Anna and 16-year-old son John, an incoming junior at Servite High, in the city of Orange.
Zelinka recently sat down with the Daily Pilot to answer some questions about his career.
Answers are edited for length and clarity.
Question: What led to you becoming city manager? Was it something you thought you might want to do for a career?
Answer: My career background is in city planning, and about half of my career has been working in the private sector for consultants. While I worked mostly in California, I’ve worked in a variety of capacities in about 28 states and about 100-plus cities around the country. City planning was a conduit for me to make a difference. That’s all I wanted to do in my career, make a difference in the communities I served.
When my son was about 2½ or so, he started to say, ‘Daddy home, daddy plane?’ I was traveling so much for my job. One of my clients was the city of Fullerton, and at that time they had a city planning manager position open. I thought, job No. 1 is being a dad, so I will leave private consulting and join the city of Fullerton. That was my first major foray into public service, in 2008.
Q: Then you eventually became assistant city manager in Riverside. What was that step like?
A: I really enjoyed it. I like connecting dots … There’s so many opportunities for synergy between departments that can yield public benefit. It was wonderful to realize that by seeing a bigger picture, I can help the departments work together for better outcomes. I did that for about four years.
In 2018, the City Council asked me to be their city manager. I had a lot of trepidation about that … [but] that four-year journey in Riverside was fantastic. Ultimately, I felt like I could make a difference as city manager, because that experience I had as assistant city manager was now magnified. I could connect the dots not only between departments, but at a higher level, the needs of the community, the needs of the organization, the interests and aspirations of the elected leaders. It was a real wonderful opportunity to bring all of those together for good outcomes.
Q: What are you most proud of during your tenure as city manager of Riverside?
A: In spite of COVID … we went from having a structural deficit to having a surplus in our budget. We made the necessary decisions and adjustments to bring financial health to the city, and significantly so. I’m proud of standing on the shoulders of prior administrations and being able to open up a new world-class main library downtown. I’m proud that we were able to open up the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in our old, mid-century modern library.
I’m proud that we were able to open up the Southern California headquarters of missions research and testing for the California Air Resources Board. Earlier in my career in Riverside, we were part of a larger community team that competed against L.A. County for consolidating all of CARB’s research and testing facilities, and it resulted in a $450-million state-of-the-art emissions testing and research facility in Riverside.
I’m proud of working with the council to establish a community engagement policy, that is in draft form … to provide the community with a minimum level of expectation for any and all department efforts, so that people can count on some level of community. We also established a biannual quality of life survey across the city, for understanding the community’s pulse on a whole range of quality of life topics.
I’m proud of a lot of development that we facilitated in downtown and other areas of the community. We established a food systems program … so that over time Riverside will be less reliant on imported food and can develop and grow its own food locally.
Q: What prompted the move to Huntington Beach?
A: The city’s recruiter reached out to me and introduced me to the opportunity. During our family’s life of being in Orange County, we have friends in Huntington Beach, and we’ve had regular occasions to come to Huntington Beach. We liked Huntington Beach a lot, so when the opportunity was brought to my attention I was intrigued by it.
I was perfectly happy in Riverside, but I was intrigued because the recruiter conveyed to me that the city of Huntington Beach could benefit from some of the mindset that I have. The more I studied Huntington Beach and talked to people, I realized it would be kind of fun to return to Orange County and work with a large coastal city. It’s a city that has aspirations for many things, and also wants to practice the fundamentals really well too.
At the end of the day, all I want to do is make a difference in the communities I serve. That’s always been my career goal.
Q: You have been here for a few weeks now, how has the transition been?
A: The city team has prepped me well. Day number one or two, they had fantastic, very well-organized binders ... the transition has been really wonderful. There’s a lot to learn. I like to joke around with all my colleagues, but I mean it. I’m the least-educated person about Huntington Beach there is right now, but I’m a student. I’m just learning [all] I possibly can, because the more I know, the better I can serve.
Q: Do you have any passion areas that are important to you, in terms of what you think the city government should be focusing on?
A: Part of the decision to join the city is tied to ‘What am I passionate about and does it connect with what the community wants and needs?’ I have a very extensive background in downtown revitalization and improvement. I’m a certified main street manager ... and the council conveyed to me the desire to make downtown the best it can be.
The council also communicated a commitment it has made for greater community engagement, and community engagement is very important to me. We’re serving the public.
There’s lots of passions that I have that connect what I’ll be doing over the next years. The diversity of Huntington Beach resonates with me. I’m glad about that, and I want to really enforce that and embrace that.
Q: What are some aspects of the city manager job that you think citizens might not be aware of?
A: In the big picture, the citizens of Huntington Beach need to appreciate that the charter they have voted on is really my instruction manual. I need to be politically aware, but not be political. My job is to serve the public interest, which in part is defined by the charter ... to help have the most positive outcomes for the most people of the community.
What would be good for members of the community to know is that what’s really important is the term “source of authority.” The decisions I make, are they rooted in a source of authority? Are they rooted in City Council-adopted policy, the charter of the city of Huntington Beach, the government code of the state of California? It goes back to serving the public interest and making sure I don’t do something knowingly that violates public trust in government.
The other thing the public should know is that this is a really, really rewarding job. What I do matters to public interest, public trust, public good. If I do my job well and I respect everyone equally and equitably, then I’m doing my job in a way that’s very rewarding to me and the team that serves the city.
Q: What are some of your first impressions of Huntington Beach as a city?
A: One thing is the incredible connection that so many people in the city have with the water and the beach, the whole marine climate and environment. It’s obvious, but as a new city manager here, that magnetic attraction and symbiosis between the beach environment and the community is really cool.
The other thing is that a lot of people feel so proud to be a Huntington Beach resident or business-owner. Yet, in that context, there’s a rugged individualism of Huntington Beach residents, almost like an entrepreneurial spirit.
Q: What do you like to do when not working?
A: My son is very involved in soccer and music, so we’re very busy with his school and club soccer schedule. We spend a lot of time with that, and I spend a lot of time taking care of my soon-to-be 87-year-old mom, who lives four blocks down our street.
As a family, we like riding our bikes a lot, going on hikes and walks. We do a lot of traveling. We go up to Yosemite, Mount Hood. We do a lot of gardening and enjoy Farmer’s Markets as well. It’s always busy.
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