The end of the Roeder era

COSTA MESA — They don't come more humble than Allan Roeder.

City managers typically last four to five years. Then they get canned or they move on.

City councils came and went but Roeder survived Costa Mesa's pressure cooker politics for 25 years as city manager.

And through that quarter-century until his retirement on Friday, the city manager, who had started his career at City Hall as an intern 37 years ago, never wavered. Somehow he maintained a calmness, steadiness and quiet confidence about him as the city went through cycles of boom and bust.

True to his reputation, of course, Roeder shies away from taking any of the credit.

Ask him how he lasted so long, and he'll go on about the leadership of the city councils he's worked with, his hardworking staff and the community's resilience through tough times.

What he won't say is that the pair of boots, spray-painted in bronze and standing off to the side of his office, probably had something to do with it.

In 1985, when the City Council was recruiting a new city manager to replace Fred Sorsabal, candidates were told that the council was "looking for someone who walks on water."

Roeder brought those firefighter's boots with him to the job interview.

"I don't walk on water. But I know how to wade through it," he told the panel of council members interviewing him.

The job was his.

Roeder, now 59, grew up one of six children in Garden Grove. He was a dual-athlete at Rancho Alamitos High School, competing in swimming and water polo before attending Santa Ana College.

He moved on to Cal State Fullerton, where he paid his way by working as a train conductor at Knott's Berry Farm. His bosses wanted him to start working full-time as he neared graduation.

"Gosh, you know, I haven't spent five years in college to drive trains," he said. "Not only did I decline it, but I chose to leave there. I didn't have a job or anything. Pretty much all my stuff was packed in the back of my car."

He found a room to rent at a friend's place in Costa Mesa. It was summer and Newport Beach was looking for lifeguards, so Roeder took a job there and quickly became full-time.

But he was still attracted to civil service, and in 1974 Roeder asked his college counselor about an internship available in Costa Mesa City Hall.

On paper, Roeder admitted, he was unqualified.

"They really wanted a graduate student, and I was just finishing my undergraduate work," he said.

His counselor said that he might have a chance since he lived in Costa Mesa.

Roeder's girlfriend at the time was born and raised in the city. She schooled him on the city's history, goat hill and all.

"I took the interview; I was failing miserably. I wasn't anything they wanted," Roeder recalled. "I wasn't a graduate student, and I didn't have a lot of hands-on experience … and the fatal mistake is, they asked, 'What do you know about Costa Mesa?'"

He wowed his interviewers so much that they basically had no choice but to hire the young upstart.

Things got rolling from there on.

Every time Roeder felt he'd learned enough in his job and was ready to move on, another opportunity presented itself. He worked as an administrative assistant in public works for a few years, starting in 1975, and when then-Assistant City Manager Bob Duggan left to become city manager in the Central Valley, Roeder took his place.

Roeder became the city manager six years later. Since that job interview, Roeder's past and present colleagues said, he's waded through water left behind footprints.

"Some people do this right, they do that right, they do this OK … Allan was able to touch everything and make it work," said former City Councilman Jay Humphrey. "There ain't nobody better than Allan."

Roeder said he never chose sides of a debate, even when it rubbed some of the members the wrong way.

"You know us as city council members, every now and then we'd go, 'Oh! I have an idea!,'" former Mayor Sandy Genis said, laughing. "Allan had a way of reining us in that was very thoughtful. He wasn't rude, and he wasn't condescending."

Indeed, when issues threatened to tear the council and community apart, Roeder enjoyed and embraced his role as being calm in the eye of the storm, the person who supplied the facts without an agenda and let the elected leaders make the decisions.

"That's something I don't believe in doing," he said. "I believe that a successful council is one where each member of the council has some individual successes as well as the council as a whole having successes. I don't think you can have one at the expense of the other."

Costa Mesa has had its fair share of ups and downs with the economy, Roeder said. If the city was an awkward teenager learning about themselves when he first came on as city manager, it had now become a full-grown adult with a clear identity.

He considers Costa Mesa to be a true cross section of Orange County, from the lower-income neighborhoods on the Westside to the more affluent community to the east bordering Newport Beach. International corporations are based here, as well as mom-and-pop stores.

"I think that's why it's been such a good fit for me," Roeder said. "I don't like standardization and predictability."

Professionally, Roeder said he regrets some personnel decisions, where his employees' failures didn't become apparent to him until the community or other city officials would say something.

Roeder regrets that the city didn't plant more trees under his watch. Keeping the city green might seem inconsequential to many people but the issue clearly is close to this outdoorsman's heart.

He prefers to talk about success, specifically what he sees as the council and community's success. He still declined to take credit for anything good.

He is known to groom future administrators. Of Orange County's 34 cities excluding Costa Mesa, five of them have city managers who have worked under Roeder.

The biggest influence on Costa Mesa's growth has been the widening of the San Diego (405) Freeway and fighting to keep the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway in the state's master plan, Roeder said.

He praised the Segerstrom family for giving the city an artistic identity, and blamed ownership changes for Triangle Square's dramatic downturn after first opening to great success.

Costa Mesa residents have been divided on several issues in recent years, from immigration to outsourcing of city services. Even though it wasn't a national issue in the 1980s, Costa Mesa city officials were debating immigration enforcement back then, he said.

And as far back as he can remember, the city had contracted out for services, Roeder said. The magnitude of current council decisions — on Tuesday the council approved laying off more than 40% of its workforce in contracting out city services — is what sets it apart.

"Where I have concern is in seeking to undertake a conversion in the delivery of a large number of services over a short period of time," he said. "There will always be someone willing to walk in your door and promise to give you something for less than what you're paying if you don't ask any questions and don't care about the quality of what you receive."

"The adages of 'easier said than done' and 'you can contract authority but you can't contract responsibility' certainly come to mind," he added.

After 25 years, countless agendas and staff reports and behind-the-scenes debates, it wasn't the stress of the job or the politics that made Roeder think it was time to leave.

It was his wife of 14 years, Christie McDaniel, falling off her horse and breaking her leg in 2009. He wanted more time together.

Roeder has enrolled in a culinary class in Laguna Beach and he was planning to learn how to play the piano again. He also wants to work on his golf game.

But most importantly, he said he wanted to spend time with his wife and three dogs.

Roeder's voice stammered with emotion when he talked about how much time he had spent away from home at work. Former colleagues said he rarely took time off.

"I owe," he said simply as his eyes welled up, referring to his wife.

But Roeder will still give time to Costa Mesa. He lives here and plans to stay.

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