Don’t bother saying thanks to Jim Starbird — he’s been living a dream for the past 14 years as Glendale city manager.
A day after disclosing plans to retire at the end of the year, Starbird talked about his love affair with the city and how he set his eye on becoming its city manager more than three decades ago as his career as a public servant advanced from Duarte, to Monrovia, to West Covina.
“I never had a plan past Glendale, never visualized anything else,” Starbird said. “We’ll see if there’s life after Glendale.”
At 62, in good health, happily married with his first two grandchildren just a few months old, Starbird has the rest of his life to look forward to with the security of a substantial public employee pension and a reputation as one of the most effective public administrators in Southern California.
Personal reasons played a role in his decision, but the more important factors were a sense that the City Hall organization was strong, with capable younger people ready to step up, and that the city was through the worst of the financial problems posed by the bursting of the housing bubble and the economic meltdown.
“I wanted to get through this budget cycle. This has been tough, the toughest year,” he said. “There are still big challenges and rising pension costs, but I think every year after this is going to be better, because we’ve made a number of structural changes this year that will put us in a position to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re beginning to see a turnaround. We’re seeing it in our development community. We’re seeing it in our revenue numbers. Each year is going to get better, thanks to the considerable sacrifices made by our police, our managers, our non-safety workers. They’ve given up pay and benefits and put new retirement programs in place. This is a turnaround year.”
There are a lot of achievements Starbird can point to — the Americana at Brand, Hollywood entertainment companies locating in the city, a first-rate infrastructure. He is optimistic that there is more to come, especially in the downtown area, with renovation of the Galleria being planned, Nordstrom moving to the Americana, the Broadway Lofts and Laemmle projects.
“Our core downtown area is ready to take off. We’re going to see our downtown taking on a 24/7 vitality, with a real urban resident component with 800 to 1,000 housing units already in the pipeline.”
But brick-and-mortar projects are not what Starbird takes pride in.
He came to Glendale at a time when the city faced budget problems, a fractious City Council, a politicized bureaucracy and a city undergoing dramatic demographic changes.
“It was an ugly situation. Everybody was protecting their turf,” he recalled. “I began wearing my values on my sleeve. I was like a preacher and spent a lot of time talking to the managers and the staff about what I believed in as a public servant.
“What I’m most proud of is this organization and what it has become in the 14 years I’ve been here — people in all levels of the organization who take pride in their work and feel a responsibility to the community and who work extremely well together supporting each other.”
Interesting idea: It’s not the economy, stupid; it’s the people, the residents, the workers who count.
That’s the heart of the Starbird philosophy, one that depends on “optimism and an abiding faith in representative government.”
“We have a responsibility to the people who work for us … to create an environment where people can feel good about what they are doing, that they are part of something bigger than just doing their daily jobs. We are trying to create a sense of pride, where everybody from the top department head to the custodian cleaning the offices can feel like they’re contributing something meaningful. That’s what public service is about.”
Starbird believes in the “great team of people” he has put in place to carry on, and acknowledges that after so long, it is time to move on, possibly to work as a consultant helping cities with serious troubles get through hard times.
“Frankly, I’m not sure my staying on would be the best thing for the staff or the city. There comes a time when change is good. As city manager, you aspire to leave the city in a better condition than when you arrived. I hope that’s true. I know Glendale is going to get better and grow.”
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.