In government, there are “paycheck players” and “true believers.” Or so says Scott Ochoa, Glendale’s new city manager. He thinks he’s the latter.
“When you’re a true believer, you’re in this to try to improve a place,” Ochoa said recently as he took a break from moving into his new office.
He took his seat on the Glendale City Council dais for the first time Tuesday after assuming the role formerly filled by Jim Starbird, who retired in December.
Ochoa’s ascension is the culmination of a long history in the public sector. The 40-year-old has been involved in city government for much of his life.
As a teen, one of Ochoa’s first jobs was in the parks and recreation department in his hometown of Azusa. Later, while a student at Claremont McKenna College, he worked as an administrative intern for Monrovia’s city manager.
It was at that city that Ochoa moved from department to department over the years, serving as solid waste manager, assistant director of redevelopment and, eventually, city manager.
“Being a generalist gave me a broad perspective of how a city works,” Ochoa said.
His dedication to city government wasn’t calculated, he said. It happened by chance.
As a bank teller during his senior year in college, he set up a booth at the school bookstore to encourage students to open checking accounts. One of them talked about an internship she had done at the city of Monrovia and suggested that Ochoa should apply.
Soon after, a consultant who had done a phone study for Monrovia came into Ochoa’s bank. The internship came up, and the consultant offered to write a letter of recommendation for Ochoa.
He didn’t hear from the city for some time, but then he got a call. A woman from Long Beach who had been hired for the job turned it down because she couldn’t make the drive.
“I got the internship at $6.50 an hour and I never left,” said Ochoa, who also worked at the city while getting his master’s degree at USC.
Ochoa worked his way to administrative assistant for Monrovia’s then-City Manager Rod Gould, who now runs the city of Santa Monica, and who recommended Ochoa for the Glendale job.
Monrovia may be a fifth the size of Glendale, but Ochoa said he’s up for the challenge of running the third largest city in Los Angeles County — even as it faces financial issues inflamed by the protracted recession and a court decision affirming a plan to eliminate local redevelopment agencies.
It helps that Ochoa has steered through bad times before, arriving at Monrovia during the recession of the early 1990s. At the time, the city cut about 10% of its workforce, Ochoa said. So he’s no stranger to budget cuts and labor negotiations, he said.
At his first City Council meeting of the year on Tuesday, his new bosses — seated beside him on the dais — welcomed him to challenges ahead.
“There’s a lot of hope riding on you,” said Councilman Rafi Manoukian.
Ochoa likened Monrovia to a speed boat that can turn quickly in different directions. Glendale, on the other hand, is more like an aircraft carrier that because of its size, changes direction more slowly, he said.
The change of pace will take some getting used to.
“I am a very impatient person by nature,” he said.
Ochoa said the welcome in Glendale has been warm as he makes his rounds of introductions.
“This is like a huge small town,” he said.