Ron Kaye: A new city manager prepares for battle

On the day the redevelopment money machine died, the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” came to the mind of Glendale’s new city manager, Scott Ochoa. It was the scene where medics are frantically trying to stop the bleeding of a soldier wounded in the D-Day landing and when they do, a bullet hits the solder in the head.

“That’s sort of how I feel today,” Ochoa said, reflecting on the chaotic situation cities across the state are facing with the termination Feb. 1 of all 400 redevelopment agencies by the governor and Legislature.

“As of today, we don’t exist as a redevelopment agency. They left us no Plan B. The whole situation is starting to collapse. It will be problematic for quite a while and then they will come back with a big rebranded effort for a new agency with tax increment financing for affordable housing, economic development, creating jobs, eliminating blight. It will look a lot like what we just lost.”

The moment of indignation breaks and he laughs: “Their job is politics. Mine is running a city.”

Ochoa talks about the resilience and ingenuity of cities to solve their problems no matter what the state does and how he operates in a job where the work week ends Sunday morning and the new week begins Sunday afternoon mainly because the No. 1 task is to make sure council members “have the information they need and are prepared so they don’t make bad choices.”

Sometimes, he sounds like a scientist revealing his technique for taking apart a microbe, identifying all of its pieces and analyzing how all the elements fit together.

“The mantra that I live by, and our folks will too, is ADM-OEM: Adapt-Moderate-or Die/Operate-Evaluate-Modulate. The future is coming and you can deal with it or put your head in the sand, but at the end of the day, we still have to fill those potholes. Understanding what’s coming our way, trying to anticipate the wipeout or the wave, and getting get involved constructively — that’s what we are try to do.”

Call it the “Pothole Theory” of local government — it always comes back to potholes, literally or figuratively.

“Potholes are not Democrats or Republicans, liberal or conservative, but that pothole does vote…so we’re focused on solutions. How do you fill the ‘pothole?’ How do you solve the problem? That’s how you come up with very innovative solutions “

Ochoa, 40, grew up in Azusa and came to Glendale from Monrovia just as his predecessor Jim Starbird did 13 years earlier.

He has spent a lot of time in his first month learning the community and meeting residents and business leaders, even critics of City Hall like retired law professor Harry Zavos, with whom he spent an hour.

“You give everybody a reservoir of respect and treat them the way you wanted to be treated. I need to be able to come into this as an honest broker and find the kernel of truth in what people are saying, even if we only agree to disagree.”

He also is spending a lot of time getting to know the staff and the details of what he calls “a conglomerate corporation with 12 different business units.”

“I’m not a micromanager, but I want to know thy business. I want to understand how your department works every bit as well as you do and I want you to understand it as much as the guy beneath you. If I see a department that needs help, a director dealing with something outside his comfort zone, I’m going to lean in and help. A manager has to be able to mix it up, to jump in wherever he’s needed.”

Ochoa is inheriting a balanced budget this year and a positive outlook — aside from the loss of redevelopment — based on tax revenues, spending cuts and employee rollbacks.

“One of the good things about Glendale is that it has a very strong and stable vision of what it wants to be. If I had to define it, I’d say it is a dynamic balance, a place that is interesting and exciting, that reflects its diversity, a place that is vibrant for residents, for businesses. At the same time, they want to keep their sugar and salt in two different jars, residential area for residences, business areas for business.

“I’m finding this community likes to revisit matters from over time, whether it’s the aesthetics like windows, awning, landscaping, signage, or land use and zoning regulations. What people want isn’t more government, but better government,” he said.

The challenge facing Glendale and all communities is how to maintain, even improve, the quality of life despite the weak economy and long-term budget problems.

“We are going to have to prioritize on what our basic needs are and we’re going to have to provide seed money that community groups can leverage to provide programs they are passionate about,” he said. “There is so much social infrastructure in Glendale, groups of all kinds. I think you’ll see some traditional municipal services going forward will be delivered by community groups.

“We’ll find a way to get through all of this, get through all the stages of mourning, but we will get through it.”

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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