Q&A;: La Cañada City Manager Mark Alexander

La Cañada Flintridge City Manager Mark Alexander is quick to point out that City Council members drive decision-making and he's quick to give his staff the credit for jobs well-done. But legacies — even quiet ones — aren't built to be ignored.

In June the San Dimas native became the longest-serving city manager in La Cañada's history — the first to hold the city's top post for a solid decade, and that on top of 15 additional years working for the city. Alexander took his first administrative staff position here in 1988, when he was 23 years old, and worked his way up through a variety of posts under three previous city managers.

Alexander isn't much for talking about himself. Perhaps the one exception to his understated persona is his zeal for the University of Southern California, where he earned his master's degree in public administration. Scattered throughout his City Hall office are no less than three dozen items of USC memorabilia — pens, clocks, notepads, photos, paperweights and various other items, many of them gifts, weave a tapestry of cardinal and gold.

The Valley Sun sat with Alexander on Tuesday to look back at how the city has fared the past 10 years and what the future might bring.

Valley Sun: The city's $13.6-million general fund reserve is larger than its current general fund budget of $11.2 million. At what point should the city stop saving and start spending?

Mark Alexander: The council has adopted a policy of maintaining reserves as somewhere between 100% and 150% of our operating budget. … And $13.6 million is not the highest it's been; $15.4 million was the highest — in 2007-08, right before the recession hit.

Reserves have allowed La Cañada Flintridge to pursue long-term avenues that have really helped the city's finances. Over the past couple of years, the council has been able to pay off [borrowing] from when we acquired the City Hall building, which means we've been able to reduce our annual payments. We've been able to reduce some of the premium costs of our liability insurance and this year, as a result, we're paying zero in insurance premiums. Another [debt reduced by paying early] was our pension liability.

Q. This year's budget sets aside up to $60,000 to hire a communications firm. What messages are you trying to get out to the public?

It's important the community understand what the city does, and, more importantly, why it does it … but also how to communicate a concern or message to the city. The tree ordinance is a great example. Communicating why we preserve or protect certain trees is important, and it's also important that residents understand the process for removing a protected tree. As a city, we could probably do a better job of communicating those issues.

Q. In Beverly Hills, expensive houses are paired with pricey Rodeo Drive shops. Why is it we have value retailers like Ross and T.J.Maxx down the hill from million-dollar homes?

There's a common misperception about what role the city plays in attracting certain types of businesses. Quite frankly, the city doesn't go out and try to attract a particular type of business or retailer unless there is a strong demand and the infrastructure to support that.

For your high-end retailers, those decisions are really market-driven. Companies make their own decisions on whether they would be viable. Maybe I'm a little biased, but I say of course they would work in La Cañada Flintridge. But I'm not a business marketer. Some of these high-end retailers also have locations in adjacent communities, so they may feel La Cañada Flintridge is too close to be a worthwhile venture.

Q. What were the biggest challenges overcome by the city during the past decade?

A lot of other cities had difficulty getting through the recession, but because we are a small local government and because we are a contract city and because we had the healthy reserve, we were able to weather the recession pretty well. And what we lost in terms of sales tax and interest income [from reserves], a lot of that was made up in increased property tax revenue because properties in La Cañada Flintridge maintained their value.

Another was the devastating effect the Station fire had on the community, particularly after the fire with the subsequent mud and debris. We're still recovering from that.

And the traffic accident [involving a runaway truck on Angeles Crest Highway] on April 1, 2009, and the devastating loss of life, how that turned the city upside down in grief. … We were able to get big-rig trucks banned from Angeles Crest Highway and hopefully we'll never experience that again.

Q. How are council decisions and the work of city staff meeting today's challenges and positioning the city to thrive over the next 10 years?

Drawing down structural costs to our budget leaves money available for future projects. … You can slurry seal a street only so often before you have to resurface it. You can resurface only so often before you have to replace. We recently went to an annual street maintenance program where we try to maintain a regular schedule of maintenance on our streets to prolong the life of those streets. We did the same thing with our tree trimming, a grid program on a set schedule so we are constantly maintaining the safety and extending the life of our trees.

The City Council has recognized the 710 freeway [extension] could be a devastating issue for our community and that we need to protect the community from those impacts through whatever means, if it means fighting the 710 … [or] coming up with serious alternatives that should be considered.

Q. What do you think the city will look like 20 or even 30 years from now?

I think La Cañada Flintridge is going to look very similar to the way it looks today. That's by design. The community likes our small-town atmosphere, the predominant residential aspect of the city, that this is a safe community and a community that places value on education for its children, and I believe the community wants to keep [city] government small and keep our hometown feel.

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Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @JoePiasecki.

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