Finding new Oxnard city manager a top priority after June election

Councilmembers, candidates hash out plans for search, selection

By David Michael Courtland 05/16/2013

Oxnard city officials say the search for a new city manager won’t begin until later this year, but the four sitting councilmembers discussed what other steps could be taken in the meantime.

“We certainly aren’t going to make a decision before the results of the next election. We have to do some homework first,” including determining the typical salary range for a city manager in a city the size of Oxnard, Councilmember Carmen Ramirez said.

“I agree with the mayor that the amount our former city manager was getting was excessive — not just the salary, but other compensation,” said Ramirez, adding, “but you can’t pay someone $50,000 a year to manage a city of 200,000. You’d have to do a really convincing job for me to believe that that’s appropriate.

“But that’s just me. The whole City Council will make that decision, not just one councilmember.”

Ramirez said she would be looking for someone able to take ideas and turn them into policy.

“Someone with experience in financial management and good people skills,” said Ramirez, “who can inspire not just staff but residents to be forward-thinking — it’s a whole new world because of changes in environmental and redevelopment laws. It’s really changed the way we pay for things, the way we budget.”

Councilmembers agreed that Assistant City Manager Karen Burnham, who has been filling in for former city manager Ed Sotelo since he was put on paid leave last year, could apply for the job with other applicants — apparently signaling they will not simply promote her into the job.

The City Council drew criticism last year when it not only named Burnham interim city manager but gave her a raise that brought her total salary and benefits to more than $300,000. Critics have long cited Sotelo’s total salary and benefits package — more than $400,000 — as an example of a corrupt administration.

Oxnard hasn’t had a city manager since January 2012, when Sotelo was put on paid leave for the remainder of his contract, which ran out in February 2013. Councilmembers haven’t said publicly why they took the action, but at the time City Attorney Alan Holmberg said it was not because Sotelo was being blamed for an investigation of city finances by Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten’s office.

The remaining seat, available since Tim Flynn was elected mayor in November, will be filled by a June 5 special election.

But Flynn said it is not only uncertain when the matter will come back before the council — which will spend much of this summer deciding a new budget for the coming fiscal year — but whether a consultant will be hired for a nationwide search.

“I don’t think the council has determined that yet. Do we have the resources for a nationwide search? Do we appoint a citizen’s committee?” Flynn said, noting that the cost of a consultant would be prohibitive. “There are several retired city managers in Ventura County that could provide that kind of input, and members of the community are stakeholders.”

Manuel Vasquez Cano, one of the 13 candidates running in the special election, suggests holding a town hall meeting where residents can meet finalists for the city manager’s job following a nationwide search.

“Neighborhood councils can give input to set priorities and give guidance to the Council on what is best for the city,” said Cano, who says one priority should be a smaller salary and benefits package.

“A generous package is, of course, necessary so that we can get the best candidate,” said Cano, “but because of our budget, I don’t think we can afford as much — I don’t think it should be more than $280,000.”

City Council candidate Jo Ann Olivares said she likewise favors having residents help councilmembers decide what to look for in a city manager.

“The residents should be involved in helping them decide what they’re looking for,” said Olivares. “I would hope they’d have at least three strong candidates that could all come do an interview. The final decision would be up to the Council, but at least they’d know what citizens are looking for, and will pick the candidate that mirrors the description they’ve put together.”

Another City Council candidate, Vince Behrens, who has made finding a new city manager a central theme of his campaign, is against hiring a consultant and thinks residents will be unhappy if the Council does not include them in the search process.

“I’d hate to see them spend $100,000 for a headhunter, being as we’ve known for a year that we’re going to need a new city manager,” said Behrens, who favors having a citizens’ committee interview applicants before recommending finalists to the City Council. “I can’t imagine letting five people sitting around a table make the decision like last time. There’d be an insurrection.”

But at the May 1 candidate’s forum sponsored by the Inter-Neighborhood Council Forum, most of the 13 candidates said they were OK with a national search for a new city manager. Olivares has put together a description of what she’ll look for in a candidate if she’s elected, and she presented it at the forum.

“I would be searching for an executive-level professional, someone with administrative and organizational leadership skills and an ability to work with financial data,” said Olivares, “a visionary person who can implement the City Council’s strategic vision so that everybody’s moving in the same direction.”

Candidate Orlando Dozier said he would want the City Council to take things a step further than just hiring the best available city manager.

“I think the Council needs to move to a full-time Council with a full-time mayor,” said Dozier. “Until that happens, we get a city manager with a salary comparable to other cities our size.”

The day before the forum, candidate Elizabeth Wolfel said she would like to see the search done in the same fashion as the Ventura Community College District picked its chancellor when she was the district’s student trustee.

“I served on the committee for the chancellor search and I really enjoyed that process,” said Wolfel, who proposed the idea at the forum as well. “They put together a comprehensive group of about 25 people, we went through all the résumés and we scored them, then those were sent to the board with our comments.

“I really felt the process was fair. When you’re going into something like this, you need some community involvement,” continued Wolfel. “This is a big deal. Our last city manager was here for a long time.”  


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