John Russo: Alameda city manager's first year
John Russo seems strangely uncomfortable detailing what he’s accomplished during his inaugural year as Alameda’s city manager. Russo – a man who has passionately argued his case at any number of City Council meetings, where he has showcased his erudition with a steady peppering of 50-cent words and even warbled the occasional Beach Boys tune – doesn’t want to come off like he’s trying to brag.
But some of the City Council members who hired Russo feel he has a lot to brag about for this first year, which wrapped on June 13. He closed a long-sought deal with the Navy that will allow the city to take control of much of Alameda Point by the end of 2012 without paying the $108.5 million the Navy had previously demanded, hired a slew of top managers to run leaderless departments, put in place a series of policies intended to make City Hall more accessible to residents and won concessions from labor unions that will see hundreds of city workers paying more toward their pensions and benefits.
“The council is very happy with John Russo's accomplishments over the past year,” said Councilwoman Lena Tam, who was one of four council members who voted to hire him. “He has accomplished more than any prior city manager during his tenure.”
Even Doug deHaan, who cast the lone vote against hiring Russo to run the city, credited him with some successes this past year – though deHaan also listed concerns.
“He succeeded, and that’s fine,” deHaan said. “But budget is my concern. I was hoping we’d be further along.”
Russo came to Alameda after 16 years of front-line political life in Oakland, first as a city councilman and then, its elected city attorney. And while his comments marked a clear, continued frustration with that city’s leadership, he said he doesn’t miss the political life at all.
He replaced Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, who some credited with halting what they considered a ruinous plan to build thousands of homes at Alameda Point and others faulted for launching an investigation into e-mails Tam forwarded to then-Point developer SunCal and leaders of Alameda’s firefighters union that they considered politically motivated. Council members ousted Gallant on a 3-2 vote in December 2010; she is suing the city.
“The problems here are as interesting in terms of, as public policy and political puzzles – they’re as interesting as in Oakland,” Russo said. “But when you make a mistake in Alameda – when your policy is wrong it has consequences, but it doesn’t mean 3-year-olds are getting shot in the street by rival gangs.”
Russo and some Oakland city leaders, including Mayor Jean Quan, became locked in bitter disputes over gang injunctions Russo and then-Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts imposed and the city’s plan to allow pot farms, which Russo believed were illegal.
“I was in Oakland City Hall 16 years, and I didn’t realize how much of the violence in Oakland and my frustration levels with the lack of political leadership (and its) devotion to ideological correctness, and the consequences of that for kids and families in Oakland’s tougher neighborhoods – how much that was really weighing on me personally,” Russo said. “So I don’t have to deal with that anymore.”
Here, Russo has had different things to deal with – anger over the Memorial Day drowning death of Raymond Zack and the city’s lack of communication regarding its decisions to chop down dozens of trees on Park Street and to enact a no-smoking ordinance that impacts businesses and bars some property owners from smoking in their own homes.
Russo, who admitted failures in the way the incident was handled but said they weren’t the ones had put forth, dealt with the Zack drowning by bringing in an outside expert to delve into what happened that day and lay a corrective path forward to avoid a similar tragedy in the future. And he and Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen reached out to angry business owners and community members upset over the removal of the Park Street trees, gathering their input in the streetscape improvement process that included new trees, bike racks and parking kiosks.
Russo said he doesn’t mind the passionate debate that typically surrounds big issues here, issues that have included a five-year effort to hire a private operator to run – and rebuild – the Chuck Corica Golf Complex. But he was quick to pooh-pooh notions that he takes sides on issues before the council or that he has ulterior motives behind the proposals he presents. Russo strongly backed hiring KemperSports to permanently manage the golf complex, though the company angered some golfers with their advocacy for a plan to give developer Ron Cowan the Mif Albright nine-hole course in exchange for cash and land he owns. (The council voted to negotiate a contract with Greenway Golf, the other finalist for the contract.)
“I like the dialogue. I don’t like people making assumptions staff’s motives, my motives, incorrect, conspiratorial, whatever,” he said.
Russo’s predecessors in the job – he’s the city’s seventh manager in five years – were marked by city hall watchers for their strong management of Alameda or their acquiescence to the council’s sometimes changeable directives. Russo said his job and the job of his staff is to offer “pragmatic, achievable solutions” for the Island’s issues.
“We don’t always get it right – that’s clear – but we are always moving in a direction that we feel is objectively defensible as the way to go for a solution, not what’s politically correct or what meets the particular political calculus at any moment,” he said.
Russo and the council have not seen eye to eye on a number of issues over the past year, notably management of the golf complex and the proposed development strategy for Alameda Point, a stripped-down version of which was okayed unanimously by the council on June 6 after the full version was shot down a few weeks earlier. He said he hasn’t engaged in any “political play” to encourage council members to see things his way. But deHaan, for one, is not totally convinced Russo has left his political self behind.
“John still has the politician in him,” deHaan said. “What my biggest fear has always been is that sometimes, being seen and not heard is extremely important as a city manager. But at the same time, if you don’t have the leadership, and we’re not providing it on the council, he does have the obligation to step forward. But it is our obligation to make those kind of decisions and move forward. He needs to – he’s working on it, he states that – it’s a work in progress.
“I’ve seen him, when he didn’t feel very comfortable with the outcome of what was presented, get argumentative with the council,” deHaan added. “I think we’re still his boss.”
Russo allowed that he and his staff may have advocated strongly for their proposed development strategy for Alameda Point.
“Staff advocated – we might have gone over the line a little bit. We believed in what we were saying. But we worked it out,” Russo said.
When he was hired, Russo told the residents who came out to speak on his behalf that every one of them would be mad at him for something by now. But several people who have worked with him over the past year voiced support for the job he’s done so far.
“Mr. Russo is a dynamic leader who is not afraid to try new things in order to get the city back on track. In all of our dealings with him, he has been responsive, follows through, and in my opinion works hard to find solutions that are in the best interest of the city as well as the employees,” said Domenick Weaver, who heads the local firefighters union.
Tam also offered a firm vote of confidence for Russo, who she credited with negotiating contracts with the city’s public safety unions that have them paying more toward their pensions, partnering with a non-profit to keep Alameda’s animal shelter open and operating, negotiating the Point deal with the Navy, helping to put her Sunshine Ordinance in place and stabilizing city management “by appointing department leaders that have the respect and trust of their staff.”
Police and firefighters now pay 11 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, up from the 9 percent they paid before, and Russo has said he expects to ask for more this summer. He also appointed a task force to examine the city’s growing pension and health care issues; they’re expected to issue a report this fall.
“As for our future contract discussions, we expect that he will be involved, transparent, and willing to work towards reasonable solutions that provide for the long term viability and sustainability of the city and all of it' employees,” Weaver said.
But deHaan, who allowed that Russo’s tenure has marked an “active period of time,” said others got the ball rolling on some of the things Russo closed. He said Gallant, for example, deliberately left top management positions open so that a permanent city manager could fill them. And deHaan is sore about Measure C – and the political beating he endured at the hands of his dais-mates over his decision to vote for, then vocally oppose, the failed 30-year, half-percent sales tax increase, which he said wasn’t all it was advertised to be.
“I think we all agreed when we went and hired a new city manager, the budget was most concerning,” deHaan said. He suggested at the council’s June 12 meeting that they consider 5 percent pay cuts for city staff, and he hinted he’s interested in bigger changes on the pension front.
DeHaan said he thinks the capital projects that would have been paid for by the additional taxes – a replacement Fire Station 3 and emergency operations center, a new swim center and a lighted, all-weather field among them – weren’t priorities for voters, though Russo told council members city staff is working to find ways to pay for those things and for the city vehicles the measure would have funded.
“All we’re doing now is scrambling to try to figure out other ways to do the things that have to be done,” Russo said.
Russo’s list for this year includes pensions and the Point, and efforts to put the city on a two-year budget cycle and to overhaul management of the city’s records. And Tam said she wants Russo to tap his connections to promote economic development at the Point and other to-be-developed areas of the Island in order to generate more revenue for the city.
“Are you surprised? It’s an ambitious agenda,” he said.