“This is a crazy way to make a living.” And other parting thoughts from a career City Manager
It’s impossible to describe the role of City Manager. The breadth of issues encountered within a city organization defies categorization. One minute you are knee-deep in budget planning and the next minute you are confronted with a public safety issue that is literally life or death.
Over the course of 31 years, the last 14 in Fremont, several themes have emerged that have kept me and the city organization on an even keel. Some are lessons that I’ve learned the hard way, and others have developed as a management style over time. In all cases, the themes reflect the complexities of the issues, the people, and the places that I have been fortunate to be enmeshed with over the last three decades from Azusa to Indio, and Tracy to Fremont.
- Take Action.
When Fremont was reeling from the closure of the NUMMI auto factory, the City Council challenged staff to make something happen — to rise to the occasion for the good of the community. At the time, none of us really knew what that meant. But there was passion around seizing the opportunity for economic development in Warm Springs. My job was to steer the culture of the organization from one that was suspicious of development, and over-regulatory, to one that valued economic development as part of a solution to financial strife.
- Be Opportunistic.
Sometimes things do fall out of the sky, and when they do, you have to be ready to leverage the opportunity. Our organization didn’t set out to recruit Tesla, but when Fremont emerged as a front-runner to house the manufacturing operation for the groundbreaking Model S, the City was all-hands-on-deck to be a partner in their growth and development.
Housing the Oakland Athletics stadium was another such opportunity, and while this one didn’t pan out, I’d say that our organization did its best work on this project. The A’s made us strive. It was a crash course on thinking big — if the A’s were interested, who else might be interested? This aspiration transferred to other opportunities, and Fremont’s entrepreneurial spirit was born.
- Seize the Crisis.
When the A’s decided not to come to Fremont, we were disappointed, but as it turned out, we laid the groundwork for even more important work ahead with the development of Pacific Commons, and later, the Warm Springs Innovation District.
It’s hard to believe now, but it wasn’t that long ago that Warm Springs was the “forgotten district.” The NUMMI closure was a profound reminder that the community should transcend differences and focus on a common purpose. This is harder and harder to do because people are most concerned about what affects them most directly. Absent a tragedy, it’s a hard mentality to transcend. Common purpose provides a rallying effect and is ultimately more powerful.
- Prioritize Fiscal Sustainability.
My first five years in Fremont focused on fiscal health, and there was a strong sense of urgency in rebuilding operations for long-term sustainability. Without developing this certainty around future budgets, we would not have been able to work on more aspirational goals for the community.
And, while other cities were occupied in unwinding their Redevelopment Agencies, Fremont was among the first cities to close its RDA down. Because our RDA footprint was small and uncomplicated, Fremont had the freedom and time to pursue other projects, and gave us an early start to pursue different and creative funding mechanisms.
- Balance New Jobs and District Development.
Cities function best when there is balance between housing and jobs. Nurturing new employment opportunities — and the accompanying tax base — has to be a top priority.
Balancing the needs of different districts is more challenging. As is often the case, your greatest attributes can also stand in the way of progress. I’m proud that Fremont has found ways to celebrate and invest in its unique and vibrant historic districts while also developing a new Downtown that will bring the entire community together.
- Pick the Right People.
I have passion for picking the right people. If you assemble a strong group of talented staff with common purpose and consistency in messaging, they can articulate goals that speak to macro-relevance and achieve almost anything. There is no use in running a tight ship if it is headed for an iceberg! I’ve always demanded loyalty, honesty, and the best work from my team. I’ve relied on intuition and timing to know when to push, and when to nurture, and how to identify good fits for the organization. You have to trust your instincts, but also listen to those around you.
- Embrace Risk.
In pursuing the development of a new Downtown, I was secure in taking a risk because previous City Councils were aspirational, and willing to experiment. The desire to pursue a central identity was embraced by political leaders who allowed City Staff the creative freedom to take the organization to the next level.
In the case of NUMMI, it was a crucial moment. When you have nothing to lose, you possess the ultimate freedom. The stakes were high, but the opportunity was immense. Fremont’s back was against the wall, and it was up to Staff and the City Council to see beyond the current horizon.
- Be Tenacious.
You can’t see yourself as an extension of the current will. Instead, you have to balance current needs and strive in the face of controversy. Our approach has been one of relentless cultivation, and the courage to redefine ourselves. I’ve learned when to be diplomatic, and when to apply more pressure.
- Think Big.
I’m proud of taking Fremont’s economic development efforts to the next level — think line chef to gourmet! As a City, we doubled down on marketing and saw the value of leveraging our strengths, which garnered national and international interest. There was a lot of sophistication behind the scenes as well as the ability to zero in on what’s most important.
- Be Resilient.
When a crisis hits, you need the confidence to not panic. You may not know the outcome, but if you surround yourself with good people, and have faith that the professionals around you will help you tackle a grave issue, something good will eventually evolve. It’s a simple formula: tune out the chatter; bring people together; talk things through.
Fred Diaz with Dexter, the Rottweiler who will be his new buddy in retirement.