The Big Job of Choosing the Right City Manager

January 24, 2013
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Patrick O’Keeffe Retiring

Emeryville City Manager Patrick O’Keeffe has resigned, effective April 19. O’Keeffe served as City Manager for the past 7 years. Before that, he was the city’s Economic Development and Housing Director under City Manager John Flores for 11 years. During his 18-year tenure with the city, O’Keeffe used his considerable autonomy, political influence, and hundreds of millions in redevelopment money to help transform rugged, industrial Emeryville into a modern hub of big box retail, biotech, and condo/apartment complexes. His principle role — what he knows how to do — is promote and manage development.

City Manager Patrick O'Keeffe

City Manager Patrick O'Keeffe

Reviews of the city’s transformation – and O’Keeffe’s role in it – have been mixed. While the City Council theoretically makes the final call on development projects, anyone who knows Emeryville politics knows O’Keeffe is a key player. The Council largely depends on him (and other city staff) to inform and advise them. And he does, always in favor of big business and often at the expense of residents. Pedestrian and bicycle safety, open space, small business, historic buildings, and hundreds of old growth trees are sacrificed in the name of progress. Enormous tax breaks are given to billion-dollar corporations like Pixar, but not to the city’s local, independent companies. Many development deals are cut in private meetings arranged by O’Keefe, then rubber-stamped by the City Council majority (Council Members Nora Davis, Ruth Atkin, and Kurt Brinkman) in a public meeting — when it is far too late for the public to have any sway over the project or its terms. In fact, it is rumored that O’Keefe might try to slip one more deal through before he leaves. He and City Council Member Nora Davis, among others, are reportedly holding meetings with a potential developer of the Sherwin-Williams site.

A New, and Different, City Manager

It’s clear from O’Keeffe’s tenure that the City Manager has enormous power, playing a critical role in running, and shaping, the city. The residents have a major stake in who replaces him. Council Member (and former Mayor) Jennifer West considers the choice of a new City Manager her “biggest job yet” and urges residents to get involved.

“The Council directly hires only two city employees: the City Manager and the City Attorney. The City Manager is the executive of the City’s organization … and putting Emeryville in the hands of an exceptional person is of utmost importance to me,” West said in a recent email to residents.

The City has hired an executive search firm in Los Gatos, Avery Associates, which is asking residents to help develop a new City Manager profile, and draft a recruitment brochure (here is the brochure Avery did in 2006 before O’Keeffe was chosen). Avery Associates held a community meeting last Tuesday at City Hall, and will post a resident survey on the city website Monday, Jan. 28.

Residents, local workers, and advocates promote their interests at a historic community town hall meeting in 2009

Residents United for a Liveable Emeryville (RULE), a progressive community group, has already weighed in, proposing that the new City Manager be required to:

  • Adopt a community centered approach
  • Work closely with residents and seeks residents’ viewpoints
  • Work to achieve balance among all community factions – residents, businesses (large and small), and developers
  • Have experience working in and running an open government

Some RULE members also think the new City Manager should live in Emeryville, as he/she would have a real stake in the city’s livability. O’Keeffe lives in Piedmont. In fact, none of the city’s executive staff live in Emeryville, which many residents view as a major handicap, since they lack (and often dismiss) the residents’ perspective.

RULE members, and other residents, also expressed hopes that the future City Manager will make these issues a priority:

  • Affordable, family friendly housing
  • Neighborhood connectivity, including bicycle/pedestrian-friendly policies, public transportation, traffic control and parking management
  • The city’s General Plan, using it as the principal document against which all planning decisions are vetted
  • Quality of life issues, including support of local and small business, well-paying jobs, artistic activity, balancing community benefits with economic concerns
  • Transparency and accountability

The City’s goal is to hire a replacement for O’Keeffe before he leaves in April. Stay tuned … and get involved! Fill out the survey (to be posted here Monday, Jan. 28)! And/or post your comments here!

(To comment on this story, or to view the comments of others, click on the headline to go to the story page, then scroll to the bottom.)

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3 Responses to The Big Job of Choosing the Right City Manager

  1. Brian Donahue on January 25, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Check out the brochure prepared by the city for prospective City Managers…the photograph presented of how Emeryville people live is the Bay Street Mall! Whomever produced that brochure should be taken to task; shopping malls are NOT what we aspire to (regardless of what Nora Davis and her city council majority say). It really speaks volumes that this brochure indicates what people think of when they think Emeryville is a shopping mall. But that mall is NOT representative of the real Emeryville. A survey was conducted about this and as it turns out almost no Emeryville residents shop at Bay Street. We need to reel back this stupid brochure…it’s sending the wrong message to our future City Manager.

    • Will Leben on January 26, 2013 at 2:23 am

      It does seem funny that Bay Street Mall should be chosen to embody the essence of Emeryville.

      True, cable cars serve this function in SF even though they don’t reflect the way real San Franciscans live. But compared to cable cars, Bay Street Mall is a pretty lame icon.

      Emery-Go-Round?

      • Brian Donahue on January 26, 2013 at 9:21 pm

        I hate to say it but if you’re looking for an accurate iconographic image for Emeryville, it would be a photo of a drive-in-drive-out podium style loft building with an empty unrented store front (because the rents are too high), or a mattress store in the storefront. The photo would not include any people visible since they’re all ‘cacooning’ in their lofts. In front of the storefront would be parking, jam packed with Mini Coopers. Visible in the loft windows would be Nora Davis or Kurt Brinkman for re-election campaign signs.
        That’s a photo that would sum up the real Emeryville.
        Of course this is NOT a photo we would put on a prospectus for a new city manager…the idea that this is something we want more of might be taken from such a (realistically representative) photo.

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