Chapter 4- Building Vision
By December, 2001, the City Council was already changing and I was starting to get a grasp on things.
In December, Chris Calvert left the City Council after building and moving into a home just south of the City in Allendale. The replacement selected for Chris was Bruce Guelden who had just left the Planning Commission after the City Council decided not to reappoint him. (Think about it, let’s not appoint someone to the Planning Commission, but let’s put him on the City Council with two years left on the term- totally makes sense).
So every new City Manager’s nightmares starts when those members who appoint/hire you start to leave the City Council. There was one gone, Chris and now there is Bruce, a person I had only met at a Halloween Party at his house (a story I will later tell). Bruce seemed like a reasonable guy but he was quietly super informed on the General Plan (more than I was) and seemed to have some history on development in Winters.
December was also the City Council election filing period for the March, 2002 election. The two seats up for election were one being vacated by John Frazier who was not running again and incumbent Tom McMasters-Stone who would run again. During the filing period, former 14 year mayor Robert Chapman pulled and returned papers to run.
The final filing day was a Thursday evening at 5:00. It looked like just two would run until that same day, Dan Martinez pulls and returns papers with an hour to spare. Dan comes in with the minimum 20 signatures on his petition and immediately gets the lecture from Nanci that that is a really bad idea, because few people will actually admit to not being a registered voter when asked. Nanci immediately sends the petition to the Registrar and gets a reply back, all twenty signatures were good! We have a competitive election!
Ill talk about the City Council in another chapter, but in March, the election was held and Dan and Bob were elected. In a big surprise, Tom comes in third and is out. This is where I learned from saged wisdom that people who graduate from Winters High School get elected in Winters!
So, great, I am six months into the job, have not even moved into my new home (which was under construction) and I have three people on the City Council who did not hire me who were now my bosses. Yup, everything is just lining up as planned in my first City Manager job!
For years, I have had a mentorship group who I rely on for advice. They are former bosses and city manager’s (who knew my father) who I had dinner with regularly to gain wisdom and advice. Immediately, I am on the phone asking for advice on dealing with this situation. Besides laughing at me and telling me to stop whining, they unanimously gave me the same advice, get the Council on the same page by doing some strategic planning.
Thus, time for a planning meeting!
I have never been thrilled with our City Council Chamber as a place to hold any type of meeting. In 2002, the seats were fixed theatre chairs from the former movie theatre in town. We needed a better location to meet around a table and the only place Nanci could come up with was the “Green Room” at the Community Center because the main room was used for the senior nutrition program.
So, the meeting is set and we meet at the Community Center. The Council is Jiley Romney, Bruce Guelden, Robert Chapman, Dan Martinez and Harold Anderson. The staff at the meeting besides me were Nanci Mills, Police Chief Steve Godden and our Finance Director Shelly Gunby.
We are crammed into this little room filled with theatre costumes and props for an upcoming play. The room has no white board or functionality for a business meeting so the best I could do was this wooden painters easel and a flip chart I purchased at Staples in Vacaville. Not ideal but what came from this meeting is what has shaped Winters to this day.
Over the years, I have gotten a lot of credit and blame for things which have happened, but the reality is that the vision for Winters has been carved by amazing City Council members, community members and businesses who have their pulse on the community and the direction of where they want to take the City. This was the meeting which told John Donlevy what to do as the City Manager!
Shelly was tasked with writing everything on the flip charts and I asked everyone two simple questions- Where do you want to go and what big things do you want accomplished!
The direction just flowed:
- Downtown needed to be the center of our universe. Figure out how to bring life back into a place which died in the early 1980’s.
- Public safety needed to be a priority. Working out of an old garage for police and reliance on a mostly volunteer fire staffing base needed to be improved (in December we had disbanded the local ambulance and service came from Davis now).
- Work with the WJUSD and support them in improving.
- Youth and Families needed to be what Winters in known for!
- Development needed to be measured and well planned.
- They wanted a new library (which a bond measure had just barely failed in November)
- Putah Creek and implementation of a master plan for trails and restoration of what at the time was a massive blackberry bramble. The Council wanted public access to the creek!
- Fiscal sustainability. They wanted responsibility in how we managed the City’s money.
- Winters needed to be a participant in the region. Re-establish relationships and develop new ones.
- The community needed a sports park, the community center needed renovation and we needed to consider a community theatre location.
- Staff needed to be a priority and we needed to build a team.
- Fix and maintain our utilities. This included improving internet which was only dial up at the time.
- The City needed to be a champion for our business community.
- Look into redevelopment.
The meeting was absolutely magical for me. The entire group wanted mostly the same things (with some different priorities) and universally they wanted to move the City forward and wanted me and the staff to figure it out.
Some takeaways from that day:
- Quietly, this City Council had very strong leadership across groups within the community. They were strong and demanding within the context that they sincerely wanted these things to happen. These were very nice people who wanted THEIR town to be a place people would be proud of.
- At this meeting I found how important my foundational staff would be in both Nanci and Shelly. They were strong and super competent and were ready to take on the tasks. Through the years, they became the cornerstones of the organization, my key confidants and colleagues who I could talk completely “unfiltered and honestly” with on the big issues. As the City Manager, “it’s pretty lonely at the top” and having two people who I could talk with and people who were not afraid to set me straight is absolute gold. They were not afraid of me and I was only slightly afraid of them at times.
- Chief Steve Godden gained my eternal respect. He had literally kept the law enforcement in Winters together with duct tape and toothpicks for almost 25 years. He was a man with true vision who simply never had the support that I could bring. The current public safety facility is actually his idea. The man owned the room when he spoke at this planning meeting. I have always been sad that I did not have a chance to work with Steve longer because I know I could have learned so much from him.
- Building the “team” would be essential. City staff, key consultants, the Planning Commission and community participants. We needed the right mix of attitude and fortitude. The Council would need a lot of information.
As we left the meeting, I remember Harold, Bob, Dan and Steve standing outside talking. Multiple generations of “Winters Guys” who had just given me marching orders on direction for the City. Each brought a strong level of commitment and enormous influence to enable big things. I got a lot of confidence from this and instant respect for these people whose entire life was Winters, California.
Steve came by my office a little later with Shelly and Nanci. They chided me a bit that the list seemed long and difficult. So “what item are you going to pick from the list” came from Steve. “I think they want us to do all of it” was my reply. Nanci didn’t blink nor did Shelly. Nanci with her subtle confidence essentially said “let’s just go for it”. Shelly who has forever been supportive and solution oriented said “I think I know some people we need to talk to” if we are going to figure out how to do all of this.
I stayed late that night transcribing all the notes on the big pieces of paper. I will admit that I called Tom Stone to get his input.
As I looked at the list, I started breaking each down into tasks and it just exploded into so many more tasks, some of them rather large. Winters was a town which was outwardly resistant to anything perceived as “change”. I remember thinking “so how do you do big things in a town like Winters without pissing everyone off”?
My first organizational mantra came to me and that was the concept of “base hits”. We would start doing a lot of little things and move up to the big ones. People who win the batting title each year do not hit a lot of home runs. That would become our goal.
Some insight into how we began implementing the vision……..
Earlier that month, a guy by the name of Frank Young had come by my office asking for an old street light relic (donated by his family) which had been taken down and replaced by the standard “cobra head” lights by PG&E. He walked me out to the light which sat in the “Main Street Mini Park”. The light did not work and Frank said “if the City isn’t going to fix it” give it back to him and he would fix it for his house.
It came to me, our first base hit- replace the Downtown street lights with the old fashion type. We did that!
Hit #2- the Little League Field lights had just been decertified by Little League. I totally knew ballfield lights from building parks in Grand Terrace. We did a volunteer install (which I will describe later).
We were on our way! Little things to lead to bigger things down the road. Show people that you can do little things which are improvements and build the confidence of the community.
That night after the planning session was a cold Tuesday night in March, the Buckhorn was super quiet, the rest of the town was completely empty and it was just a gloomy night.
I got into my police car to drive home to Kathy and the kids. I felt really inspired by the day. I liked lists and challenges. I also felt assured by “my team” who I would later realize were the foundation of all our later successes.
The interior lights in the police car had stopped working and it was just this very dark car. I also set a goal to get a new car to drive.