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With COO Departure, Mayor Moves for More Control Over Bureaucracy

The mayor's choice for COO, a veteran of City Hall politics, promises to bring alignment between the mayor's goals and his workforce. But having all employees focused on the mayor's political objectives has downsides too.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders whispers to Kris Michell. / Photo: Sam Hodgson

City leaders filled social media Monday with encomiums to the managerial competence of Scott Chadwick, the COO who announced this week he was moving from the city of San Diego to the city of Carlsbad.

So many officials had so many nice things to say about Chadwick, it made you wonder why great big San Diego couldn’t compete with little ol’ Carlsbad to keep him.

Perhaps the mayor didn’t even try.

Monday, the mayor’s office cast Chadwick’s departure as an opening to something better. Mayor Kevin Faulconer immediately picked Kris Michell to replace Chadwick. There was no talk of interim status, no search.

Michell is a veteran of City Hall politics. She had been the political leader for two mayors. She ran the Downtown Partnership, an influential lobbyist for downtown businesses and developers but also an operations center of its own with downtown maintenance programs.

In an interview, Michell said she would be changing the role of COO to help the city evolve the strong-mayor form of government adopted 14 years ago.

“Today, we have the opportunity to grow in our understanding of the strong-mayor form of government,” she said. “The mayor is leading the city and we need to know where he’s headed at all times, so we can deliver the results he seeks.”

This fits with recent changes we’ve noticed in the mayor. He’s getting anxious.

“Look, consensus is important. Results are more important,” he said last week. “I am choosing results over consensus.”

Only he knows why, but perhaps the most memorable moment in city politics last year was the collective realization, brought on by our reporting and others’, that the city was not acting with urgency about its critical homelessness crisis. The lack of action left the city so unsanitary, so gross, that an epidemic common in refugee camps broke out, killing 20 people.

Is this the mayor telling us that this lack of urgency was the result of the city’s operations team? Maybe not. Maybe so.

But they are saying this: the relationship between city operations and the mayor needs to change.

“Until now, the mayor’s office and city operations have in some ways acted like silos,” said Aimee Faucett, the mayor’s chief of staff, in an interview.

They want to bring one of them into line.

♦♦♦

City Hall used to run as a city-manager form of government. The city manager was powerful. Testimony from the city’s pension-scandal era showed how intimidated City Council members were of the various city managers. Sure, if a city manager lost the support of a majority of Council members, he was out; short of that, he was king.

He got to decide what got done and what didn’t.

The current chief operating officer role at City Hall is a ghost of that time. The COO has the same responsibility to oversee the city’s division chiefs, but not nearly the independence or leverage to implement his or her vision.

Still, the operations team retained its own identity. COO appointments are among the few top management picks the mayor must send to City Council for approval. Chadwick was the mayor’s employee, yes, but also the head of the bureaucracy.

Several months ago, I asked Stephen Puetz, the mayor’s former chief of staff, if he saw himself as Chadwick’s boss.

“The guy has no ego so he probably would have told people I was his boss,” Puetz said. “But I didn’t look at it like that. If I told Scott (Chadwick) or someone in the operations department to do something, they would do it. But we had a very collaborative relationship.”

Puetz said he saw it as a partnership. He mused it may take another decade or two to fully transition to the strong-mayor form of government, where the mayor truly has full reign to direct city staff as if they are his direct employees. But Puetz said he and his team had made adjustments to put operations staffers more directly in line with political and policy leadership.

“There was pretty strong alignment,” he said.

Apparently not enough. I asked Kris Michell if what she was describing was a de-emphasis of the COO role.

“It’s not an emphasis or a de-emphasis,” she said. “It’s an alignment.”

♦♦♦

Before he resigned in disgrace, former Mayor Bob Filner saw something. He saw how powerful his job could be.

A 2004 ballot measure had made the mayor the city’s chief executive officer in charge of the entire bureaucracy. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders was the first to test that power. When he arrived, he forced all the city’s top managers to resign in a dramatic show that turned out to be a demoralizing debacle.

When Filner replaced Sanders, he too wanted to establish his dominance. He wanted to create a machine around his priorities. If he was the boss of almost all 11,000 city employees, he reasoned, he could tell them what to do – each of them.

Not unlike President Donald Trump now, Filner was surprised at how hard this was to pull off. He was erratic and incompetent.

At one point, he simply ordered building inspectors not to check out a project. To agree to send inspectors to the project so construction could restart, Filner demanded a donation from the developer for one of his pet causes.

If his other sins wouldn’t have taken him down, this may have.

But Filner did see something. Faulconer seems to see it as well.

His desire makes sense. He’s out every day listening to his friends, stakeholders, voters and everyone else. He wants to have meaningful conversations with them and he wants his words to mean something. He wants city staff to implement the ideas he comes up with to address the people’s concerns.

But another interpretation is that we may lose something important — an operational commitment to excellence. Chadwick was intent on developing competence, testing performance and analytics. He wanted happy employees and believed they achieved more for city residents and delivered better services when they were.

He cared about performance reviews, training and budgets and the things that heady executives sometimes see as annoyances.

“I’ve been nothing but impressed by him, his professionalism and his ability to get things done, do what’s right and appropriately push back on the mayor and mayoral staff and provide that extra layer of guidance,” Puetz said, before we ever imagined Chadwick was on his way out.

The idea is that city staff has a job to do that’s beyond politics. You don’t necessarily want the police, or people picking up trash or the people running the park and recreation department to be thinking about the mayor’s political objectives.

Or do you? After all, voters did put this system in place. The mayor is held accountable, politically, for what his staff does.

This is the debate the mayor has now taken a side on.

If he is going to be blamed for the things that go wrong, he wants to be in charge.

 

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