Executive Interview with Sharon Landers

What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

I must admit that it took several twists and turns for me to realize that my passion was in local government. In retrospect this is interesting considering that my parents were community advocates in the town on Long Island, NY, that we moved to when I was in high school. I saw firsthand the benefits they were able to achieve for their community in securing sound walls along an eight-lane highway and in winning the passage of a local ordinance to control the hour in the morning that lawnmowers and other noisy equipment could be used. They achieved these initiatives by working with key officials in their town.  Initially I started my career as a lawyer in state government headquartered in the capitol of New York. Although I enjoyed providing legal advice and counsel at the highest levels of state government, I eventually recognized that it would be more fun and challenging for me to be engaged on the policy side where I would have greater involvement in solving problems and creating programs. When I was offered an opportunity to work in the governor’s office on transportation policy and operations, I jumped at the chance. While there, I crossed paths with the New York City Mayor’s Transportation Advisor and was recruited to work in the mayor’s office in the city where I had grown up. It was my first taste of working at the local level where you engage more directly with the residents, and I loved it! I eventually became the Mayor’s Transportation Advisor, serving under two mayors. Following that, I was recruited to New Jersey to work as the Deputy Commissioner of the State Department of Transportation and subsequently moved to California to be Deputy CEO at LA Metro. While I enjoyed my work in both agencies, I knew I wanted to return to local government where I could have the broadest impact on the quality of life of residents. I was particularly interested in economic development, having seen how transportation initiatives could effectively be used as economic development tools. As it turned out, my transportation background is what got me my next job as the Assistant Executive Director of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. As luck would have it, the Executive Director was looking for someone who could help manage their involvement in a big transit project that was underway – the extension of BART from San Francisco to San Jose. Several years later and just days after the birth of my daughter, I was recruited to be Assistant City Manager (ACM) for the City of Irvine. As much as I loved the ACM job, after 12 years I knew that I was ready for the top role in a city. I spent my next 3 years as the first female City Manager for the City of Carson, in the South Bay of Los Angeles County with nearly 100,000 residents and loved every minute !

Why did you want to become a city manager?

There is a great debate in local government as to which is the better job – assistant city manager or city manager. Many assistant city managers function on a day-to-day basis as the city’s chief operating officer, as I did in Irvine. It is an enviable role but for me a key ingredient was missing – the opportunity to work hand in glove with an elected body helping them create policies and set priorities, and then to effectuate those policies and priorities by leading a talented city organization. Admittedly, not everyone likes to have 5 (or 7 or 9 bosses) and to be engaged closer to the political fray. But if you are a student of politics, it can be fascinating to work in a politically charged environment albeit yourself not engaging. It requires an additional set of skills to work at this level – you need to be politically astute and enjoy helping your elected officials elevate their conversation in a philosophical debate without yourself taking sides. I have found working at this level in government to be my passion.

What was the most important part about your job as a City Manager?

What’s fun about a city manager job is that you get to work closely with an elected City Council, the employees, and the residential and business community. But the most important part of this work is advancing the City Council’s priorities while keeping the city fiscally sound and the quality of life for those living and working in the city at its highest level. There is a lot that goes into accomplishing that. To start, the City Council needs to identify and prioritize the highest needs of the community. A city manager creates the format for this level of decision making, often by arranging annual strategic planning workshops that are typically led by skilled consultants. This might be preceded by community surveys that seek input on issues of concern. The priorities set by the City Council are then used by the City Manager to recommend a fiscal year budget to the City Council that provides the necessary resources to implement those policies, including ensuring that the workforce is properly trained, has the necessary tools to accomplish the priorities and who understands the expectations of the City Council and the Manager. This City Manager job is never boring and always challenging; but it is also very fulfilling!

Which City project are you most proud of during your years as a City Manager?

It is hard to identify one accomplishment during the time I was City Manager. While there are so many things that come to mind, I will highlight one that I am most proud of. In the middle of the pandemic when so many cities were faced with diminishing revenues, the Carson City Council approved its first structurally balanced budget in over a decade. Achieving this involved a number of almost herculean initiatives including, to name a few, passing a sales tax measure during a year when all five council members were running for a city office – either for the position of mayor or for a position on the City Council, putting in place a Pension Obligation Bond (POB), structuring that POB with lower principal-only payments during its first two years when city revenues were expected to be reduced because of the pandemic, securing a rating upgrade to AA-, and putting in place an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD) jointly with the County of Los Angeles. The EIFD uses tax increment financing like what was used by now defunct redevelopment agencies. It is estimated that the POB will save Carson $47 million over 20 years by flattening the annual payments. Simultaneously with eliminating the structural deficit, we were able to double the city’s reserves. This will enable the City Council to fund several critical one-time projects aimed at restoring the City’s aging infrastructure.

What are the greatest challenges facing City Managers in California today?

Many California cities are faced today with several similar challenges – first and foremost has been how to provide vital services during the pandemic. This is closely followed by many cities having to grapple with shrinking revenues, requiring them to find ways to reduce service levels while still maintaining standards that assure the quality of life their residents expect. The third common problem has been addressing the unfunded pension liability of their city.

Fortunately, in Carson the passage of a sales tax measure that is projected to bring in over $13,000,000 annually, has allowed us to maintain and improve our levels of service. We were able to put in place a Pension Obligation Bond in the first months of the pandemic and structure it so that our first two years of payment were principal only, thereby significantly reducing the draw on our revenues.

Like all other cities, continuing to provide vital services during a pandemic has been the ongoing challenge. This has required every city manager to be on the clock 24/7. There has been no cookie cutter approach on how best to deal with this pandemic. Each of our city councils have had different perspectives on how to protect employees and the community. Ultimately each city handcrafted its own policies and protocols to meet the needs of its communities and work forces.

In the case of Carson, more than half of our population is black and brown with those residents falling into the category of most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID. This compelled us to be one of the first cities to establish a free COVID test site for anyone who wanted to be tested regardless of whether they had COVID symptoms. The City provided educational town halls on the benefits of vaccines and multiple sites administering free vaccines. We replaced our local bus service with subsidized Lyft rides for safety, provided a daily lunch drive through for seniors, provided groceries at a discount, gave loans and grants to businesses, subsidized rent for residents, and allowed restaurants and other businesses to use the sidewalk and parking lots as an outdoor extension of their businesses. With the knowledge that COVID was spread through the air, I used the pandemic as an opportunity to get authorization to spend $6 million to replace our antiquated HVAC system in City Hall. We initially financed the cost with a low interest loan that we are hoping to backfill with FEMA or American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Also, when we closed our local transit service at the start of the pandemic for safety and health reasons, I set a goal of contracting with Long Beach Transit to replace and enhance the City’s service. Procuring Long Beach Transit to service Carson was a project that had been worked on for years before I arrived, but it was finally accomplished under my leadership and during the pandemic!

What is your favorite way/place to interact with the residents of your City?

Carson is a city of just under 100,000 residents with a large staff where most issues are handled well by the department heads and their teams.  Other than residents appointed to serve on commissions, the residents I interacted with were generally the ones with the most challenging issues who felt like they were not being helped. I enjoyed personally engaging with them and getting to know them, ensuring they knew they were being heard and giving them kid glove treatment. Sometimes I would go to their homes to personally observe the problem and when it involved another government or private sector entity, I made sure the city advocated on their behalf. Here are a few memorable examples of my directly helping some of our residents. One resident lived next to a church where the roof fan had broken and when it was windy it made so much noise that his kids couldn’t sleep. The church had been closed because of COVID and the resident couldn’t find anyone to talk with who worked there. I was able to reach out to my network of local religious leaders who learned that the pastor at that church had passed away from COVID. They were able to gain access to the church to inspect the faulty fan and then found someone to repair it. The resident couldn’t have been more thrilled. I also partnered with one of the pastors to help an elderly resident whose house was in disrepair. The pastor found people to volunteer to do the work and we were able to provide a grant to pay for some of the materials. Another lady complained about flying roaches coming out of the sewers. After a visit with her, I was able to track down that this was a County Public Works issue and had my Public Works director follow up with the County to have the problem sewers fumigated. I thrive on the opportunity to interact with our residents and to find ways to address their issues.

What is the role of a City Manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?

The City Manager plays the greatest and most important role in upholding the public’s trust in local government. It requires that City Managers themselves never falter in how he or she handles all issues – large or small, complex or simple. It should always be with transparency and the highest ethics. But the City Manager’s role goes beyond his or her own behavior. Essentially, the public’s trust in government is elevated when the government is the most transparent, when the public has the greatest possible access, when there is responsiveness to issues and when government is viewed as even handed and fair. The City Manager needs to ensure that there are systemic measures in place that enable the public to know when key decisions are to be made and be provided an opportunity to give input into those decisions. This allows the public to see and understand how the city’s finances are being handled, what priorities have been set by the City Council and be able to follow the administration’s progress in achieving those priorities. We must have a mechanism for communication and outreach on an ongoing basis but particularly during emergencies and have the capacity to address issues as they are raised both quickly and fairly. Losing public trust can happen easily. Winning it is something that requires careful thought and attention.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

One of the most important tools that cities have to shape their future are the city’s general plan which controls all land uses. It is a very big task to update the general plan and often cities don’t do it as often as they should. It is hard work and often contentious because it requires the City Council and community to think about and agree on how they want the city to develop. For Carson, one of the issues facing it is how to preserve mobile home parks that provide affordable housing for so many of our seniors. Because of rent control, these properties become more valuable if they are redeveloped. Carson is moving in the direction of providing mobile home park overlay zones so that if the park owner chooses to sell or develop the property, the city has more control over requiring protections for the current residents. Among other things, Carson is looking at using its zoning to increase housing opportunities, allowing greater vertical development along highways, and adding more mixed-use zones.

When you’re not busy working, how do you like to spend your time?

I am very social – I love spending time with my daughter who is sixteen or with friends. Before COVID, we would go to the theater, movies, concerts, museums, amusement parks, out to eat and get together with friends. For the past two years, Alicia and I have watched a lot of TV and movies and read books together. When I can drag her away from her smartphone, we will go for walks, listen to music, and just hang out.  

What hobbies do you have?

I am passionate about travel and have been all over the United States, Europe, the Pacific Rim, North Africa, Mexico, Central America, and Canada. I love cycling, scuba diving and racketball, but have focused more recently on Bikram Yoga (pre-COVID) and downhill skiing. I also enjoy cooking, reading, and staying in touch with friends.  

What has been one of your greatest professional challenges, and how did you address it?

One of the greatest challenges facing Carson when I came on board as City Manager was the impact of the city having a structural deficit for over a decade. This resulted in years of deferred maintenance. Because the needed investments weren’t being made in the city’s infrastructure, street pavement was below standard and there were a high number of sidewalk defects that resulted in injuries with large payouts. We put in place several initiatives including updating our pavement management plan, improving our tracking system for recording and addressing street and sidewalk defects, creating and filling a risk manager position, surveying our parks and facilities to identify the most needed upgrades, and looking at how to improve the appearance of our medians. As part of the mid-year and annual budget, the City Council began investing additional funds in these initiatives and approved funding to contract out some of the work to catch up with the backlog. All of this has made a dent in the deferred maintenance and now that there are increased funding sources resulting from the passage of a sales tax measure, the distribution of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and increased reserves, this effort can be accelerated.

What has your work in public service taught you?

Working in a leadership position in public service has taught me the importance of humility as an essential skill for leadership. It includes empowering others, acknowledging one’s own limitations, and learning from errors. Empowering others includes surrounding oneself with a diverse team of people who are smarter than you, are willing to let you know when they have a different opinion and are capable of taking responsibility. Public service has instilled in me the knowledge that there are solutions to almost every challenge if you and your team think creatively and are willing to take some degree of risk.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

I used to read one book at a time, but I am finding now that I go back and forth between several. Also, not long ago, I tended to prefer fiction, but now find myself enthralled by books written by or about well-known historic or present-day figures. I recently read a book about Cleopatra written by several female authors and a book about the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which was eye-opening. Now, on my nightstand is a book authored by President Barack Obama titled: A Promised Land. It is a densely worded 700-page book. I am nearing the end and finding that it is shedding light on so many political issues that are playing out both internationally and nationally today. Also, on my nightstand is “The American Road,” authored by a colleague who worked with me in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Kathy Johnson, now a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, included me in her acknowledgments as one of a remarkable group of public servants she worked with, which was quite humbling to see in print. Another book still on my nightstand but that I finished is “That’s What She Said – What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) about Working Together,” by Joanne Lipman. And one fiction book that rounds out the wide range of my reading and is well worth a read is titled “Let The Great World Spin,” by Colum McCann, A National Book Award Winner.