Executive Interview with Kurt Wilson

Civic Business Journal sat down with City Manager Kurt Wilson to get a little background on his history and what inspired him to become a City Manager.

What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

My original career path was set on medical school.  After working the emergency department, clinics, television tapings, sporting events, and concerts, I knew emergency medicine was the right choice for me.  I was exploring options to play professional soccer at the time, so I focused on both paths.

In late 1999, while working a medical assignment out of state for the federal government, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I remember it vividly because, while everyone else spent New Year’s Eve that year partying ‘like it’s 1999’, I was mentally preparing for the treatment regimen I would begin right after the holiday. It was a grueling and aggressive treatment plan that took a toll on me.  Like any life changing event, I took time to evaluate my life and consider anything I did wrong or wished I hadn’t done. It turned out that I was pretty happy with how I’d lived my life but I did have a few things I wanted to try. One was to run for public office. I decided to run for City Council in Rialto, CA where I’d grown up. I was already serving on the planning commission at the time so I was familiar with local government. I knew I needed to convince enough people to vote for me but I also knew I wanted votes to be based on my abilities and not pity. So I never told anyone I was in the middle of chemo during the campaign. My head was bald, but that wasn’t unusual so it didn’t raise any flags. I attended the events I could make and either skipped or didn’t perform well at the ones that happened on the bad days. I ended up winning the election and starting my public service journey.

Why did you want to become a city manager?

I was elected to a City Council in my 20’s with a fair amount of education but limited life experience. I was clearly not qualified to make some of the decisions I was asked to make. That caused me to learn more about city management. Rialto had a City Administrator rather than a city manager but the concept was the same. I knew then that I wasn’t yet qualified to be a city manager but I set my sights on getting there one day.

The elected side of local government certainly had its perks, but I never felt like they aligned well with who I am or what I wanted. I enjoyed being able to help people and delivering good news. I also felt comfortable giving speeches and showing leadership. But I sometimes felt like an imposter delivering answers that someone else fed me because I lacked the professional depth to grasp some of the complex issues. I like genuine people and interactions, so I hated having people suck up to me because of my title.

It turned out that city managers got to do the same things I liked and didn’t have to do things like seeking campaign contributions. It was clear to me that city management was a better choice. But it would take me several more years before I was able to convince a city council that I was meant to be a city manager. I stopped my private sector work and began working for Mayor Pat Morris in San Bernardino to lead a public safety effort he envisioned by serving as the inaugural Director of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. It was successful and prepared me my next role as the inaugural Chief, External Affairs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. I was appointed to that role by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and tasked with creating the office from whole cloth. This suited me and, knowing my own career aspirations, I focused heavily on local government. This allowed me to keep up my local relationships and fulfill the mission at the same time. This continued when I took over as the Executive Director of the Corrections Standards Authority (now called the Board of State and Community Corrections). Providing statewide regulatory oversight of jails, court lockups, juvenile facilities, police lockups, etc. gave me new insights into local government. I wasn’t the subject matter expert, so I relied on an amazing staff of professionals who carried out the mission. Instead, I focused on the big picture, leadership, and workforce motivation that turned out to be transferable to being a city manager. With my new skills in hand, I accepted my first city manager job in Ridgecrest, California. I chose the position because it was within my skill set and allowed me to help in the way I always wanted.

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

Consistency was the most important part. Years of unethical practices by some of the people who came before us deepened the mistrust of government. Even though local government is trusted far more than the state or federal level, the mistrust is still high. The response to mistrust is usually oversight. Things like civil service commissions and transparent procurement practices were borne of mistrust for the people at city hall. Each level of oversight meets a specific goal but also adds layers that slow the process. The bureaucratically mindset aligns with the Athenian Oath – never bringing disgrace, fighting for ideals, and transmitting the city greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us. We want to leave behind a better version of the organization than we inherited.

This requires a focus on the long-term. Unfortunately, politics happens in the short-term and places demands on what people want today. That conflict is fundamental to public policy and city managers are in a unique position to navigate the conflict. If the manager’s goal is to avoid getting fired, the wisest course of action is to focus on the short-term at the expense of the long-term. But if the manager’s true obligation goes beyond the city council, the decision is less clear. Managers obviously have to carry out the policy directives of the council, but they also have the ability to influence policies. In order to achieve the best outcomes, managers must strive for a level of consistency. Not consistent meaning the answer is the same every time, but consistent meaning the thought and decision-making processes are the same every time. Priorities should be foundational and clearly communicated. Ethics and other core values should never be compromised. A consistent approach doesn’t guarantee happy outcomes for everyone, but it does facilitate fair treatment of people and affords them the opportunity to make their own case for a particular outcome. Alternatively, inconsistency from the manager undermines the work and expectations of the workforce, decreases productivity, and morale.

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

The Stockton bankruptcy was the most difficult professional activity of my career, but it also had the best outcome possible under the circumstances. I arrived in Stockton about 10 weeks after the city filed for bankruptcy protections. Kevin O’Rourke and Bob Deis had begun the process and gotten things off to a strong start. The city council had more backbone than most elected officials and were committed to doing things the right way, with lasting improvements. The process was fraught with political and staffing disruptions along the way which each qualified as crises on their own. With no way to determine how the story would end, the staff kept working. Citizens remained patient. Consultants plowed through endless piles of documents and analyses. There was a tremendous amount of pain endured by residents, staff, and retirees as a direct result of decisions made either before they got there or without their consent. They were innocent victims in the whole thing.

Years later, the process concluded and the process of slowly getting back to normal began. At first, there was a keen memory of what everyone had just gone through so the improvements were institutionalized. After a few more years the city, that was previously the largest city in the nation to ever file for bankruptcy protections, was ranked the 2nd most fiscally healthy large city in America – the most drastic municipal turnaround in modern history. It proved that the collective efforts of all stakeholders can combine with discipline and ethics to create good outcomes.

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

Enticing enough of the right people to join the profession. Problems are getting increasingly complex. Individually, we can prepare ourselves the best we can, but we have limits. Solving tomorrow’s problems will require collective efforts to form a lot of brain power. If we’re not able to acquire the talent, we won’t have anyone to turn to for help.

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

I prefer one-on-one or small group interactions. Large gatherings are more efficient, but it’s more difficult to connect. With small groups there’s a sense of intimacy that lets you know if you’ve really understood their concerns.

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

The city manager’s role is foundational but not usually prominent. Elected officials are viewed as the direct link to the public so they carry higher profiles and easier accessibility.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Cities are a collection of people who have something in common. Maybe they like the same geographic area for playtime or work in the same place. Even if they pick their city because their neighbors are demographically similar, they have something in common with their neighbors. This provides a sense of belonging and community. As these communities coalesce and build, they set the stage for the future. By doing this in a way that celebrates, rather than ignores, our differences- cities simultaneously support homogeneity and appreciate diversity. These political subdivisions result in happy people. Happy people are productive people. The collective contributions of people who live and work in cities is what allows and improves the quality of life we all seek. Cities are at the forefront of that quality.

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

I focus on a combination of family activities, personal fitness, and community service. With three children, we have a steady stream of activities and events to keep us busy. I’m still active in a number of team and individual sports that strengthen my physical and mental health by keeping me balanced. I draw upon my public safety background by serving as a peace officer, when time permits, because it keeps me grounded.

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

I became the city manager of Ridgecrest during a crisis that revolved around trash and recycling. The state was fining the city $10k/day for non-compliance. Having just come from a senior state position, I had access to key state officials who could help but I was ethically barred from calling in favors for my own benefit. It was challenging to take on the learning curve of my first city manager job while also learning everything I could about trash. I relied on my predecessor who had a wealth of knowledge, but he passed away soon after I arrived. Fortunately, I had people like Cole Burr and Rob Hilton to help guide me.

Things got so heated that we couldn’t get through a regular council meeting. I remember getting threatened on camera about 10 minutes after I got sworn in. To handle the volume, I changed how and when to agendize trash-related items and set up a ‘war room’ to focus on receiving and sharing information related to trash. I ended up learning what I needed to know and developing new relationships with the CalRecycle folks. We worked together to resolve the issue. Once things had calmed down, our consultant kept working to figure out what went wrong. It all ended with a lengthy investigation led by Ron Strand who was the police chief and is now the city manager of Ridgecrest. The Attorney General’s office got involved and we realized the problem was all one giant case of fraud – the largest of its kind in state history. After a felony plea and some other administrative actions, the job was done and I moved on to Stockton.

What has your work in public service taught you?

With disciplined and intentional hard work the results will come, even if the accolades don’t.

What book are you reading right now? 

A Fool’s Errand by Lonnie Bunch. It’s the story of how he created the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. I had the pleasure of interviewing him a few years back at the museum for my own research and was so impressed by him that I had to read his new book.