Q&A With Retired Hayward City Manager Fran David
We had a chance to sit down with Fran David, who recently retired as City Manager for the City of Hayward. Fran has a varied background for a City Manager. Along with holding an MBA, she has over thirty years as a member of ICMA, is a Credentialed City Manager, has served in the Peace Corps, and owned and operated three businesses. She was also COO of a manufacturing business and has worked as staff to elected officials. Join us as we discuss her career, her retirement, and lessons from her time in city government.
1. How did you make the decision to retire? It has to be an enormous moment in your personal and professional life. Talk to us about that process, Fran.
It was not a specific date-driven decision. For thirty years I have watched other city managers retire too soon or too late, or not at all. In all three cases, their timing was generally not productive – for them or for their respective organizations. So I tried very hard to find the “sweet spot” based on balancing several factors such as major community project cycles (e.g. those completed and those about to start up); election cycles for revenue measures, Mayor, and Council; readiness of the organization for change; readiness of a strong internal replacement choice for Council; labor contract cycles; family demands; my age; my own readiness for retirement; etc.
I loved being City Manager – it is the best job in the world. I love the community of Hayward. Despite the attempted objective analysis, it was very difficult for me to leave that position. That being said, it was the right time.
2. How do you prepare a city for your retirement? From the council and staff to stakeholders in the community.
I spent five years successfully developing a strong internal candidate for Council’s consideration. I completed a few very major, long-term objectives that I had promised Council including assisting the municipal organization well along the way to long-term financial stability and resolving a decades-long Downtown issue. So in that respect, I “prepared” the major stakeholders for my exit.
On the other hand, because of my age, people had been expecting me to retire for several years, which I constantly and consistently rebuffed. Given my responses, some key stakeholders began to think I was not going to retire soon. Because I did not have a date-specific goal in mind, there was no long-term notice given to Council or the community. In that regard, I did not prepare them well for the reality of my leaving. My announcement and related timing came as a surprise to many, which is not necessarily the best way to approach the process.
I have never had more than a one-year contract with my Council; and had no termination provision other than each party was required to give the other ninety-day notice unless there was “cause” to fire me. In that spirit, when I gave notice to Council, I noted that I would leave at their direction anytime within ninety days of my notice to retire, depending on their chosen process for selecting my replacement and their wishes.
After a few weeks’ deliberation, they chose to hire within, at which point, we both agreed that only one City Manager was needed and that their selected candidate was quite capable of keeping the momentum going and building on it for the future. I left within about five weeks of my notice to Council. Although both Council and I thought that productive at the time, it probably forced the transition sooner than was best for all parties.
3. What are the biggest changes you see facing the city management profession and how are they different from when you entered a career in public service?
My answer to this question is not a simple one – there are many complexities that enter into the analysis. To try and keep my response within the intent of this article, let me identify four, high-level changes that I see at the moment: trust in government, voter apathy, severe political partisanship, and funding for government operations. The difference between then and now is that while each of these probably existed thirty years ago, they were not the predominate force they are today.
a. Trust in government – This critical human response is declining rapidly between the governance structure and those governed; it is even waning between City Managers and their policy boards; and it is crumbling between labor and management in the public sector. Much work is needed to repair and rebuild this trust from all parties. Without that rebuild, among many other critical fallout factors, we will encounter at least four major changes in elements necessary for successful government and governance: a move away from the Council/Manager form of government to Strong Mayor or something similar in an erroneous attempt to bring about more accountability; a greater plethora of layers of “oversight” from Commissions, appointed bodies, and elected positions; continued growth in governing by (ballot) initiative; and a steadfast unwillingness of communities and governed populations to pay for the services they believe they are “entitled” to from their policy bodies.
“Transparency”, “accountability”, and “inclusiveness” are words bandied about today by the press, the community, the government, and by those governed. We rarely understand what they actually mean or how to achieve them. Without these three elements practiced in a consistent, honest, and purposeful manner by all parties from voter to community leader, to appointed official, to policy maker, we will never rebuild trust.
b. Voter apathy – This is killing good government, particularly when coupled with a refusal to engage in the self-governing process. Residents want accountability but refuse to serve in a local elected or appointed capacity, get involved in a consistent way, or even to vote. Voters want accountability, but many refuse to educate themselves on issues and candidates, or to put any effort into holding elected officials accountable – they want someone else to do it for them.
Therefore, non-voting residents have no stake in who represents them or how those representatives perform. Voters take little or no action to hold those in office accountable between elections. Then, when things go awry, they look to someone besides those they elected to bring accountability. Hence, the burgeoning movement toward elected Police Commissions, elected City Auditors, token oversight boards, etc. (e.g., Proposition H on the 2016 San Francisco ballot). The result? Those elected to govern and represent the people are even further removed from their initial and primary responsibility to govern well in the best interests of their communities.
This is compounded by the exploding movement to govern by ballot initiative, particularly in California. We elect folks to represent us, to know the issues, and to develop solutions and policies that strengthen our communities and improve the quality of life for all. Then, since we don’t trust them or they are bound up in inertia, we develop ballot initiatives (often out of self-interest), sign petitions (often “just because”), and work around the established legislative process (because our elected officials are not doing the job). Measures qualify for the ballot that have not been thoroughly vetted against existing laws, the State Constitution, or even against the authors’ original intent; and which rarely, if ever, achieve their originally intended purpose. The responsibility and the accountability of our elected officials are further undermined.
c. Severe political partisanship – The inability and unwillingness of elected officials to do their job in the best interest of their constituents and the State is offensive. Severe partisanship and/or allegiance to major donors have superseded good governance, which is based on identifying real issues, performing informed and intelligent analysis, achieving productive compromise among stakeholders, and courage of conviction and personal character. Conscientious and dedicated “public service” in the sense of our forefathers is quite often overshadowed by self-interest, blind adherence to “the Party”, and fear of criticism or not getting re-elected.
d. Funding for government operations – The result of all of the above, along with a broken public finance system in California, means people do not want to pay for their government. No matter how well-run a government is, how efficiently it operates, or how affluent community residents and businesses are, it takes money to run a government.
Many residents, voters, and business owners have lost sight of that reality. Often, they see the totality of what they pay in “taxes” and don’t understand why they have to pay more locally. There is no understanding of the complex and convoluted distribution of tax revenue in the State of California or of how much actually trickles down to local government. For many tax payers, there is no conscious connection between cost of living, expanding communities, and the cost of running an efficient government operation that plans well for the future. Government salaries are always an issue and are completely inconsistent across the State. Like any business, compensation for government employees is not the only factor that attracts or retains good employees. However, it is a factor and has to have some relationship to the required skills, market demand, and expectations of the position. In the case of City Managers, it often comes as a shock of awareness when it is pointed out that City Managers of even medium-sized California cities are the CEOs of a corporation worth hundreds of million dollars and often employing more than 1,000 employees.
4. Most City Managers are white men. California is arguably the most diverse state in the country in terms of ethnicity and social views. Are our cities’ professional leaders reflective enough of a changing society?
The simple answer is “no, not yet”. The “old boys” network of California City Managers is slowly dissipating, particularly in the last few years as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement. However, it has been a long time coming. Where I see real, identifiable change (particularly in communities like Hayward) is in appointments to Boards, Committees, and Commissions. The warm, rich diversity of our communities is getting reflected more and more in the appointments made at this level. And, as has been the tradition in many communities, these appointments are the pathway to eventual elected office.
There are more and more women being appointed in California government. Many of them are currently serving as Assistant City Managers and we have recently started to see them moving into the ranks of City Manager. However, those ranks still lack the full diversity of our urban populations. Therefore, it will be up to future City Councils and this new generation of City Managers to assure that progress continues in the hiring practices throughout their organizations so that tomorrow’s City Managers, Department Heads, and other professionals reflect the population they serve, which is generally not yet the case in most cities.
5. What advice would you give a young professional just starting out in the city management profession?
I did not follow a defined path to get to the position of City Manager, so it is often hard for me to answer this question well. After many attempts over the years, at this point I feel most comfortable answering it in somewhat general terms:
a. Fulfill your education, preferably through a Master’s degree. It almost doesn’t matter what your major is, unless your goal is to master a technical subject like engineering with the goal of staying in a field, say as a Public Works Director. City Managers are generalists and the more areas they are familiar with, the better prepared for the job they will be. My degrees are a B.S. in Urban Ecology and an MBA.
b. Get as much experience as you can along the way. Volunteer for the hard projects. Ask for experience in areas in which you are uncomfortable. Go the extra mile without being asked – it will pay off for you in many different ways. Be thoughtful and listen, but learn to speak up respectfully; be a contributor. Don’t spend more time than you should in any one job, position, or agency. Look, listen, and learn all the time. Sometimes you learn more from someone who is NOT good at what they do.
c. Learn to connect the dots and ask the right questions. No City Manager ever knows all there is to know about every subject area within his/her realm of responsibility. But if you learn as much as you can about a lot of things both in and out of government operations, are constantly observant, learn how to ask questions, and recognize and honor the strength of your own gut, you are well on the path of being a knowledgeable and prepared City Manager.
d. Develop a strong sense of personal and professional ethics. Jobs in the public sector tug at the boundaries of personal ethics all the time; and breaches of professional ethics tend to sneak up on you. Be diligent and do not start down the path – it is a very slippery slope. The free cup of coffee turns into the free vendor reception at the conference, to a free lunch from a contractor, to a free trip on the corporate plane, to doing a small favor for a developer, to…… Guard against it all the time and simply don’t do it!
e. Never lose your humanity or sense of right and wrong. Often times, processes and procedures within the public sector conflict with the humanity of the situation. Don’t lose sight of why you are in the profession in the first place and who it is you serve. Make their lives easier whenever you can without violating the law or your own ethics. Apply the same philosophy and approach to those employees who depend on you for direction, leadership, and vision.
f. Understand and practice calculated, thoughtful risk-taking in your decision-making; never make keeping the job more important than doing the job at the highest possible level of competence. Be courageous.
6. What's next for you in life?
I really don’t know. My family and I are taking a short break for a road trip across the United States. During the trip, I will be blogging and writing about the trip and general thoughts and events of the day. Beyond that, I am still exploring and considering.