For Scott Ochoa, it was a year to remember given the 41-year-old city manager's leap from a small suburban town to Glendale, a city five times larger and far more complex.
And he had big shoes to fill as well, with longtime City Manager Jim Starbird retiring and everyone in town, at least those paying attention, and everyone on staff — all of them paying very close attention — to the new boss in town.
“I'm sitting there with these redevelopment staffers who don't know me from Adam and saying, ‘OK, redevelopment is over and half of you are funded by redevelopment, so let's talk about what that means.' We got to know each other real quick.”
In all, 28 jobs were lost with the state's abolition of redevelopment agencies — an ongoing source of tension between cities and the state that will go on for years — and more than 250 positions throughout Glendale city government were eliminated.
Then, there were all the problems with financial management of Glendale Water & Power and the IBEW's union organizing effort and the $15.4-million budget shortfall on top of the previous year's $18.4-million deficit and the $10.8-million deficit the year before.
Ochoa is an interesting guy, a Claremont McKenna College and USC grad who grew up in Azusa and worked his way up the ladder of public administration in Monrovia, where Starbird also had come from.
He intersperses his insights into government administration with endless references to scenes from movies and books, even drawing on comedian Henny Youngman, the king of one-liner jokes long before Ochoa was born, to put the fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington into perspective.
“The joke was the guy goes to the doctor, who gives him six months to live. The guy pays his bill. The doc says, ‘Give him another six months to live.'”
Ochoa bursts into laughter and adds: “That's what happened. They just kicked the ball down the field a little bit.”
Then, he turns serious and wonders about the real question: How do we fix what is so badly broken at every level of government?
“We have to stop for a moment and look at what it takes to move forward. When you look at where we are and where we have been as a city with the cuts we've made over the last several years, we are in a much better position now.”
He rattles off steps that were taken — from freezing wages, getting employees to pay more for pensions, an early retirement program, deferring capital investment, reducing maintenance costs and reorganizing departments to reduce costs with the goal of minimal impact on services to the public.
“Whatever comes down the pike in 2013, we have a better chance than anybody else around us to be able to handle it because we're trimmer, we're more efficient, we're more cost-effective. We'll take the Pepsi Challenge with anybody east, west or south for how we actually do things and what our prospects are.
“A lot of people have gone into ‘man the life boats, it's every man for himself' type of mentality because it's been that deep of a crisis. We've kept one hand on the wheel looking down the road while we've been able to organize the rest of the cabin.”
The midyear financial report due Feb. 12 will show tax revenue meeting or exceeding budget estimates, and Ochoa is optimistic that no more cuts in spending will be needed next fiscal year.
Ochoa attributes the improving situation to the City Council's leadership in confronting the financial problems and making the hard decisions. He also credits his predecessor with laying the groundwork for healthy economic growth in coming years.
“The investment the city made in the Americana is paying off. We're getting Bloomingdale's and a new Nordstrom's this year, and the Galleria is getting a $100-million face lift. We've got 2,000 new urban living units under construction. We're filling up our empty office space. The Americana was the catalyst, and you can thank Jim Starbird for that.
“If we're able to really cement the downtown, I think what you'll see through the South Glendale community plan and the small-lot subdivision ordinance that the council just adopted is, for us, the chance to remake that southern half of town to bring density down and still provide high quality and affordable housing and increase home ownership, and build anchors and enclaves in these neighborhoods.
“That's the exciting part. I don't want you think it's strictly about bringing in the new dollars into the downtown. It's about building community and actually cultivating a place. That's why I got into doing this job in the first place. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.”
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.