San Jose Inside’s Josh Koehn sat down with City Manager Debra Figone for a rare extended interview in late August. The following is an excerpted transcript of their discussion, which touched on Measure B, Figone’s relationship with the mayor and council, her thoughts on the performance of Police Chief Chris Moore, crime in San Jose and when she plans to retire. It should be noted that this interview took place before Moore’s announcement that he will retire from his position at the end of January 2013—Editor
Josh Koehn: Can you just tell me what you thought of this year in comparison to your past years in San Jose?
Debra Figone: Clearly, last year was a very challenging year, and actually the now five years as manager have been progressively getting more complex each year. From the standpoint of the compounding effect, on the organization, services to the community, navigating the complexities of how you deal with the size of that shortfall given the prior few years, it was extremely complex. Clearly in my career, I’ve been doing city manager since 2000, and been in public service for 43 years, it’s the worst that I’ve seen.
JK: That’s true. You’ve been doing this your whole life. You got involved in high school.
JK: When you’ve been entrenched in local politics this long, how much has your opinion changed on how city politics work?
DF: Actually, I was going to be a teacher. I fell in love with working in the community, because of where I got my start in Parks and Recreation, and working my way through college. I made a conscious choice to stay in local government. Going back to your words, “entrenched in politics,” I’ve never seen my work, even now, as being entrenched in politics. Especially now in San Jose, the political context is an important one for a manager and really has been for some time. But I work very hard at being politically astute, but not political. But I don’t know if people see or understand that when they look at the job.
(City communication director David Vossbrink, who sat in on the interview, chimes in to say that the job is not politics, but public service.)
JK: I can see the delineation you’re making, but I think a lot of people are confused about your role and what you do. You are selected by the mayor and council to do this position, and you’re not an elected official like them. Does that allow you to maybe step back from the politics and the sniping that goes back and forth between each district, and even districts to city to county to state? It does seem that you have a built-in wall that keeps you out of the scrum in the Fly columns and Internal Affairs columns.
DF: Oh, absolutely. The charter does basically set up the governance structure, which technically sets up the wall. It does not allow for interference in administrative matters. And at the same time, let’s face it, you know, there are powers in the charter that the mayor has. The mayor is the political leader. And the councilmembers are the political leaders of their districts. And, so, the manager’s ability to understand that, and work with the system, and understand the human side of their roles is very important. Clearly, though, if there becomes a point where the manager can’t do their job because of violations of the charter, then the manager would have to speak up about that. My way of working with people is to try and meet them on their own terms without undermining the integrity of my role. Kind of working what I call that gap between the administrative world and the political world.
JK: There’s a lot of people, who in addition to maybe not understanding your role and responsibilities, who see you as part of a faction—the mayor and council. There is a clear divide in 6-5 votes in the last year and a half, two years, with the mayor, Sam Liccardo, Pierluigi Oliverio, Pete Constant, Rose Herrera, Madison Nguyen and … a lot of people think you and your office get along quite well with the mayor and what he’s advocating publicly. When it comes to something like Measure B, how in line are you with what the mayor is advocating publicly?
DF: Actually, my role is to make them recommendations based on their policy interests. So, you look at everything that led up to Measure B, it was a result of council direction to the manager and administration, starting with budget balancing objectives and reducing pension costs and options for doing that. I think what people might be interpreting as alignment is, from my view, their acceptance of our recommendations of how to solve the problem. And as far as the political process amends that, which it has, or strengthens it, or takes other alternatives, it often has its start in what the administration brings forward as a result of council direction.
JK: Saying all that, I would think you are a supporter of Measure B.
DF: I am a supporter of controlling the costs to the city to ensure that we can provide services to the community; that we can maintain a viable workforce; that we can ensure we have the funds to pay our employees what we told them they would have, in terms of their benefits. That’s my goal as a professional here.
JK: But as far as the role of city manager with staff then, if you felt Measure B was the wrong thing, even if council directed you to do it, you would have to note that, right?
DF: Well, along the way we have made recommendations, which have changed the direction over time. So, there has been quite an iterative process that has gone on from the early-proposed Measure B. And as we went through negotiations and council conversations and the back and forth, things changed. And clearly the administration has a voice in those changes.
David Vossbrink: Just to flip it around to a different issue, earlier this month the city manager made a recommendation to put sales tax measure on the ballot. The council heard that and decided not to put it on the ballot. (Editor’s note: The measure failed to reach support on a 5-5 vote. Councilmember Constant was absent.)
JK: Right. And I heard you were upset. I talked to several people on the council about it and I heard you were none too happy.
DF: (Laughs) Well, the fiscal reform plan has three elements. And an important element, the last one, is revenue. Of course, I made the recommendation, because I believe we need the revenue. In order to have a complete tool kit, the city needs a full tool kit. Yeah, I was disappointed, but you move on. So, we will do the best we can with what we have. I completely respect the political calculus, and taking the temperature of the public and all the things that the mayor and council have to work through.
JK: When you say you completely respect it, because I can break down the votes in my head if I have to, Rose Herrera was pretty outspoken about thinking the city needed to produce extra revenue. And she was out there with Nancy Pyle beating the drum well before anyone signed on to Measure B and fiscal emergency stuff. And [Herrera] told the mayor, I am only going to support Measure B if we increase revenue. And she told me that to my face just a floor above here. (The City Manager’s office is on the 17th floor at City Hall. The City Council offices are on the 18th floor.) She did not vote for the sales tax measure just a month ago, and one could guess the political calculus would suggest she needs to get re-elected in November, and she can’t break her ties with the people who are going to be supporting her in that election, whether it be the mayor, whether it be the Chamber of Commerce. The political calculus there, to me, seems to be some self-preservation rather than following through on the things they said they were going to do. What do you say to that?
DF: No, no comment.
DV: That illustrates the council’s role and the city manager’s role as being very different.
DF: It really is. Again, I respect the decision that they made, the way the vote went. I did my professional best to put out there what I thought should happen and the time isn’t right from their perspective. That’s why they’re elected. As we move forward, there’s a lot of things we’ll have to do. We certainly won’t have new revenue, but there’s the other things on the ballot this fall—card clubs—hopefully the economy picks up and we’ll continue to press on.
JK: Card clubs is an interesting deal, because Metro wrote about it quite a bit, when it came to the sniping going on back and forth between the casino owners, the political consultants, and basically criticizing your staff or the police department. Now that it’s done and the casino is open, can you give me a better picture of what really was going on? I do know the structure of the ownership group was very complicated. I think (assistant city manager) Ed Shikada told me there was a minimum of 14 LLCs that you had to snake through to figure out where the money was going. And in those final recommendations that the police chief had for [the casino’s permit] hearing, there was some pretty strict stuff—having rights to Dolche’s records, or the Profitable Casino tracking. I’m curious in hindsight what are your thoughts on the way things went about, because it was a long delay compared to the owner’s expectations.
DF: I think that it’s always a challenge in difficult projects, whether it’s development or a casino, something that has a great value to the individual or company, who needs a city’s approval to get open. I think that was going on here. There was one set of expectations on the part of the developer, the casino owners. They had grand plans. Certainly gaming is legal in San Jose, but my job and the job of the staff was to make sure Title 16 was complied with. So, important steps had to be followed so the operation was a good operation, so that we could follow the money. And that’s to protect those who are playing there, to protect the city and to protect our residents. I heard overwhelmingly from the gaming industry, they want a clean operation. They welcome the regulations.
JK: What was your biggest source of frustration with the process?
DF: The need to go after information, and not necessarily navigating through it smoothly. There were hiccups on the city’s side. I think there were clearly hiccups on their side. And so it boils down to communication. Some of it boils down to not understanding why we needed what we needed. But staff was trying to be thorough and I supported them in that regard. And at the same time, I asked that we treat them like customers in the process.
(Vossbrink cuts in to explain the process and how the city deals with different industries)
JK: Yeah. But usually this process doesn’t result in the city losing millions in potential revenue in the meantime. That’s the most lucrative revenue stream the city has, correct?
DF: It’s not the most, but it is a significant revenue stream. And there operation (Garden City) was still open. I guess that another role of an administrator is to not be shortsighted, because you’re so anxious to get the revenue. They wanted to make sure they got open—they’re a customer to the city—but we thought it was critical to give our stamp of approval on it and get the police chief’s—ultimately be accountable, and the buck stops with me; that we could look the council and the community in the eye and say ‘ready to go.’
JK: You mention the police chief. Obviously, there’s quit e bit of talk about the homicide rate and the number of property crimes that have gone up. I keep hearing double-digit increases in robberies and assaults and the like. I’m curious how your relationship with the police chief works. Is it a daily meeting? Is it a phone call. How do you guys communicate with one another and what role do you have in that communication?
DF: Well, I have a very good relationship with the chief. He, like any other department heads, is an expert in [his] field, and that’s why they’re hired. So, I consider him an important member of what I would say is the cabinet. We communicate in a variety of ways. There are formal 1-on-1s. Periodically, I’ll wake up to the text message in the middle of the night where I’m informed something has happened, or he’ll call me.
JK: So if there’s a murder—
DF: I’m informed, yes. And what I always tell him is, ‘Let me know. I know you have a job to do, just let me know in a way that doesn’t interfere with what you all need to do.’ So we have a great relationship. I respect him. He seeks me out for advice and coaching, and I clearly depend on him for his expertise around public safety issues and how to address them in the city.
JK: So then, when you hear a former councilmember, Assemblymember Nora Campos, sending a letter that was obviously not meant to be just between her and the chief, saying that he should look to outside resources such as California Highway Patrol, what was your reaction when you heard that?
DF: I thought it was an interesting offer.
DF: And I talked to the chief about it, asked him if he had considered outside resources, and he said he had but he would look to other resources first.
JK: It’s gotta be a last resource I would think.
DF: Well, that’s not to say we’re not using resources now. Because of the partnership with the probation officers, in particular, when we do a gang sweep it is something we do. The relationship with the sheriff: sheriffs patrol VTA, for example. To assume outside resources aren’t being drawn upon in the day-to-day operations of the police department is something people don’t really realize. Those networks are in place. We’ve all heard of mutual aid. As the chief said publicly, if and when he thought CHP would be useful, he would call on them. The kind of public safety needs we have right now are not for CHP, unless we brought them in for traffic purposes.
JK: I was having lunch with (Police Officers Association President) Jim Unland. I’m sure you guys are close friends.
DF: Actually, I like Jim.
JK: OK, well he tells me that if Measure B goes through the implementation stage, there will be a mass exodus (from the police department) and it will make it almost impossible to return services to levels before; and crime will only continue to increase. We’ve heard the POA beating this drum for more than year. What are your thoughts on when Measure B will be implemented and what the fallout will be?
DF: I really don’t know when it will be fully implemented. Obviously, as Jim said, it’s proceeding through the court process. In the meantime, we’re going to work on implementing what we can, those reforms that are not part of the ballot measure. We’ll meet and confer over a second tier with police and fire. Clearly, we’re experiencing turnover. I think that turnover is driven by a variety of things. When I arrived five years ago the city was talking about turnover associated with the “Baby Boomers” Every other city is experiencing (this). Has some of that been accelerated? I would say, yes, (we) feel the loss in benefits and 10 percent cut in compensation, which nobody enjoys taking. The cutbacks. So, yes, it’s a very tumultuous time and people are making decisions for a variety of reasons. Not to sugarcoat it, but we are getting people interested in coming in the door. We are filling up our academies now that we are able to hire again. And I hope that by the time those individuals, if we just talk about police, but anybody who comes in to work for the city, they’re enthused. This is going to still be a good place to work. For those used to a former system, like the one I grew up with, or Jim, or anybody who has been here for any amount of time, to understand the value of it, there’s going to be people who are upset, and I really understand that. We have had a lot of conversations from the administrative level on down to the front lines that there are some personal decisions that individuals need to make.
JK: One obvious example of that, when you talk about sick leave and vacation payouts, Chief Moore even said he wouldn’t be able to walk away from that much money. And I’ve told him ‘you’d be crazy to do that. I don’t blame you. This has been promised.’ I wouldn’t be comfortable giving up six figures of money. What are your thoughts when you saw the police chief said he would not be willing to give up his sick leave payout?
DF: You know, Chris has been very honest with me early on, of the importance of that to him. And you know, I told him, ‘I understand that. So, at the time you feel you need to make the decision you need to make, that is a personal decision.’
JK: There’s speculation that decision is going to happen before the end of this year. I mean, I guess you could call Tony Batts back, but I don’t think that’s’ going to happen. How much of an issue would that be if you had to go through another police chief in the next six months?
DF: (Laughs) You know, would I relish the idea? No. Do I think the chief has been a great chief? Yes. So many external issues that needed to be calmed down have been calmed down. But again, as I said, I would respect his personal choice and we would move on. And we would try to find the best candidate that we could to find our next police chief.
JK: And there is also speculation that you will be retiring here sometime soon. What is the timeline for your departure?
DF: When I’m done. (Laughs)
JK: OK. What will make you feel like you’re done?
DF: I feel I still have some things to do stabilize this organization.
JK: Is that implementation of Measure B or is that something else?
DF: No, Measure B has now been decided. And some of that may go well beyond my time. We have a lot of department head vacancies. That’s very important for me to fill. I certainly have another budget year that’s going to be critical for laying out a gameplan for the city. I want to ensure the public service spirit is rekindled in the city. We’re doing a lot of conversations about the city as an employer and getting back to basics, given the turnover we’ve experienced.
JK: So, just to go back slightly, your staff is really trying to take direction form the council and mayor and give them the guidelines to work with. When something like Measure B happens, you put out all the info that you can and then take a step back. But at the same time, I’m curious how you view what happens when you get away from City Hall; once you see the campaign going on. I’m sure you’re probably aware there was quite a nasty fight between labor unions and Mayor Reed’s bloc of pension reform voters on the council, and the Chamber spending three-quarters of a million dollars. When you’re not entrenched in that part of the political process, how do you view it when you take a step away?
DF: Well, clearly it’s the political process in action; it conveys to me there’s a lot of passion around the issue. For my own personal values, stepping away from the professional, I think some of that is unfortunate. Because of where I sit, the need for change or cost control is something that idealistically everyone should rally around. But what you see playing out there is the clash of values, and the different roles of elected officials doing what they believe is right, for the people they serve. Our labor unions are doing what they think is right for the people they serve—but they’re political institutions, also. And, so, when I step back and look at it, from my personal values perspective, I would have liked to see more harmony around the problem.
JK: When you see all this happening, is it frustrating to not be able to go out there and voice your personal opinion more? Are you more comfortable saying clearly from a dollars and cents issue, ‘this is my opinion,’ or are there other times where it’s frustrating to hear, I don’t know, Mayor Reed going to the police union and telling them they’re on the gravy train, and that just making your job more difficult? Do you want to get out there more often and speak to the people of the city?
DF: I think I speak to the people of the city through our professional work. My job, what I take very seriously, in addition to speaking with the people who through our professional work, is to speak to the workforce, so through of all of this, all of that time, I was most concerned by the workforce, and how the workforce was feeling. Public servants, clearly, interpret or misinterpret, depending on your perspective, the campaign activity—what the political messages are saying—as an affront to them and their work. And they’re very proud of their work, as I’m proud of my work. And, so, what I worked hard to do during that period and will continue to work to do—see my earlier comments about trying to stabilize this organization—was to try and have my voice internally be louder than that noise. … So that’s really where my emphasis was. The more I heard out there, the more I became inspired and challenged to try to keep this organization calm; because we had a lot of work to do. If you can imagine, while all of that was happening we were laying people off, we were preparing notices, we were having discussions about what services would go away and how to keep the wheels on. So, I could not get distracted by that, because my job was to keep this ship moving forward.