San Jose City Manager Norberto Dueñas announced his retirement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. After his last day on Oct. 13, he said, his first order of business will be to visit his mother in El Salvador.
“I haven’t been there in a couple of years,” he told San Jose Inside in a brief phone interview Wednesday, “so that will be a nice way to start this new chapter and take some time to think about what I want to do next.”
Dueñas, 57, began working at City Hall 33 years ago as an intern for Councilman Jim Beall, who went on to become a state senator. Over the ensuing decades, Dueñas climbed the ranks until he was promoted to the city’s top staffer in 2015.
“I never thought about myself as being city manager,” he said. “I never applied for the position, but when they asked me to serve, I said, ‘Sure, if this is where I’m needed.’”
Mayor Sam Liccardo called Dueñas’ appointment “among the best decisions” he ever made. He credited the city manager with helping the city resolve a drawn-out legal battle with its employee unions over controversial pension cuts.
“I feel deeply grateful for his exemplary leadership over the past two-and-a-half years,” Liccardo wrote in a citywide email. “He will leave a lasting legacy, leading teams that worked to settle longstanding battles over pension reform, rebuild and reinvigorate our city workforce, inspire innovation and invest in our future.”
As a Cuban refugee who grew up in Florida and then El Salvador, Dueñas said he used to think his international upbringing would lay the groundwork for public service at the federal level. But Beall helped him realize the value of local government, said Dueñas, who came to the South Bay to earn a political science degree from San Jose State.
“I knew almost right away that this is what I want to do,” he said. “Jim was such a hard worker, clearly a man with a big heart, and he used to say, ‘Norberto, you’re the link between the city and the community and our goal is to make sure that we’re working together to address their concerns and meet the needs.’ It was very fulfilling. At the local government level, you see the fruits of your labor much sooner.”
After six years in Beall’s District 9 office, Dueñas went on to work for then-Mayor Susan Hammer’s budget office. Under Hammer, he also helped form the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, a multi-agency coalition founded in 1991 to curb gang violence.
As someone who hates to be the center of attention, Dueñas said, he relished the chance to work collaboratively, whether to address gang violence or resolve the pension battle that put the city at odds with its police force.
“Being able to be involved in that from the very beginning and seeing that it’s still around is very fulfilling to me,” he said. “I had so many different positions over the years, and I really enjoyed being able to embrace each assignment and make sure that I did whatever I could do to bring people together and get the best results we could get.”
Though he plans to remain active in the community, Dueñas said he will miss working behind the scenes.
“Just watching the process, watching the democratic process at the local level through engagement with the community, through dialogue, sometimes through debate and negotiations, being able to be part of that effort is certainly something that I will miss,” he said. “But you know what? It’s time. So it’s OK to move on now, but that is something that I’ll always cherish.”
Dueñas’ advice to his successor: work collaboratively.
“Do your best. Be a facilitator. Make sure that people are working together,” he said. “And then, you know, never forget that you’re a public servant.”
Liccardo said he plans to look for Dueñas’ successor from within City Hall before casting the net any farther. He also encouraged employees to take a survey about what qualities they want to see in the next city manager.
This article has been updated. Below is an email Dueñas sent to all city employees:
Dear City Employees,
This morning I informed the Honorable Mayor Liccardo and Councilmembers of my decision to retire from the City of San José, where I began my career in public service in 1984 as an intern in the office of then-Councilmember Jim Beall. I have been blessed and honored to have served this organization and community for 33 years.
I will continue in my position through October 13, both to help with transition efforts as well as to use this time to express to as many of you as I can, personally, my deepest, heartfelt appreciation for the opportunity to have worked with you over the past three decades. As I think of all the projects that came my way during my tenure, it is the collaborative spirit and dedication to public service of our employees throughout and at all levels of this organization that have led to the successes and achievements of our City. It is this same collaborative spirit and dedication that has also served us well during the good as well as in the challenging times.
Thank you, Mayor Liccardo and Councilmembers, for the opportunity to serve as City Manager since 2015, and for your leadership, guidance and support. It has been a pleasure to have worked with you and your staff in determining courses of action that respond to the needs of our diverse community through creative and innovative programs, working cooperatively with our employees, partners, stakeholders and community members in our efforts to continue to make San José a great place in which to live, work and play.
The next few weeks will certainly be bittersweet for me. This organization has been my home away from home for a very long time. The work of serving the public is never done, and I know that your commitment to public service is a calling. I also know that your teamwork and commitment to serving others will continue, and that great achievements lay ahead for the City of San José.
With my deepest and sincere appreciation to all of you,