San Jose Inside’s Josh Koehn sat down in late October with City Manager Debra Figone, who will retire at the end of next week, to discuss her 44-year career in public service. The free-flowing discussion, which has been edited for clarity, touches on topics such as the city’s adversarial relationship with the Police Officers Association, the validity of international travel for elected officials, the possibility of another sports franchise coming to San Jose if the Oakland A’s can not relocate here, and how Figone views the media’s coverage of local politics.
Josh Koehn: Do you have big plans for when you leave here?
Debra Figone: No plans. No plans right now.
Just sleep in for a week?
Actually, just stay up late like a real adult.
Looking back over your career at the city of San Jose and Los Gatos and just public service in general, is there any takeaway or it too soon to really reflect on your career?
You know, that’s one of the things I want to do when I leave, is just kind of reflect. It’s been a wonderful career, so that is very clear to me, just how wonderful it was and how fulfilling. Parting is some sweet sorrow in terms of leaving that behind, being so energized and being around such great people, committed to great work.
Did anything happen. Was there any one moment where you said now is probably time to get out?
Not any one thing. I always knew professionally that transition was very important to me, so that meant knowing I would leave before the end of the mayor’s term. … And just personally, I just turned 61, my daughter has said, ‘Come on, mom. When are you going to move on?’ So, just thinking about that, personally, I felt, yes, maybe it’s time.
The fire chief, Ruben Torres, how would you gauge his ability so far? And what did you think about the circumstances of Willie (McDonald’s) departure?
I wish Willie would have stayed longer I really felt he was an excellent chief. Lawsuits come and go regardless of who’s in the seat. And the city tries to ultimately do the right thing. I don’t connect that to Willie at all. I was disappointed in the short tenure, just because I know how difficult it is to find good staff in general. And the higher up you get in an organization, the more difficult it becomes. That said, we’re extremely fortunate to have Ruben step up, and Ruben is very aware of the nepotism policy, and we talked about it and his decision-making process. … We will take our time with [finding a new chief] so we make sure we get the best fit for the city.
I would like to ask you what you think of the recent—and maybe it’s not recent—but the increase in vitriol coming from the POA. … There’s one thing to be upset with city management about contract negotiations and cutbacks, but I don’t know of a union that’s been so active in trying to get people to leave, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on their behavior?
I think it’s indeed unfortunate. I find it personally disappointing. And I think when leaders in leadership are stuck in a place of bitterness it’s a very dangerous thing.
Do you think (POA President Jim) Unland has taken it too personal?
You know, I won’t speak for Jim. I’m disappointed. I think the leadership needs to think about its actions. I think leaders can disagree, institutions can disagree, but it’s important to move on and work together to resolve the issues. But I don’t think you resolve the issues by bringing your city down, and your department down. I see that as a very destructive behavior.
Dublin and sister cities … I’m interested to hear what you think about not only international travel when it comes to building the so-called brand of San Jose, there’s questions about what’s the return on investments on trips like this, and how much is that partnership beneficial or just stroke the ego.
Well this is only my second international trip in 44-plus years, and the first was a couple years ago to Dublin. I think I really developed an appreciation for the value of a meaningful partnership, where there are common interests and the potential for exchange that benefits both cities. And I say that because I think San Jose has been very conservative about international travel—junkets and all of that. And there’s hasn’t been a pattern from my vantage point. Even for the airport, which really should be out marketing the airport, really scaled back when we probably should have been speed-dating recruiting. There is a sensitivity not to the criticism but to really watch the dollars and I think we’re paying for it somewhat now ,and we’re trying to catch up. I think the other realization is San Jose is playing on a global stage. We may think were just here in Silicon Valley and are immune to not having the effects of a competitive world around us, but our businesses know that’s not the case. I think that’s what my eyes were opened to.
When you look at what’s going to happen over the next year, having [five] councilmembers running for mayor and [a sixth] running for State Assembly in Kansen Chu, does that bring instability to the council? Is it going to make things where everyone is grandstanding to make sure their point is heard on every little issue? Is there going tot be negative effect on the council next year?
I don’t know if there will. I think whoever runs for office has to stay in the public’s eye. And their record is important—that’s part of that. That said, I would hope and I believe our councilmembers are very responsible at their jobs. I’ve seen it. They’re all very experienced. And I think they will know how to ensure their political aspirations are not disruptive. That’s my hope. I have confidence and faith in them. I do think from the standpoint transition it will be very important that the administration be mindful of that kind of activity, and even be more on alert that they’re comfortable to bring their best professional opinion forward, as well as to ensure the council has the space to make their policy decisions, Nothing will change, but it should be top of mind, especially because of the newness of our staff and the sense that they’ve got to watch what they say. And I don’t think they should.
(Communications Director David Vossbrink notes that the mayor’s race in 2006 had several councilmembers running and this is just the way things work. His comment is paraphrased because some parts are inaudible.)
That’s’ an interesting point, because I wasn’t here in 2006. From what I hear, though, things are much more negative than they were eight years ago, or seven years ago. Is that true? Has the rhetoric gotten to a much more fever pitch?
I wasn’t here in 2006. What I inherited [in 2007] was an organization that was afraid to speak up. One where I felt I had to help them bring back their professional voice. I can’t say that’s because of a campaign. I think it was probably things leading up to that transition.
Who do you plan to endorse for mayor?
(Laughs) I’m not endorsing anyone.
I figured I would just try to throw it out there.
DV: Nice try, Josh.
Measure B is still going though the channels. Obviously, you support Measure B, right?
I brought forward what I needed to bring forward. It then turned into elements of Measure B.
So you supported aspects of Measure B. Are you still supportive of it now?
I guess what I’m interested in now is we have a mayor who’s pushing a state pension reform measure. And he’s doing it in a very interesting way, because he’s surrounding himself with millionaires and billionaires from outside of the state—some of who have very interesting records, whether it be working with Enron or leading a hedge fund that’s known for trying to make Greece go bankrupt. And the list goes on. There are other people who are not as questionable as that. But I’m curious about what you think of a mayor who’s spending a significant part of his time working on something that’s not really directly related to city business, like San Jose.
First of all, I’m not close to the issue. The mayor did give me the courtesy of giving me a heads-up about the goal that he has. I don’t know who’s behind it. I haven’t looked into it or researched it, any of that. What I can say is that as an elected official he can participate in what he wants and I can also say that from what I understand of his perspective—and you’ll have to talk to him about it—(the goal is) to ensure there’s a level paying field, in terms of pensions, and the city of San Jose is important to him. I think you should talk to him about ultimately how he envisions that. From the standpoint of our own benefits system and competitiveness in the market, you know, leveling the playing field could be a good thing for us.
There are some people who believe that the reason he’s going about state pension reform is to insulate San Jose’s Measure B.
That may be. I don’t know. The way I think about it is leveling the playing field.
What do you think about Bud Selig?
(Laughs) What do I think about Bud Selig? (More laughing) I have no opinion about Bud Selig.
Well, I would just like to have him make a decision.
Just one way or another at this point.
Yes, I think it’s important. The notion of a ballpark is a big deal for San Jose. It’s very important for us. To be tied up this long, when there has been a due diligence process underway. I really don’t do baseball, and I’ve come to learn more about the business of sports than I ever thought I would. But just my sense is it’s all about the money. Probably that’s a big part of the decision.
Whether it be money for the Giants—
And the other owners.
You were in in favor of filing that lawsuit?
I understand why it was filed. I can’t say I’m for or against. It seemed like if this is that important to us, then it seemed like the next thing that we needed to do—to call the question.
Say San Jose’s lawsuit doesn’t win and A’s never move here, what do you want for that area? Because it’s great real estate, right across from HP—er, SAP—and the train station, and all of that potential of high-speed rail someday.
I would say that first the city should really evaluate if there is any other way to get another sports team here. Because so much thought has gone into that as a location and how things could work. I really would want the city to ensure that before it moves on and rezones it for something else, that that possibility is fully explored.
Can I suggest basketball? I find baseball to be so boring. And hockey is tough for me to watch, too.
Actually the arena can accommodate basketball.
Have there been any efforts to get a basketball team here?
There have been conversations.
Have they been recent?
Not recent as in yesterday.
Within the last three months?
Not that I’m aware of.
DV: There have been conversations from time to time over the years.
Seeing no other possibility for a sports venue, I think it’s a prime development site that needs the same care and thinking through for our city.
I’m curious how you see the media treats the work of City Hall and how often it doesn’t fully understand what’s really shaping the decisions.
I do have some global thoughts. One is the media is very important. And to continue to cultivate relationships that foster credibility on both sides is very important. And to do what we can to ensure that the writer, if they’re willing, gets the story right—regardless of what the news is.
I like that. ‘If they’re willing.’ That makes it sound like there’s an agenda maybe with some writers.
I think, that said, my criticism and caution to the media would be to not lose the core spirit of the importance of journalism, good journalism. I think that in this social media world that we’re in, and the instantaneous turnaround that you guys are faced with, I’ve just been struck with how quickly you have to write—especially if it’s the story that just broke and you have to post it.
Make sure you’re on the web first, so that you get the traffic.
You’re in a competitive environment and we understand that. But that runs the risk of not getting it right, having it be half-baked, going to the same people for quotes all the time, which I see a pattern of. I think that need for speed and being first is squeezing out the good journalism. I think that’s a challenge for all of you. I also think in our reality TV world, that does find its way into the journalism and I think often causes—depending on the newspaper, and you all have your personalities and interests—a tendency toward sarcasm and snarkyness, which I think is not healthy. (It’s) finding its way into the very real important issues of a city government, maybe a city government going through what we’re going through. I think it breeds negativity in the eyes of the public, and I don’t think we should be working towards that goal.
So you’re saying I can’t make fun of Xavier Campos anymore?
(Laughs) You can if you choose to. But I’m a serious person.
Yeah, and I think you take it personal (because) these are some of your staff members. These are people that you work hard with on issues. And if I go out there and write a joke about how Johnny Khamis thinks Ireland fuels itself on burning trash, then I can see maybe that’s a little snarky and all of that. I think also if I say, ‘What’s the best thing you learned?’ and he says ‘they burn trash.’ I’m just like, ‘That’s absurd.’ I think there’s a middle ground.
And I wasn’t just thinking of you. It’s funny to talk about.