Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz: The exit interview

Former city manager Phil Kamlarz, just before his retirement

Phil Kamlarz, city manager for eight years and a city employee for 36, retired this month. He first became a Berkeley city employee as a temporary associate accountant in the Berkeley Public Library in 1975, and a year later transferred to the city manager’s office. He became assistant city manager in 1987, and then acting city manager in 2003, before getting his full appointment the following year.

Two weeks ago, when the City Council marked Kamlarz’s retirement, the encomia from councilmembers were effusive. Mayor Tom Bates noted that Kamlarz “has provided Berkeley a platform of fiscal stability which is enviable”. He cited Kamlarz as a “calm, collected leader” with “compassion, foresight and a good nature”.

Kriss Worthington said: “He has been the most non-political city manager you can imagine, which is exactly what you want in a city manager form of government.” Jesse Arreguin said: “Phil really respects and reflects the values of our community.” More personally, Linda Maio said, “My security blanket is leaving.”

Before he stepped down, Kamlarz spoke with Berkeleyside about the changes he’s witnessed in Berkeley and the tasks that remain to be done.

What’s changed during your years with the city?

The council works extremely well together now. We used to have council meetings until two, three in the morning. It’s much more efficient in how we get our work done.

The staff and council work together well. There are always disagreements on issues. But people have come together on the major issues.

Have the issues changed substantively?  

A lot of the big issues haven’t changed at all. The issues of the safety net, the provision of good services.

There’s a lot of criticism about the cost of Berkeley government. Is that fair?

We have more police officers per capita. We have more fire stations. We have voted with two-thirds majorities for more medical services. We have more library employees. No city our size had four pools. We do have more services and more employees than other places.

Our refuse services cost money. There’s the long-standing policy of not contracting out here. It’s different than many other cities.

People want more and not less.

But in the past four years, we’ve cut 216 positions. We have been cutting back and it’s been surgical. Although we’ve cut back, the impact on services has been minimal. We’ve been making those adjustments over time.

You’ve spoken a lot in the past year about the burden of the city’s pension obligations. How can that be resolved?  

The path is through labor negotiations. We reached agreement with maintenance and clerical workers. The lowest paid people in the city stepped up.

Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion [with the police] before I get out of here. [Ed: This had not been accomplished at the time of writing.]

We share our information with the unions. We have tough negotiations. And we have avoided a financial crisis. You don’t want to reach a crisis state. Our job is to avoid that, but there isn’t the same impetus for the unions to make dramatic changes.

What’s different about Berkeley?

I learn something every day. With the university here, there’s always going to be innovation. People are very smart here. In Berkeley, everyone challenges you. It’s process-intensive.

That results in what I often describe as the “last-person-standing” policy approach. There’s a danger that policy is made based on the people who are most persistant. There’s a real issue as to how do you have a public discussion in those circumstances.

I like the example of National Night Out, which gives you an opportunity to talk to more people and get different points of view.

Some people say those different points of view don’t really get heard. That a small group of people make the decisions that count in Berkeley — it’s a conspiracy or a cabal. 

Berkeley is a small town. A lot of it is the relationships. We know that we can work it out. If we could get our shit together to have a conspiracy, that would be great.

The truth is you’ve got to get 50 people around here to agree to get anything done.

Almost everything here is public. No one has ever asked for my calendar. There is nothing to hide. We meet with anybody.

Are you optimistic about Berkeley’s economy?

Most people feel good about the town.

We’ve had the economic downturn. Major retailers want to come. Businesses want certainty in the process. We do have a land use regulatory process here.

Businesses can understand it. With Apple, they were appreciative of that. With BMW – we were able to persuade them to stay in Berkeley. They’ve been patient.

One of the advantages of having someone here for a long time, is that some things take a long time. The arts district – that developed over a 15-year period. We had to work to keep Berkeley Rep here. There were loans for the Freight and Salvage, Aurora and the Jazzschool

Then there’s the redevelopment of Fourth Street – that was thanks to Denny Abrams. It was blight before. Having that longer view helped.

I’m convinced that downtown is going through a major upcycle in the next few years.

What unfinished business do you leave behind? 

Waiting for the economy to turn around.

I wish we were in better shape fiscally. We really can’t affect the overall economy. The influences are far greater. We’re a piece of a larger region here.

Crime is down compared to neighbors. People feel safer now.

We have aging infrastructure and that needs to be addressed. The storm water system is 100 years old. It’s not that sexy until it breaks.

City Manager Phil Kamlarz announces his retirement [09.26.11] 

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  • Great interview.  I genuinely laughed out loud at this: “If we could get our shit together to have a conspiracy, that would be great.”

  • wensull

    I can only imagine the massive retirement package he got.

  • Bruce Love

    Phil’s big package has been brought out in public before:

    (Link is to Dan Borenstein in the Contra Costa times.)

    As I reported recently, when it came time to approve his salary increase in January, Mayor Tom Bates said the raise was necessary to keep Kamlarz because he could otherwise retire and make the same money. “He’s actually working as a volunteer,” Bates said.

    (Link hat tip to the Daily Planet archives.)

  • Completely Serious

    Yup, over $280k, based on a contract illegally approved by the City Council.  Kamlarz compared himself to the city managers of Oakland, SF and San Jose. 

    Hey Lance, why didn’t you ask about that?

    Kamlarz is the epitome of why this state is about bankrupt — out of
    control salary and benefits, you can be sure he’ll be double-dipping in a
    few months, and sharing the wealth with the unions, all at the expense
    of the taxpayer.

    On the other hand, Lance, you did lead us to the answer about why
    Willard Pool was closed:  No other town our size has four pools!

  • Kamlarz is going to be livin’ large for the rest of his life on our money, a lot more pension money that most people earn in many, many, many years of hard work. 

  • Thinkitover

    Please. The guy was a  top level manager for the city and did close to forty years of work under his belt.It’s  laughable how  many Bezerkeleite’s get pissed if their city council members or making more then minium wage and not collecting foodstamps.

  • lets get real

    I agree with you that sometimes we undervalue the services people in government make and having our council members make so little is wrong considering how much work we want them to do and maybe with better pay they could spend more time managing that city and we would attract people that can’t work for so little..But the sweetheart retirement package that Kamlarz received is wrong..There are many people who work 40 years and never receive anything close. At some point this process is not sustainable..haw many kamlarz like indivduals can a city our size afford along with all the other retirees..He should have had a 401K plan that he invested in just like most of us.

  • Indeed. It would have been nice to have someone ask him why he thinks he deserves to be paid more in retirement than he was paid as a working employee of the City of Berkeley.

    Unless we learn from the mistakes of other cities in the greater bay area, these platinum-plated public employee pension packages are going to turn Berkeley into the next Vallejo.

  • Thanks for the wonderful example of moronic hyperbole, Thinkitover.

    Not only is $280k so far from minimum wage as to be laughable (annual income on CA minimum wage is just over $16k), but we’re talking about a PENSION of $280k, not a SALARY of $280k.
    That’s TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY THOUSAND DOLLARS that the City of Berkeley will be paying him EVERY YEAR until he DIES, for doing NOTHING.

    Thanks for acting as a perfect example that the people who support these insane pension deals are completely out of touch with reality.

  • Completely Serious

    And if I’m not mistaken, Berkeley provides FREE (that means FREE, 100% FREE) health care for management retirees AND THEIR SPOUSES/PARTNERS for life. 

    Something else that pisses me off:  They mayor “negotiated” a contract with Kamlarz’s deputy to take over his spot at $225,000 a year.  You don’t get the old guy’s salary (or close to it), just because he retired.  You should start at a modest salary and EARN the raises through performance.


  • Anonymous

    Phil: Where is the coherent plan you developed for cleaning up the fiscal disaster you left behind for the City of Berkeley?

    Care to lead by example and donate $100,000 a year back to the City to show public employees that you practice what you preach in terms of employee give backs?

  • Anonymous

    What a powerful impact Kamlarz could have made by declining the last raise that Bates offered.  Now that would have sent a real message to the unions.  Wouldn’t have been a big sacrifice considering the size of his salary, pension and benefits. 

  • Completely Serious

    In 2012 and 2014 and 2016, etc, please remember how the current members of the council gave him everything he asked for AND MORE.

  • Laura

    B-Side forgot to mention the lump sum payout of $150,000 Kamlarz received for years of accrued unused vacation and sick pay. How many Berkeley apologists understand that the city council agreed to a no layoff policy and unlike MOST government agencies does not require employees to adhere to an annual LOSE or USE vacation and sick pay policy .

    The city council reviewed the cost and waste of not having such a standard policy some years ago, so why did Kamlarz fail to remedy this loop hole which is costing taxpayers while not improving services?