OpinionOpinion

Op-ed: City manager’s departure is big blow to Berkeley

The North East Berkeley Association (NEBA) recently convened a board meeting for the express purpose of discussing the sudden resignation of the City Manager Christine Daniel.

We believe the loss to the city of Ms. Daniel reflects a very serious and growing problem within our city government.

Although we did not always agree with Ms. Daniel on many policy decisions, we appreciated her clarity, brevity, breadth of knowledge, and amazing ability to stay on top of almost all city issues and complex Council discussions. Her professionalism was apparent at all Council meetings, and she appears to have been well regarded by staff.

As one high-level City employee said about her, “Christine is the best boss I’ve ever had in my life” and, “most other managers seem to feel this way too”.

From NEBA’s viewpoint, which takes a particular interest in the city’s macro budget issues, Ms. Daniel did a superb job in outlining the city’s vast unfunded liabilities over time, and in creating budgets which more clearly addressed these liabilities. Under her leadership, we have seen great improvements in the way plans and projects for parks, streets, and other services are conceptualized, presented and budgeted.

When Ms. Daniel leaves in July to pursue an opportunity in Oakland as Deputy City Manager, she will have served in the capacity of City Manager of Berkeley for a very short time, slightly over three years. So why is Ms. Daniel leaving after such a seemingly brief tenure?

In February, we listened as she made abundantly clear to Council that over the next ten years increases in personnel costs will overwhelm the general fund. She stated that if employees received even a 1% raise in 2015, 100% of any General Fund revenue increases (e.g. from more real-estate transactions) would be spent on the increased personnel costs beginning in FY2017. If there were to be no such revenue increases, then further cuts would have to be made elsewhere. And what is Council doing in response to Ms. Daniel’s warnings? From all indications, the city plans on giving 3% raises.

Could this be a major reason for her departure? That is, knowing that raises for city employees would bust an already highly tenuous budget? We don’t know and can only speculate; however, we can see why working for Oakland, even in the capacity of Deputy City Manager, might have more appeal than Berkeley. The new Mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, has pledged to tackle its city’s “crumbling infrastructure,” an issue over which Ms. Daniel has repeatedly expressed concern at Council meetings. Meanwhile, Berkeley’s infrastructure spending will decrease by 43% over the next five years, even without any employee raises.

We find it extraordinary that the majority of Council members continue to be ignorant about the city budget. In recent Council meetings they make pronouncements that the good times are back for city projects because tax revenue is flowing again. Obviously they neither listened to Ms. Daniel at Council meetings (or the Budget Manager) nor read the budget documents. It is always a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul. And infrastructure is invariably Peter. Hence, why Willard Pool will never be rebuilt and why most streets will never be repaved.

If Ms. Daniel was the only high-ranking city employee to leave the City of Berkeley, we would not be writing this open letter; however, she is not. Over the last year, we have witnessed the resignation of the Director of Finance (Bob Hicks); Deputy City Manager (William Rogers); Transportation Planner (Matt Nichols); Director of Health, Housing, and Community Services (Jane Micallef); and Police Captain (Erik Upson).

In a City Manager form of local government it is distressing and dysfunctional when so many top managers leave or, possibly, are pushed out. Why are all these talented top city employees leaving?  We would like to know the reason(s), but the City Council members that we have contacted have not returned our calls.

And, more importantly, how is the city going to operate without either a City Manager or a Director of Finance (Ms. Daniel was doing both jobs since the departure of Mr. Hicks last summer)? We understand a new Deputy City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, was hired back in January, but we have yet to see her at any Council meetings.

We don’t believe Ms. Daniel is irreplaceable, although we believe it is going to take a long time to find someone of her caliber and to bring the new person up to speed. Until then, it will be a very rocky road indeed.

In summary, we would like to thank Ms. Daniel for her service. We have been fortunate to have her as our City Manager.

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Isabelle Gaston, Barbara Gilbert, Cole Smith, Gloria Polanski, and Sharon Eige make up the Board of the North East Berkeley Association (NEBA).