An edited transcript of the interview of departing San Jose city manager Debra Figone by Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold:
Q. I want to start by asking you a question about your style. In public, you were very cautious. You used bureaucratic language that was almost completely fireproof. You let the elected officials get the quotes. Can you talk about the context of that low-key style, and does it have any disadvantages?
A. I don't think it has any disadvantages. First of all, to stray much further from what you saw in me would not have been me. It would have felt like theater. I am a person who likes to listen, likes to respect. That doesn't mean I'm a pushover. It doesn't mean I can't stand my ground. It doesn't mean I don't have values or an opinion. I really believe my job is to get the product, the thinking in front of the council, and then it's theirs to work through. Then if I can add value, I will add value.
Q. The last six years have been an extraordinary and very difficult time for the city. How much of it did you see coming when you took the job in 2007?
A. That's a great question. I actually found the list that (former acting city manager) Les White and I developed. During the transition, I went to his house in Aptos, he did a brain dump and I took notes. A lot of what was on the list was about the big projects--convention center, airport, many of the things we've seen.
There were a few items that ended up being bigger deals, but they weren't even envisioned then. The structural budget deficit, as it was then understood, was on the list. The other thing that was on there was retirement health care, but that was about unfunded liability, and wasn't even defined yet. I think there was a $20 million deficit or so. But after the first year, everything fell apart.
Q. You once told me that San Jose had priced itself out of the market in terms of what it paid for police and fire. What did you mean by that?
A. Well, I remember saying that. I think what I was thinking about was the notion of competitiveness in terms of the cost of our service, the comparable services in the outside. That would have been top of mind even when I was here previously, because the whole march for competition was really big. The total cost of labor, including benefits, when benchmarked against others you could benchmark against, periodically we were pricing ourselves out of the market. I don't remember saying exclusively police and fire.
Q. You've lost a huge number of your department heads during your tenure, and for various reasons. Some have retired, some have gone on. Given the changes in pensions and compensation, was the exodus inevitable?
A. I think it was maybe inevitable, for some reasons, perhaps not anticipated for others. Those who left had been through a tough time before I got here. They were continuing to confront tough times, and I think it was just their time. Others probably did leave because of the money. You know, you look at some of our surrounding cities, they have always paid more. You look at what they can do, coupled with the 10 percent cut we had to take, it was probably inevitable that some would go. I experienced almost 100 percent turnover in six and half years.
Q. Did you have a falling —out with any of them? At least some of them -- (ex-police chief) Chris Moore, (former finance director) Scott Johnson, (deputy city manager) Deanna Santana — were perceived as not being totally on the team.
A. I never felt that way about them. Scott had told me he wanted to be an assistant some day. He was always very creative. Deanna I helped mentor, when I was here in the 90s. I knew she wanted to be a city manager. I think Oakland is really lucky to get her. Chris did a fabulous job for me in calming the community down.
As I've told all the management staff -- sometimes it got misinterpreted as you don't like it, you can leave, which was never my intent -- this is a hard time, and issues of pay and what you might lose, those are very personal decisions. If your head and heart cannot be aligned to do this leadership work, it may not be the place for you. Some people may have thought about that. It was a little too good of a speech. I don't begrudge Chris leaving. He probably had the toughest job of any chief we've had in a long time.
Q. One of the things you have done is to change the face of city government, to bring many more women into leadership. I thinking of people like Jennifer Schembri in employee relations, Kim Walesh at OED, Kim Aguirre at the airport, Julie Edmonds-Mare at parks and recreation, Julia Cooper at finance, and more that I have not mentioned. Can you talk to me about what your thinking is in promoting these women? And what difference has it made?
A. First of all, they're tremendously talented. I think we were very lucky in that they were pretty much all second in command already, except for (city librarian) Jill Bourne, who came in from the outside. As the operating leads, they knew their departments, and they were ready to step up. They have contributed, as women typically do, to bringing a nurturing side to the organization. I would say the entire senior staff is extremely collaborative, and they enhance that collaboration. I think they brought a fine touch to the organization.
Q. You put a huge amount of work into a nationwide search for police chief. Ultimately, we picked Chris Moore. Does the city's experience, which is almost forced on us by finances, make you rethink the value of national searches?
A. I think national searches have their place. I think there is a value. It's very difficult for a recruiter just to limit information that stays on the West Coast. Because when you publish, you have a network. It's a nationwide network. I think they're still valuable. I think they should be used selectively. So you've seen me: I've brought in people without searches, and sometimes after searches.
Q. I'm going to doubt that you're going to answer this one, but I have to ask it. Can you tell us of any major decisions by the council you have disagreed with? Baseball lawsuit? Measure B? Little Saigon?
A. Disagreed with? I'd say probably the only one I was disappointed in was not going out for a revenue measure in 2012. I think I expressed that disappointment. It was their decision to make. Now we have to move on.
Q. You said that you believe the city had done a fairly good job of bringing costs under control. And yet there are inefficiencies baked into our system. Everybody understands this. Take emergency fire and paramedic response. If we were to start from scratch, we would not design the system we have, where six or seven people respond to Granny's chest pains. To what extent do political realities make it difficult to govern well in San Jose?
A. I believe we govern well with the structures we have. I think political realities make change difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult. I hink that's the reality. I think that's very difficult for the private sector to understand. Part of the democratic process includes advocacy for positions. Those influences are not bad, but they do weigh into decisions about change.
Q. Was the animosity with the unions, particularly police and fire, inevitable? Were there other ways we could have dealt with this?
A. I've thought a lot about this. At a senior retreat last Friday, I did a debriefing of my own reflections. I think in a way it was inevitable, not because of bad people, but because ultimately it got down to a clash of values. My nave belief early on was that everyone — council, community, senior staff, and employees — would all be self-motivated to solve a problem that I was seeing. And that problem was the problem of very significant risk to the city's ability to sustain benefits.
What I saw was that the city's fiscal viability was directly related to the ability to sustain a retirement system, pay and benefits, and that we would all be self-motivated to give a little, take a haircut. At the end of the day, there was not that self-motivation. In order to agree, there would have to be such a trade-off in values, or a trade-off of roles. Unions see their role as protecting the benefits of workers, or maybe ultimately fear losing ground nationwide. I think there was just a clash of values ultimately between what people believed they were owed and my responsibility to keep the city solvent.
Q. Do you have any regrets about any decisions you made?
A. No regrets. I have lessons learned.
Q. Okay, give me a lesson learned.
A. I was surprised that others saw my position in such a political lens. I've never seen myself as a political animal. So when people would accuse me of aligning with the mayor, or having favorites, things that sounded political to me, I was very surprised at that. I never really expected the visibility I ended up having, never sought it out.
Q. Were you nave?
A. I think it's pretty much a city manager's way of thinking. We in our profession don't seek the limelight. It's about facilitating others.
Q. What's your biggest achievement?
A. I feel very good about getting my city through this time with a sense of calm. And I did so without compromising my integrity or my professionalism.
Q. And you would say that whichever way the Measure B (pension reform) decision goes?
A. Absolutely. I know I did my best. None of this was done for sport.
Q. This is possibly the least significant of my questions, but I have to ask you about the (Councilman) Don Rocha affair. We were told that Rocha literally turned his back to you during a performance review. Is that true?
A. (Chuckles) Well that was in closed session. So I'm not going to talk about what happens in closed session.
Q. I want to ask you this question not so much as a city manager, but as a long-time native of San Jose. What's your view of the mini-mayor system? Does it demote citywide issues in importance?
Q. Can you talk about that a little?
A. A couple of things. The districts were absolutely the right way to go for the city. As the city grew and increased its diversity, it really gives a great opportunity for the multiple voices of the community to be heard. I have no problem with the district approach. I do think, however, that every council member has a responsibility to have a citywide perspective. To the degree individuals get very parochial and lose that citywide perspective, I don't think it's good for the city and I don't think it's good for their districts.
Q. If you were to give your successor just two or three pieces of advice — an elevator pitch--what would they be?
A. One would be that the residents are expecting you to do the right thing even if you never hear from them. You have to keep that view in mind. The second would be to remember your role. You are not the 12th member of the council. I guess the third would be to accept your reality, whether it's an economic reality, or whatever the conditions of the day, and then problem-solve based on that reality.
Q. What are your short-term personal plans?
A. Take a sabbatical. I've been working for 44 years straight, Scott. I don't know what it means to be able to wake up Tuesday and go to the beach as opposed to coming in for closed session. I'm looking forward to flexibility, to reflect on the last six years in particular, and then decide. I hope to go to Spain and a few other places next year.
-- Mercury News