If there was a hall of shame for local government administrators, there’d be a long waiting list. Robert Rizzo would be first in line for his shameless fleecing of the City of Bell, California. Unfortunately, he’s not alone among self-serving opportunists and even thieves who’ve exploited their positions of trust. It would be a tragedy, however, if this tiny minority of scoundrels became the public face of public service. The media naturally focus on flagrant outliers — exposing crooked businessmen, predatory priests, shady attorneys and negligent doctors. They exist, but they don’t represent the vast majority.
Fortunately, the International City/County Managers Association is recognizing a quiet hero who represents what’s best about public service — a city manager who was as unselfish in his service to the City of Southgate, California as Rizzo was selfish in his exploitation of nearby Bell.
Before Bell, a thuggish young politician named Albert Robles went to jail for masterminding the looting of millions from neighboring Southgate. Robles was even more brazen that Rizzo. Exposure of his shady dealing, bribery and election fraud finally led to his downfall when the Council majority he controlled was ousted in a recall. As the clock ticked down for their removal from office, Robles spent literally the last hours standing over Southgate’s City Manager and Finance Director insisting they write huge checks to his cronies — leaving the city nearly bankrupt when the new majority took office the next day.
The California League of Cities mounted an emergency volunteer effort to assist the incoming reform-minded Council majority restore honest professional management. Gary Milliman, who’d already forged a long and successful city management career, was working as the League’s regional representative. He threw himself into organizing a crew of dedicated staff on loan from their cities to sort out the tangled books and rescue Southgate from imminent insolvency.
He was, on the surface, an incongruous choice for a community of predominantly Latino immigrants. A bald, middle-aged white man who wore cowboy boots and a large rodeo belt buckle, his command of Spanish was limited to skills Californians use to order at Mexican restaurants. What the City Councilmembers embraced, however, was his rock solid integrity and tireless work ethic. Before long they were insisting he fill the void as their City Manager.
He reluctantly accepted his third tenure as a City Manager — this time for a city teetering on the brink of bouncing payroll checks. Working with a demoralized staff, he gradually restored financial stability, professional standards and technical competency. He attracted smart and able advisors and informal contributors that brought remarkably sophisticated assistance to a community in dire need. He worked harmoniously with the City Council and put in uncounted hours of dedicated service.
It was exhausting and undoubtedly draining. No one begrudged his decision after four years to move north to be the City Manager of the small town of Brookings, Oregon — even if Southgate was sad to let him go. He’s continued to perform exemplary service there in his trademark low-key, collaborative style. It was there that his colleagues from nearby towns, local elected officials and even Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber joined in nominating him for the most prestigious award given by his professional colleagues around the world.
These are trying times for anyone in public service. The handful of egregious abusers that have exploited vulnerabilities in local checks and balances have deeply damaged the trust built up by thousands of other dedicated public servants. Scott Mitnick, City Manager of nearby Thousand Oaks, recently reflected on the challenge of restoring that trust in a thoughtful essay in the Ventura County Star. “All of us need to work together to restore California’s long-standing reputation of having the most professional and best-run cities in America,” Mitnick wrote.
Mitnick is right on target. Fortunately there are leaders like Gary Milliman who demonstrate the opportunity for even the most disadvantaged cities in California to have the benefit of the best in the city manager profession. Those are the cities that need it most. At a time when the reputation of public service is haunted by the specter of Robert Rizzo, the example of Gary Milliman provides a shining ideal for others to emulate.