Alameda’s newest city manager, John Russo, wants to get things done, but he has his work cut out for him. As the CEO of Alameda, he oversees the city’s daily operations, more than 700 employees and an annual budget of $205 million.
The high-profile former Oakland city attorney and councilmember arrived in June 2011 with an ambitious agenda: balance the budget, reign in employees’ benefits costs, change the culture of City Hall, jump-start Alameda Point’s economic development and make city operations transparent.
Along the way, he’s also had to find a way to keep the Alameda Animal Shelter open, mollify citizens outraged by the Park Street tree razing and deal with angry community members who didn’t want any changes to the Alameda Golf Complex. “Alameda has a fabulous quality of life. It has an unusual amount of parks, recreation and libraries for a city of its size. People stay here and are proud fourth-generation residents. So people have expectations about what it means to live in Alameda and what will be provided. I think we can keep what makes Alameda special, but we’re going to have to fight for it,” he says.
Russo faces the problem many city managers now face in California: How to run a city with less money than ever before and maintain
Balancing the 2011–12 budget required 6 percent to 15 percent budget cuts in all city departments. The current projected deficit for 2012–13 is $4.4 million. Not exactly a rosy situation, but a fiscal reality Russo must tackle to insure the city’s long-term solvency so it won’t become another Vallejo.
A key is overhauling employees’ benefits. “If we’re going to continue to maintain really good, quality health care programs and good pensions for our employees, we’re going to need more contribution from employees,” says Russo.
Another key is re-envisioning how the city provides core services. Yes, Russo says, the city must provide services. But, besides police, fire and road repair, government can’t provide all public services. “That means more partnerships with nonprofits, for-profits and voluntary associations, where government will facilitate and supervise the provision of the service,” he says. “It’s not what we all grew up with in the 20th century, where government cleaned everything, paved everything, did everything. That’s over.”
It didn’t take Russo long to orchestrate a successful and notable public-private partnership, one to sustain the Alameda Animal Shelter. The city and Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter now each contribute $300,000 toward the shelter, which saves the city $600,000 a year. The city handles building maintenance and legal matters related to animals’ disposition; FAAS hires and pays the shelter staff and cares for the animals.
Russo is a smart and savvy political veteran for whom politics comes naturally. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of working-class Italian immigrants, in a family that always had political discussions at the dinner table. He was handing out political flyers at age 12. Russo is tall, robust, lively, his dark hair has flecks of gray, yet he seems younger than 53. A liberal Democrat, Russo reminds one of Mario Cuomo.
Russo brings 17 years of experience to the job and an ability to think strategically — two big reasons why the Alameda City Council gave him the administrative reins and a five-year contract in May 2011 at an annual salary of $212,000 a year.
Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore liked Russo for the job because she thought he could offer a fresh approach and be a stabilizing influence on a city hall that had endured six years of turmoil and a revolving door of city managers. “I wanted someone who was smart, decisive, open and transparent, had a good record mentoring his employees, able to delegate and not micromanage, able to be strategic and see the big picture,” she says.
Russo, a self-professed hater of bureaucracies, believes the city should be service oriented, so he instituted a new policy that city employees must respond to questions from the public within one business day — not have an answer, necessarily, but at least reply to them.
Russo sees good communication with the public as a key component of his goal to change the culture of City Hall. “There was
a culture here of ignoring public requests. I won’t tolerate it,” says Russo.
Russo and the city found themselves on the defensive when the Public Works Department cut down most trees between Central and Encinal avenues on Park Street in October 2011 as part of a previously-approved street project without renotifying business owners or the community. Some citizens were outraged, and Russo and Public Works Director Matthew Naclerio had to publicly apologize for the tree massacre and acknowledge re-notification of the work should have occurred before the tree-cutting commenced.
Russo openly admits the mistake. “We need to learn from this,” he says. “We need to think more like the people we’re working for.”
Russo also angered residents by initially backing the city’s proposal to make a land-swap deal with real estate developer Ron Cowan so 130 homes could be built on the site of the Mif Albright nine-hole golf course. He says his support was derived from the deal’s attractive finances and the need to make long overdue renovations and improvements to the golf course.
After six months of rancorous debate at City Council meetings, Russo and his staff reopened to bid the long-term management and improvement contract for the course, and as a result, several golf management companies have offered the $6 million needed to upgrade the course in exchange for a 30-year contract.
On Alameda’s economic future, Russo sees one sure way to bolster Alameda’s largely residential tax base is the development of Alameda Point. “The reason the Naval Air Station is so important — and why I believe passionately that we need to move this thing after 15 years of just frittering around the edges — it was the economic driving force for the Island,” he says.
Russo says what’s needed isn’t just retail businesses, but research and development such as marketing, Internet-type development and game development. “And once we have a critical mass of those type of activities, then you follow it with the housing to preserve the jobs.”
But Russo’s not afraid to try and raise taxes when he sees a need, either. In March 2012, at Russo’s recommendation, the city council unanimously passed a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for the June ballot. If passed by voters, the sales tax will be used to replace aging police and fire vehicles, library infrastructure and build a new swim center.
Russo is no stranger to Alameda. He ran unsuccessfully for State Assembly in 2006 and walked precincts on the Island for his campaign. His twin 14-year-old boys played Little League and soccer in Alameda. He’s also known Gilmore for years, and they have backed each other politically.
Russo is comfortable in his skin and speaks his mind. “Every person in Alameda, I believe, at one time or another, will not like something I’m proposing because it’s all tough,” he says.
Gilmore likes that forthrightness and directness. “He doesn’t try to please people and tell them what they want to hear. He says things the way they are,” she says.
In Oakland, Russo was ahead of the curve on gang injunctions, neighborhood law corps, marijuana legalization and fighting home foreclosure. Russo won awards for the open government and sunshine laws he authored and vows a practice of transparency in Alameda’s government and got the city council to pass Alameda’s first Sunshine Ordinance.
“Government operates better when things are in the open,” he says. “This was not a transparent organization. You got some award, a joke award that Alameda was the worst in the Bay Area for responsiveness to public record requests. That’s not going on anymore,” he says.
Russo has hired a public information officer (issuing 30 press releases in the first six months while there were 10 issued in 2010), is working to improve the city’s website and has already quickened the release of public records and reports for council meetings. Russo closed City Hall offices on Fridays in a budget-balancing effort he also believes makes municipal government more efficient because many city employees work four-day work weeks.
Russo attended Yale, graduated from law school at New York University, spent a year as a legal aide lawyer and arrived in Oakland in 1987.
He ran for Oakland City Council in 1990 and lost, then ran again in 1994 and won, serving five years. As the Council’s finance and management chairman, he converted Oakland to a two-year budget cycle, dramatically increased reserves and produced a balanced budget of more than $1.6 billion.
In 2000 he became Oakland’s first elected city attorney, a job he held until 2011, when he departed after clashing with the Council and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan over his neighborhood gang injunction initiative and other issues.
Russo has been interested in how cities are run since his undergraduate days and contemplated running for mayor of Oakland in the ’90s. When he was President of the League of Cities, officials from a Southern California city asked him in 2003 to be their city manager, but he thought the time wasn’t right. “From the time they asked, it put the idea in my head,” he says. So when the Alameda job opened up, he jumped at the chance
“Despite the difficulties and challenges, it’s very rewarding. I love public service. It’s a higher calling,” he says.