Eric Levitt Brings Stability to Alameda
So far, Alameda’s newest city manager, Eric Levitt, seems to be bringing stability to city government after his controversial predecessor.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
On a quiet Thanksgiving eve in his third-floor office at City Hall, Eric Levitt, Alameda’s new city manager, dressed in a gray suit with an open collar, sits in his office and talks about what it’s like to be Alameda’s newest city manager. During the conversation, he’s interrupted several times by phone calls from his son, Joey.
Very much a family man, Levitt, 52, his wife, Ginger, who is a surgical nurse, have two sons, Joey, a seventh-grader who attends Lincoln Middle School, and Jeremy, a biomedical engineering student at Arizona State University.
Levitt has a calm, affable demeanor and seems unflappable. He has over 25 years of experience working in local government and over 18 years of experience as a city manager. Levitt came to Alameda from Simi Valley in Southern California. He’s also served as city manager for Janesville, Wisconsin, and Sedona, Arizona.
Levitt succeeded Jill Keimach in April 2019. Keimach, who departed amid controversy in the summer of 2018, had secretly audiotaped a meeting in August 2017 she had with city council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella who were allegedly pressuring her to hire an inside candidate from Alameda’s ranks for fire chief. The drama continued into 2018 when existence of the audiotape was made public. The city council severed ties with her that summer and agreed to a severance package of $945,000. An Alameda County Civil Grand Jury investigation of Oddie and Vella’s actions followed in 2019, along with one by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, and, just last month, the release of Keimach’s audiotapes by the city of Alameda. In the end, Keimach was cleared of any criminal act while Oddie and Vella’s actions were criticized but not indictable. Four other top city officials departed in the fallout, and city employee morale slumped with a series of interim city managers.
Levitt is well aware of the controversy. It’s the elephant in the room that has consumed City Hall for over two years.
“I’ve understood for 25 years — I learned this in my first job in Vermont — there is a great deal of pressure on the elected officials in regard to those two positions even though they don’t report to them,” he said about the police and fire chief posts. “I’ve always made the final decision on my department directors, but I do understand that the council does get those external pressures, so I at least try to make sure they understand why I’m hiring someone so they can publicly defend them, if they’re asked,” he said.
And the city council is still trying to extricate itself from the debacle, as a Dec. 3 meeting made apparent when the council passed a new ordinance that would prohibit any city employee or city council member from recovering any legal fees if they knowingly violated the city charter, an applicable criminal statute, or an applicable ethical code of conduct that arose out of the violation. Oddie and Vella had initially tried to recover their $90,000 in legal fees.
Levitt sees himself as the right person to move the city forward after the turmoil. “I’ve tried to create a sense of stability in the organization, because there was some uncertainty during the past few years. It’s easier for departments to move forward if there’s a sense of stability.”
Levitt said one of his focuses is to help the city council work well together and advance its strategies. Toward that end, in March of 2019, prior to his start date, Levitt participated in a goal-setting retreat with council members. “It helped get everyone on the same page,” he said.
Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said Levitt’s been the right person at the right time. “It was a time to focus on the work in front of us and minimize the drama, and concentrate on the work we need to do for our council as a city. He’s helped us do that.”
Vice Mayor John Knox White said the city needed someone like Levitt to restore the trust and professionalism of city government. “We needed someone who could work with all five city council members. I’m very impressed with Eric’s ability to operationalize that. I do believe he’s the city manager that Alameda needs right now. I look forward to our community getting to know him. He brings a perspective that all voices be heard and understood to make good decisions.”
In Alameda, the city manager is appointed by the city council and is responsible for providing policy support and recommendations to the city council. As chief executive officer, the city manager provides the leadership and direction for the operation and management of all 12 city departments and 550 employees.
Only a month into the job, Levitt had to create his first Alameda city budget. “Creating that document and proposing it with the study sessions, we were able to get a 5-0 vote on the budget after the council made changes. It was another significant sign of creating stability for the city council,” he said.
Levitt didn’t know too much about Alameda at first, but had heard of John Russo, Alameda’s city manager from 2011-2015. “I knew his reputation from city manager circles. “And I knew a little bit about Alameda Point and what they’re trying to do with it, and did some research, and talked to a job recruiter,” said Levitt.
Levitt and his wife talked about the move and thought if he was going to make another job change, it was the right time to do it. “I always like challenges. I felt there were a lot challenges in Alameda: Alameda Point, housing issues, the climate action plan. I like to help people, and help councils problem solve. That’s what I like,” he said.
But he also felt it was a risky move given what had happened here prior to his arrival with his predecessor. Levitt said it’s been a big move for the family.
Mayor Ashcraft likes that Levitt is an Alameda resident, something the two previous city managers — Keimach and Russo — weren’t. “I like that he lives here and his son attends school here,” she said.
Levitt had planned to go to law school, but a meaningful interaction with a county manager over changing his deceased father’s car title into his own name led him to consider city and county management as a career.
“I like to help people and to problem solve,” he said.
Levitt and his wife met as undergraduates at the University of Kansas. After he completed his bachelor’s degree in political science, Levitt got his master’s in public administration at Kansas. Both of his parents attended Kansas, too, and were high school teachers. Public service runs in the family.
Ashcraft likes Levitt’s personality and temperament. “He listens more than he talks. He wants to bring people together and work toward solutions. He has a very respectful approach to everyone. He’ll say, ‘You know, council, have your considered this.’ He’s very humble, very self-effacing. He doesn’t like to give opinions. He doesn’t start there; sometimes, we have to extract them from him. He’s has the same self-effacing manner with staff,” she said.
Levitt said he tries to help the council facilitate their discussion in moving forward. “I have opinions. But my approach is not always to have those be public opinions. If I have an opinion that I think that the council needs to be aware of, I try to make them aware of it.”
Knox White said Levitt thinks all people have a valid point of view. “He wants everyone to get what they want through solutions. It’s highly commendable. He brings a knowledge and philosophy of what it means to be a city manager. His action and approach is rooted in theory of practice. He can talk very knowledgably about it.”