John Russo’s Exit Interview
Alameda’s city manager counts development progress at Alameda Point and smoothing over employee relations as his main achievements.
Alameda City Manager John Russo, a former Oakland city councilman and city attorney, is headed to Riverside.
Photo Courtesy of John Russo
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Outgoing Alameda City Manager John Russo likes to use sports metaphors. So, when news broke in February that Russo, along with his oversize personality, was leaving the Island for a new opportunity and greater compensation in Riverside, the response from city officials was akin to what small-market baseball teams admit when they land a high-priced slugger in the last year of his rookie contract. “Frankly, we were lucky to have him,” Councilmember Jim Oddie said in the days after the announcement.
Following stints in Oakland, first as a council member and then as city attorney, Russo’s thoughtful wit and razor-like barbs made his hiring as city manager in 2011 as curious as a big fish swimming in a small pond.
By most accounts, Russo’s four years in Alameda were a success. In an understated, yet frank interview, Russo said his greatest accomplishment is not moving along development at Alameda Point, but repositioning the city and public employee unions away from constant back-biting to an atmosphere of shared values and greater economic certainty. There were rumors that Russo’s departure was exacerbated by the surprise results of the fall election, but Russo said the rumors are untrue and that he merely landed an opportunity to fast-track existing plans for moving himself and his family to Southern California. “To the surprise of many,” he said, “I’m not an important person. I am just city manager of a small California city, and later I’ll be a city manager of a bigger city in California.”
However, under Russo’s stewardship, decades of uncertainty over the direction of development at the former Alameda Naval Air Station was resolved following an agreement with the U.S. Navy for the city to limit housing at Alameda Point in exchange for reconveying the land at no cost to Alameda taxpayers. But, Russo said credit does not lie with his actions. “I don’t think I have a legacy,” he said, noting his viewpoint is deeply rooted in his Southern Italian ancestry. “I have a fairly fatalistic view of the world,” he added. “I know no one ever believes this applies to me, but I think I have a fairly modest view of what my role is. This community was ready to make progress at Alameda Point.”
The infrastructure of support preceded him, he said, when the community rallied around an ultimately unsuccessful pitch to lure a new campus for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to Alameda Point. “I didn’t make that happen. That feeling of ‘at long last, we need to do something about the base’ is what drove the process. The public itself was exhausted by plan after plan. Once you get that mandate from the people and the council, it makes it easier to get something done.”
Yet, negotiating the no-cost reconveyance is one of his proudest moments, Russo said, but even then, he believes luck was involved. The Navy’s previous $108.5 million asking price was never going to pencil out for the city, Russo said. Instead, he urged the Navy to erase the uncertainty of the last decade and return to the original offer of a no-cost transfer of the property. “I just wanted to start a dialogue by getting that number down, but they surprised me by saying yes,” Russo said. “With economic development, sometimes you have to throw the line in the water dozens of times to get a bite. We got a bite on the first throw. That was just luck.”
Next, Russo needed to dissuade some councilmembers from being starstruck by large-scale development at Alameda Point, which incidentally, provided an easy stab at legacy-building to a more balanced piecemeal approach. “The city kept swinging for the fences and trying to hit a grand slam by seeking a single entity to develop the entire point all at once,” Russo said. “What I told them is we need a rally of singles, and I will submit that we scored, and we will continue to score.”
Although he said more needs to be done to put Alameda on solid financial footing, Russo said a thawing of animosity between City Hall and public employee groups over salaries and benefits will greatly aid the city over the next decade. City employees now contribute a higher percentage of their salary to pensions and split the additional costs of medical benefits, Russo said. But they also enjoy pay raises when the city’s revenues increase.