John Russo’s Exit Interview

Alameda’s city manager counts development progress at Alameda Point and smoothing over employee relations as his main achievements.


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“What we’ve done here is created a true partnership for good times and bad times,” he said. “That’s a very foundational change in the relationship that had sort of veered from ‘Let’s do whatever labor wants,’ to ‘Let’s go to war with the people who work for us.’”

On the horizon for Alameda, Russo said, is increasingly higher premiums from the state’s largest pension group, the California Public Employee Retirement System, or CalPERS, and greater demand in coming years for post-employee benefits, both of which he said the city is ready to confront. “Alameda has made tremendous strides that will be very important in the coming five to 10 years in dealing with the two big challenges the city faces,” he said. “We’re on a path culturally to being able to have those discussions about those bigger issues in a way that is very businesslike and partnership-based rather than a bunch of symbols and blame and nonsense.”

Despite the accomplishment, Alameda’s fiscally conservative residents, including many who favor pension reform, rarely view Russo as a crusader for their cause. Russo said he relied on the professional opinions of the city treasurer and auditor and “not those taking positions that are founded in emotion or ideology,” he said. “I don’t use Tea Party-type people as my litmus test of my success, not nationally, and not locally. When I was in Oakland, I used to say, ‘I’m sick and tired of people who are sick and tired.’ That path leads nowhere.”

Some of these same people were often outraged by Russo’s in-your-face style during public meetings over the years. “I make no apologies,” Russo said. Instead, he was defending his employees from unfair attacks from the public and, in some occasions, members of the City Council. “When you stand publicly and accuse good, professional people on my staff of being either stupid, lazy, or corrupt, I think you should expect an answer. If you want to play above the rim, then expect to be rejected from time to time.”

Regrets? Russo has had a few. “I’m wrong all the time,” he said. “I just try to be right consistently more often than I’m wrong.” Specifically, Russo said he overreached on Measure C, the 2012 sales tax increase to fund a disparate wish list of city projects. “I just kind of threw it all in together, saying if you’re going to go to the public to ask for money, it should be a meaningful set of projects,” Russo said. Furthermore, elected officials sought additional projects as a strategy for cobbling together the needed two-thirds majority for passage. A more single-minded approach may have been more successful, he said. “I regret that my judgment there wasn’t as good as it should have been. Then again, maybe it isn’t a regret, because the public just didn’t want it.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the reason for his leaving Alameda has nothing to do with Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer’s slow-growth stance for Alameda. Instead, he said, they quickly forged a good working relationship and keep in daily contact. “This is not about whether Trish and I get along. We get along fine. It’s a very friendly relationship. We don’t agree on everything, but it’s not my job to agree. My job is to implement the council’s direction.”

However, he acknowledged conflict exists among the new city council. “There are clearly issues between the mayor and other council members, and there’s dissension there. That’s politics, and it’s not for staff to talk about. They have to work that out amongst themselves whether I’m here or not,” he said. “But that’s not why I’m leaving.”

Before accepting the job of Alameda city manager, Russo and the-Mayor Marie Gilmore had a “personal pledge,” he said, that if he took the job, he would agree to stay for the duration of her tenure. “When she left office, that pledge was gone,” Russo said, and the opportunity in Riverside arose around the same time. Russo and his family already had plans to eventually move to Southern California upon the end of his time in Alameda, he said. “It just moved forward what the family’s plan was by a couple of years.”

Russo’s bump in pay starting in May as Riverside’s new city manager will definitely help the college fund of his twins who will both be attending college starting in the fall, he said. His $296,000 annual salary in Riverside, compared with his $215,000 base salary in Alameda, is basically the difference between taking out a loan for their education and paying for it himself, he said. “I paid my way through college, and I didn’t pay off my school loans until age 43,” said Russo. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be paying loans until I’m 80.”

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