After 28 years of service that have seen the city of Tustin more than double in population, City Manager Bill Huston will officially retire July 17.
I had a question-and-answer session with Huston, and the veteran administrative chief gave me insights into the challenges of managing a growing city, as well as his views on recent Orange County Register Watchdog reports on city manager salaries.
Question: When you started, Tustin was 30,000 residents. Now it’s about 75,000. How did managing the city change as the city grew?
Answer: Simplest way to put it is it became more complex over time. These days, it’s tough enough to manage a local government — in the context of growth, it’s always a challenge.
One of the big challenges is how do you finance growth and infrastructure and how do you maintain it.
In the case of building a new park, do we have sufficient funds to build it? Do we spend money on a park or replacement of a communications system? Those are all balancing decisions.
Q: With all the bickering at the dais in council meetings, do you ever sit there and think, “OK you guys can fight about whether the city should be a “Rule of Law City” or should support a Korea free trade agreement, but I have to wake up tomorrow morning and actually run this city?
A: If I told you what I truly was thinking, I’d probably be in big trouble. (Chuckles.)
Truthfully — from my perspective — if you’re going to be in this position, you have to respect the institution. You work in a democracy. I’ve always chuckled over the last few years when people say, “Hey, you’ve got to run this city like a business.”
Well if you really wanted to run it like a business, you wouldn’t have public meetings.
You have to accept the fact that there are parts of the business when people kind of shake their head. They’re elected officials; they’re going to state their views. But from a personal viewpoint, I try to stay out of it.
If you can’t handle it — you’re in the wrong business.
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge managing the city of Tustin?
A: Balancing of all the competing interests that occur — all the air quality issues, water quality, court cases — it’s just a real challenge to try and keep focused on where do you want to go day-to-day and where do you want to go in the future.
How police officers do their job, whatever it may be, might change quite a bit.
We’ve been real fortunate to strike a balance between what we do in the long run and what we have to do every day to provide a service.
Good example is the Tustin legacy project. It’s a huge project, very complex, with a lot of components to it.
And every time you hear a siren, you kind of wonder what’s going on. Is the police officer doing a Code Three?
It’s not a job you put to bed when you go home.
Q: Has that balancing challenge been heightened with falling revenues over the last few years?
A: This cycle’s been the worst for me. We went through Prop. 13, the city adjusted, but the last one we’ve been through is the worst. That’s an example of you have to be nimble and adjust quickly. We’re fortunate because we have a good staff and a council that thinks long term — you get through it.
We’ve been fortunate not to make any draconian cuts, but there are communities that are laying off cops and firemen — that’s unheard of.
Q: Has public safety always been the highest priority?
A: There’s the meat-and-potato kind of stuff: roads, infrastructure. But beyond that, it’s police and fire. Providing not just enough public safety but high-quality public safety is a priority.
The other side of the coin is — isn’t a good library or a recreation center, isn’t that important too? We have a youth center that provides important after-school services to kids that you don’t want to see end up in gangs.
We talk to police officers, and they understand that it helps them do their job.
Equally important, or an important consideration, is if you’re a community and you let your roads fall into disrepair — there’s a problem with that.
Q: Has a City Council ever reprimanded you for the purposes of its own political struggles?
A: That’s not an unusual part of city management — it happens — and in my case, no. It’s a pretty straightforward understanding. My job is to oversee the city government. At the end of the day, if things are going well — the old buck stops here.
Part of that is a mutually respectful relationship. Council sets policy — my job is to carry it out.
If a council member comes in and says, “Hey, I think you ought to maintain this street instead of that street,” my reaction would be, “Mind your own business.”
I’ve never been in a situation where council members have tried to undue my ability to do my job.
Q: With all the reports about city manager salaries in the Register lately — and accusations that city managers are overpaid — what’s your take?
A: Well, I think I’m biased. (Chuckles.) I think that compensation for city managers — it’s like any business, and it’s competitive. There’s a great deal of concern about baby boomers retiring — I’m one. You’re seeing a major drain of city managers retiring.
The big concern is — are there young people who are working their way into their profession? Amongst city managers who care about their profession is making sure there are trained, motivated people taking over the shift. It’s like any business — there’s a competition to take over.
City managers don’t expect to be paid a million dollars a year — if I wanted to get paid a million a year, I’d be CEO of GM or start my own business.
You’re a public figure; you’re a public employee. Your compensation can be printed. If you don’t like it, too bad. If you can’t take the heat, you’re in the wrong business.
Is there is a general issue that a city manager is overpaid? No. Are there some who are? Probably.
— ADAM ELMAHREK