The retirement of Belmont’s city manager, and what comes with it

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The retirement of Belmont’s city manager, and what comes with it

Mayor Davina Hurt gives outgoing city manager Greg Scoles a proclamation honoring his years of service.

Mayor Davina Hurt gives outgoing city manager Greg Scoles a proclamation honoring his years of service.

City of Belmont

Mayor Davina Hurt gives outgoing city manager Greg Scoles a proclamation honoring his years of service.

City of Belmont

City of Belmont

Mayor Davina Hurt gives outgoing city manager Greg Scoles a proclamation honoring his years of service.

Sam Hosmer, Staff Ranter

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A few thoughts on the resignation of Greg Scoles from Belmont

Tuesday night, longtime and widely acclaimed Belmont city manager Greg Scoles attended his last council meeting, capping a 42-year career in public service.

Which is a shame, really. It isn’t often that a city manages to achieve such a fruitful and functional equilibrium of council and administration. Usually, one gets sick of the other long before they can grow old together in happy municipal matrimony: either the manager tires of the political hysteria of the council or the council tires of the manager’s idiosyncrasies and gives them the boot.

Scoles was hired by the council in March of 2010 after a period of iffy and inconstant leadership, meaning he’s been with the city for nine years. In city manager terms (Belmont especially), that verges on eternity.

Doug Kim, last year’s mayor and this year’s proto-rogue, said it best last night: “We get too much credit for what goes on up here.” Truer words have perhaps never been said. It’s the primary job of the city manager to cushion the city’s staff from political blows, supply the public administration know-how to lead the city staff (read: wrangle them into line), and prepare the concrete bureaucratic necessities to get things done. Even a good council deals in politics, politicking, and abstractions. Likewise, a good city manager deals in a level tenor and produces visible results. A better city manager does all this with a sense of humor. (Scoles is hilarious.)

Last night’s meeting was, as meetings in Belmont have been of late, a bit of a ride. Kim postponed his “personal remarks” until a future date. Charles Stone, who was mayor a couple years back and among other things spearheaded the affordable housing element of Firehouse Square (even if he uses a bit too much hair gel), used a five stages of grief analogy to illustrate just how much the Scoles’ retirement has left them reeling. Warren Lieberman, Belmont’s (endearingly, sometimes) absent-minded vice mayor, forgot that tonight was Scoles’ last meeting but laid the extemporaneous praise on thick. Cathy Wright — who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council in 2014, served until 2015, and was speaking as a member of the public — lauded his ability to navigate the Belmont City Council’s many personalities.

Even if Tuesday’s meeting was predictably quirky, the admiration in the room was palpable. Lieberman’s testimony was probably the most revealing, as he endured a stretch of mediocre city managers before the 2010 council — one which, it’s worth noting, was one much more given to bouts of dysfunction and bickering — selected Scoles from a crowded pool of applicants.

I’ve spent a pretty decent amount of time reading over old Belmont newspapers. It’s easy to see that Scoles is a catch. Until recently, the city had a nasty habit of firing its best leaders and hiring worse ones, with prior councils playing fast and loose with interims and short-term contracts. Between 1990 and 2010, when Scoles was hired, Belmont hired and fired more of them than I can count; in the last three decades, the next-longest manager was Jere Kersnar at four years, who was fired in the midst of a contentious fire authority skirmish with San Carlos that ultimately sent a former mayor of theirs to jail.

Two of the city managers who preceded Scoles were Jack Crist. He was first hired as an interim during a stretch in which the city burned through four city managers in three years, and was then re-hired out of retirement by a groveling council in 2006 probably because no subsequent interim was as friendly to their shenanigans. Crist is a good example of exactly what a city government wants to avoid with their top administrators, as he and the council had a friendly relationship in that it wasn’t directly adversarial, but it was also one in which the council had the power and went relatively unchallenged.

Which is where the remarkable style of Scoles becomes clear. He isn’t afraid to voice his trepidation when the council decides to overflow its governmental banks. He doesn’t appear to be any stranger to reigning in councilmembers who choose to become Rambos of the dais. But he does it with a healthy dose of humility and a great wardrobe of sweaters, and so the council doesn’t seem to hate him for it. That’s rare.

I mention that there’s another component to effective city management that goes beyond the leader’s relationship to the council. It seems, from my perspective, that once a good city manager reaches a friendly equilibrium with the council, they can actually start to do their job. (Which, of course, is the actual running of the city, even if the five messiahs of the housing panacea/five horsemen of the development apocalypse get all the praise/derision.) Scoles, though he will probably deny the lion’s share of the credit, almost single-handedly orchestrated a merger between the fire departments of San Mateo, Belmont, and Foster City, terminating the fallout from a nasty divorce with San Carlos.

In fact, I’m a bit concerned for the council once Scoles ditches us for his well-deserved retirement. Generally (and not within Belmont in particular), the dynamic between the manager and the council involves the council fielding inquiries and the manager answering the best approximate translation of their uninformed garble. Belmont is pretty solvent in that respect, and the council tends to be fairly together and well-informed, save for the odd tangent that goes off the rails. Last night contained a particularly obnoxious one involving reverse-angle parking spaces and a last minute hail-mary by Kim requesting housing where retail was previously slated, a move which Carlos De Melo, the development director, warned would require months of replanning.

Generally, on the rare occasion those tangents reach the city manager, Scoles is pretty good at disarming the council and defusing the tension. To be sure: the council is good and we’re lucky to have them. But Scoles is also very good at his job, and I worry about how much of the recent political goodwill and tranquility is due to his uniquely steady hand. Perhaps an irrational worry. He will be missed.

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