Ten Years in, Performance of Richmond’s City Manager is Under Review
By: Sean Pyles, Radio Free Richmond
Richmond was a city in turmoil when Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay took his post. The city was facing a fiscal crisis, one of the highest crime rates in the country, and was in desperate need of a strong leader.
Ten years later Richmond is now in the middle of one of its most significant upswings in decades, an improvement many associate with Lindsay’s management. As Lindsay’s contract is up for renewal by City Council, the city managers’ supporters defend the mark he has left on the city — while critics question whether he should be allowed to keep his job.
“The blood was running,” says Mayor Tom Butt of the period during which Lindsay was brought on. “A lot of people got laid off.”
The city’s fiscal crisis led to the resignation of the city manager at the time, and the daunting task left in his wake led the interim replacement to quit after what Butt describes as a nervous breakdown.
Richmond, short on options and in desperate need of management, brought in Phil Batchelor, former Contra Costa County administrator known for fixing rough situations in municipal governments. It was Batchelor who recruited Lindsay, who was city manager of Orinda at the time.
“Bill had a good assignment as city manager of Orinda, but Orinda didn’t have nearly the challenge that Richmond had nor the opportunity that Richmond did,” Batchelor explains. And so he went to Lindsay under the guise of asking his counsel on who should fill the city manager position in Richmond, when what he truly wanted was to recruit Lindsay for the position.
“I drove him around the city, showed him the waterfront,” Batchelor explains. “I wanted him to envision what Richmond could become in the future, and what he could do in the future. I said, ‘If you consider what your legacy will be at the end of your life, and the opportunity you have in Richmond to make something better every day you’re there, I think you’ll see what need there is for you here.’”
Lindsay took the job in 2005 and under his watch the city has seen some of the greatest change of any city in the Bay Area.
One of his first moves was to hire new department heads across the board, and among his earliest hires was Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. Lindsay also oversaw the updating of the Richmond General Plan 2030, an overarching document that highlights city priorities for everything from land use, to transportation, to health and wellness.
Richmond’s unemployment rate is now at a 15-year low of 5.1 percent, its homicide rate is the lowest in three decades, and quality of life measurements from the National Citizen Survey show across many measurements that residents feel safer and more satisfied with life in Richmond than they have in years.
Mayor Butt associates many of these improvements with Lindsay’s management. “I think Bill has been a remarkable city manager,” Mayor Butt says. “If you look at the results from the National Citizen Survey, that pretty well tells the story.”
Richmond has experienced many drastic, measurable improvements in recent years. But for detractors of the city manager, all the good Lindsay has overseen doesn’t make up for the controversies that have broken out under his watch.
“Like most Richmond residents I was of the opinion that City Manager Bill Lindsay could walk on water,” says Richmond resident Charles Smith of the city manager’s early work turning around the city’s finances.
However, Lindsay’s management of his employees in light of recent scandals has disillusioned Smith. First it was Assistant City Manager Leslie Knight, who in 2013 misused city funds and operated a private business on city property, among other unethical activities. When Richmond’s Hacienda public housing complex made headlines in 2014 for conditions that were eventually deemed “uninhabitable” by Richmond Housing Authority Executive Director Tim Jones, Lindsay chose to keep Jones in his position, despite calls from the public that he be fired.
“This is perhaps one of the most egregious scandals to hit Richmond,” Smith says of the handling of the Hacienda. “For these reasons and others of lesser consequence I firmly believe Lindsay should be fired. He has made it clear that he is unwilling to fire corrupt and incredibly inept managers.”
Smith is hardly the only one dissatisfied with Lindsay’s work. Richmond developer Richard Poe recently submitted signatures for ballot measure to reduce the city manager’s salary, which at nearly $412,000 including benefits is more than double that of California Governor Jerry Brown, to $272,945 annually.
What some call poor management of employees, Batchelor sees as strategic coaching.
“The measure of a good manager is not just someone who can come in and fire someone. Anyone can do that, and it doesn’t take much finesse to do that,” Batchelor says. “The measure of a good manager is someone who can help people to grow and overcome their shortcomings.”
Lindsay helped bring Richmond back from the brink of bankruptcy when he first took his position, but his current fiscal management and the lack of a five-year plan for the city’s finances has drawn criticism from members of city council and the public alike.
Even so, Lindsay is regarded by his supporters as the best man for the job.
“I don’t think people understand how lucky we are to have Bill, and how hard it would be to replace him,” Mayor Butt says. “Some of the people that have complained about him just don’t understand how comparably great a city manager he is.”
With the city manager’s contract up for renewal by city council, the spotlight on his work thus far is especially bright, drawing forward both supporters and critics to voice their opinions.
“I don’t know if Bill wants to continue to stay on as City Manager,” Batchelor says, “but I think for every month the city has him, they will be well served.”