Former city manager reflects on role in local government
When Greg Wellman showed up at City Hall meeting in Los Banos last summer, he was firmly convinced he wasn’t going to stay long.
Members of the Los Banos City Council were stuck in a difficult situation. Three weeks prior, they had fired their city manager in a split 3-2 decision. Heated debate and animosity were in the air. At one point, one resident asked out loud: “Who will you hire next? No qualified, right-minded person would want to take the job.”
But leaders, including the mayor, and a few community members found an answer. It was Wellman.
With more than 55 years of experience working in local government positions, Wellman is often sought out for his expertise. He retired as city manager of Atwater, but he previously served as the CEO of Merced County, and the director of this region’s Human Services Agency, among other posts held during a long career within county administration.
Even after retirement, his resume continued to expand with the development of his own consulting firm and stints in positions such as the general manager of the Keyes Water and Sanitation District, and as the interim city manager of Oakdale — where he was called to help pull the city back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Lately, the City of Los Banos has been in pretty good financial shape, but it still had its fair share of problems and controversy, not to mention a few top positions to fill.
During that meeting back in July, Wellman retreated to a quiet place and told himself: “You have been in this business for over 50 years. And this is the kind of conflict that you have put yourself in time, after time, after time.”
And then he asked himself: “Isn’t it time to do something else?”
Wellman was about ready to retreat, when he saw a name on the uniform of a public safety officer who was standing nearby. That man was Police Commander Ray Reyna, who was also serving as the acting fire chief.
Wellman recognized the name from many decades ago — when he worked as a supervising probation officer on the West Side of the county. He asked Reyna if he was related to someone who worked for the county years ago, and the young officer replied “Yes, my dad.”
Reyna took out a picture from his wallet, and the image showed a handsome Hispanic couple holding a young baby. “That’s me,” said Reyna, pointing to the infant.
Immediately, Wellman had a realization about the meaning of community, the passage of time, and his own role in life.
“It hit me really hard at that point,” Wellman recalled during a recent interview with the Times. “I’m not a very emotional person. I try not to be. I try to be very analytical. But it came to my mind: ‘You are being pretty darn selfish. Here you are worried about yourself, and what you are going to have to put up with, but you have people over here who are calling you, and saying we have a serious situation and we need your help …. and you are not willing to stay and talk to them?’”
After this short, internal conversation, Wellman stayed put, and was eventually invited into a closed session with the council, and they struck a deal. Due to his CalPERS retirement, Wellman was limited to working a total of 960 hours in this situation, and he ended up using up all of that time, serving Los Banos through December.
Wellman has been credited for helping to raise city staff salaries, including those of police officers and firefighters at a time when employment retention is a far-reaching issue. He also helped fill positions in multiple city departments, and brought together stakeholders to develop plans for the city’s fresh water supply, its wastewater capacity, and its ability to manage floodwater during intense storms like the ones that pummeled this region in recent weeks.
“We got the city and the Public Works people together, along with the Grassland Water District, and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, and the Central California Irrigation District, and we got them all together at a Council meeting, got them introduced, and we started talking about things that we have in common, and things we might be able to do, where everyone comes out a winner.”
Wellman leaves Los Banos with a bright outlook, saying the city is poised for growth and new homes. He said developers such as Greg Hostetler are ready and willing to cooperate with the city to meet future demand.
When asked if he had learned anything new from his most recent leadership experience in Los Banos, Wellman replied: “I hope that I learned additional patience. … That has never, ever been a strong suit with me. And you have to understand, as a city manager, if you are there long enough, at one time or another, you are going to upset people. And regardless of what they tell you, or how many times you get patted on the back, with every decision you make (and this has been pretty well proven) about 20 percent of your audience will not agree with it. And so I want to feel like I maybe learned to listen a little bit more, and maybe learned a little more patience, and maybe learned a little more wisdom in bringing people together.”
Wellman said it’s important that residents of a city are made aware that anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent of the discretionary General Fund budget, depending on the size and characteristics of a city, goes to keeping people safe and healthy. That means critical funding police, fire and emergency services.
“When I walked into Oakdale, they had $12,000 in their General Fund. They could not make payroll. We had to talk to the police union, the fire people, and others about having them use what we call euphemistically ‘furlough days without pay’ until we could do some internal borrowing that was legally permissible and get people paid. … I had some excellent people working with me on that. I didn’t do it by myself. My job though was to deliver the message, and that was never easy.”
Your average resident doesn’t normally think about everything that goes into maintaining the average police officer, according to Wellman. He points out that there are regulations for shifts, overtime pay, and vacations. There are training and certification requirements. And time-spent-in-court costs that are often underestimated. And on top of all that, officers often get hurt on the job, pursuing and arresting law breakers. Bones break, backs ache, spines suffer. There’s sick leave, and workers comp.
“Your chief of police, or their assistant must watch the money,” the former city manager said.
The biggest misconception that people may have of a city manager, according to Wellman, is the idea that he or she is some kind of bureaucrat.
“Any time you are a department head or a city manager, there is no hiding in Sacramento. There is no hiding out in Washington, D.C. … When you make a mistake, it’s immediate knowledge. You get whacked upside the head by reality. When you do something good, sometimes people will share it with you, but you got 20 things going at all times. I’ve heard it described kinda like a jet pilot. I felt this at the county for years, and years, and years. If you get fixated on any single issue, you are going to crash and burn. So you got to keep moving. If you stand still, you crash and burn.
“You have to keep your fingers on the pulse of many different projects. Keep them going, and those that need to get resolved, resolve them. Now the tricky part is when you have your bosses to please — and they are the elected officials, not you. They can tell you to hit the door at any time, as it should be. You should work at-will. But by the same token, a smart city manager will protect their family by some kind of a contract that includes a severance package.”
Wellman — who is in his mid-70s — continues to get calls from cities and special districts. Recently, during lunch with a friend, he found it hard to believe that he received three phone calls within a one-hour period. They were all from cities, with a couple being job offers. However, he does mention that he does a considerable amount of pro bono work for local governments.
When asked about what potential city managers look for in a job opportunity, Wellman said: “The first thing you have to have is some level of political stability. You got to have a majority of the council willing and able to work together. Everybody is watching. The TV is watching. The news is watching. Certainly, the labor organizations are watching. Word of mouth in a city is critical.”
Wellman adds: “City managers can be very naive and they don’t protect themselves. The three major things a city manager says when he or she is fired: ‘I never saw it coming … I never saw it coming … I never saw it coming. … They often have a mindset that I think you will find in the military where ‘It doesn’t matter because we are going to achieve the objective whatever the cost.’ A lot of city managers are that way. They don’t even think about protecting themselves or their families, and then they get into an untenable political situation.”
On Dec. 13, 2022, the Los Banos City Council voted to appoint the city’s Community and Economic Development Director Stacy Souza Elms as the new interim city manager.
Greg Wellman and his wife Kathy continue to live in north Merced.