Thursday, January 11, 2007

Vallejo's New City Manager Takes the Helm

Vallejo's New City Manager Takes the Helm
By J.M. Brown, Times-Herald staff writer

Joe Tanner stands outside 555 Santa Clara St., where he will be working, taking over the position of Vallejo city manager. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

Even before lunch, new city manager Joe Tanner had a pretty good idea of how tough a town Vallejo might be to run.

On his first day Monday, while touring the scene of a devastating restaurant and motel fire, the left leg of his navy blue suit met with an exposed nail, causing an irreparable rip.

"I lost a suit in the line of duty," Tanner chuckled.

However symbolic, the moment reinforced what Tanner already knows about Vallejo. "It's the kind of city that separates the men from the boys," he said.

There are high hopes that Tanner will stabilize City Hall following three controversial managers - one who sparked a defamation lawsuit, a second who was ousted by the council, and a third who chose budget cuts over contract concessions to the politically mighty fire union.

But Tanner doesn't see the upheaval as his problem to overcome.

In an interview Monday, the 59-year-old Tanner said he did "not come to this city with an agenda" other than getting "this city on its financial feet."

"There are only 100 pennies in a dollar - you can't spend 110," he said.

But after only a day on the job, he's not sure yet exactly how to raise revenue or cut expenses. He did, however, weigh in on some of Vallejo's simmering controversies, which may provide some insight on how he'll run the show.

Tanner said he supported former interim city manager John Thompson's recommendation to cut police and fire department positions to shore up a projected $4 million deficit - which the council OK'd last month.

Thompson tried to reach a deal with fire union leader Kurt Henke, but it fell through because a council majority did not want to extend a public safety contract they felt the city could already ill afford.

Although Tanner said he did not "have an opinion on extending the contract," he said, "I think what John Thompson did and what the council approved was a step in the right direction."

With a council defined by two camps - critics and supporters of the firefighter union - and citizens divided over Wal-Mart plans and other development projects, Tanner said he is not choosing sides yet.

While the contract talks are over for now, Tanner said he has the stripes to handle future labor deals.

During 30 years of managing five other Northern California cities, Tanner said he faced a public safety strike and a "blue flu," when the police force called in sick to protest labor disagreements.

"It was silly," he said. "We called in the county sheriff (to patrol the streets.) The cops were back to the table, and that was the end of that."

Still, "You never want to fight with employee groups," he said, comparing the battle to two brothers fighting. "You both end up with black eyes."

Tanner said he has a lot of experience creating revenue and cutting budgets.

He leveled 287 buildings to spark the successful redevelopment of downtown Pleasant Hill, and created special tax districts elsewhere to backfill city coffers.

With "smart-growth" proponents often bending the council's ear about redevelopment - some actually filing lawsuits - Tanner said his philosophy on growth can be summed up in one phrase: "If it doesn't make money for the city, it's not smart."

Does that mean he supports Wal-Mart's plan to build a Supercenter on Sonoma Boulevard, with the mega-company's promise that it will bring Vallejo a half-million dollars in revenue?

In some cities, Tanner said Wal-Mart has "come in and been horrible," but in other places, "it's been wonderful." Only future studies will determine whether the company's plan for Vallejo is right, he said.

Ultimately, he said, he will follow the council's guidance.

He understands that means sometimes pleasing a majority and upsetting a minority - battle lines that could change with November's mayoral and council election.

"If you ask me to dig a ditch, I'll say where and how deep as long as you've got the majority," Tanner said.

Even though the last full-time city manager, Roger Kemp, was ousted in a highly political showdown between two council camps, Tanner said he was not deterred from seeking Vallejo's top job.

Why not? Tanner rested his hand on his chin and pensively said, "I know Roger Kemp." He would not elaborate.

Kemp had been selected over Tanner and others when the last city manager vacancy was filled in 2004.

Before taking the Vallejo job two months ago, Tanner had retired from Pleasant Hill but re-entered the game to run Pacifica.

He won early kudos Monday from Vallejo Fire Chief Don Parker, who took Tanner on a tour of the burned-out Good Day Café - the scene on Sunday night of the city's worst fire in 16 months. Tanner met the diner's owner and expressed concern about six firefighters who were hurt in a separate blaze Saturday.

"It sure helps when the firefighters see the boss out there like that and being a real person," Parker said. "He wanted to have a close look."

The two had lunch at Dillon's Bread Company on Ryder Street before Tanner headed back to City Hall for staff meetings and a chat with Mayor Tony Intintoli Jr.

All in all, he said his first day "was a whirlwind." And he acknowledged that the ride has just begun.

E-mail J.M. Brown at or call 553-6834.

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