Big, Bashful Rucker
There’s a story about Berkeley’s new city manager Weldon Rucker floating around City Hall. Once upon a time, when Rucker was still deputy manager, word came to him that a longtime city employee was slacking off on the job. The slacker would show up for work, clock in, and then walk across the street to the YMCA, where he would enjoy the pleasures of the sauna, hot tub, and steam room for a couple of hours. When Rucker heard about this, he didn’t dress down the employee or dock his pay. He merely came to work early one morning, strolled across the street, wrapped a towel around his waist, and took a nice long sweat in the sauna. When the employee came in and started reading his paper, it wasn’t long before his eyes crept above the headlines and fastened on his boss. The trips to the Y ended the next day.When I asked Rucker about this anecdote, he chuckled and demurred, displaying the circumspect manner that has kept him from assembling a critical mass of enemies in his thirty years as a city employee. “I don’t recall that story particularly, but who knows?” he says. “I’m at the Y every morning. Sometimes I get assigned credit–and blame–for things I don’t do.” Under any other circumstances, this capacity to avoid ruffling the feathers of powerful people would not, perhaps, be so all-important, but it may be the perfect fit for a city that already has more than its share of squabbling. And whether that story is true or not, it illustrates Rucker’s management style perfectly. Up and down the corridors of government, Rucker is described as the kind of guy who knows how to bang on the city’s engine block for a while and get the thing to turn over again. He has an intimacy and a fluency with the culture of City Hall that is born of thirty years of toil. Rucker massages, rather than manages.
Which is good, because most of the city’s biggest problems are not ones that can be solved with bold action. They are problems that beset most small cities in urban California, and there’s very little anyone can do to solve them: Forty years of gentrification. The projected additional enrollment of 4,000 new UC Berkeley students. The energy crisis. Projected cuts in federal programs. The economy. Since there’s only so much we can do about these problems, perhaps we need the sedate influence of Weldon Rucker, to help us accept the things we cannot change.
When Rucker first took the gig as permanent city manager, some politicos whispered that he was planning to radically restructure the Department of Public Works, and that director Rene Cardinaux–a Keene appointee who, unlike Rucker, didn’t move up from the ranks–was going to be on the outs. The reality is a little more mundane; so far, Rucker’s top priority has been to improve interdepartmental coordination, and to that end he has set up meetings twice a month with city employee union leaders and department heads. Rucker’s biggest initiative is his “Neighborhood Service Liaison” program, which is modeled after the community policing model and designed to field any neighborhood complaint and line up the departments responsible for fixing it. There once was a time when if your street had a blight problem, you had to call one department to demand black tops for the streets, another department to complain about illegal dumping, and yet another department to crack down on absentee landlords who let their properties go to hell. Under Rucker’s new system, a single neighborhood service liaison officer is responsible for fielding all these calls and coordinating overlaps in jurisdiction. The officer works like an ombudsman, taking problems as they come up and cracking the whip inside City Hall to get everyone focused on the same issue.
“The neighborhood liaison thing is just prioritizing our resources at the local level, so we can establish a relationship with people more intimately,” Rucker says. “Historically, we’ve allowed the community to come to us–you know, ‘Here’s a problem, now fix it.’ We’re trying to be so responsive that we address the problems before they actually become problems.”
Rucker stripped the city’s Office of Economic Development staff to fill half of his neighborhood service liaison office, which has crimped OED head Bill Lambert’s style; for the last six months, his office has had to slow down the South Berkeley facade improvement program and West Berkeley’s outreach programs for potential businesses. Former downtown business czar Michael Caplan is the West Berkeley neighborhood liaison officer, and OED’s former Adeline Street expert Tom Meyers got South Berkeley and downtown. Taj Johns, who used to run the police department’s anti-drug programs in the flatlands, now handles complaints about storm drains and fire safety for the North Berkeley hills, and Jennifer Yee is faced with the tough task of dealing with both the students of Telegraph and the residents of the Elmwood district.
So far, the neighborhood service program’s biggest challenges have been in the flats: illegal dumping and overgrown vegetation near Tenth Street; blight and noise complaints on Mabel street; drug dealing in West Berkeley. “[For the drugs,] we had to pull together a group of citizens and the [relevant] departments and pull togther a game,” Rucker says, “and that always gets dicey with the drugs. With this kind of citizen participation, you have some individuals who have relatives that are actually doing the dealing, and you have to be careful about what kind of information you can share so you resolve the situation without putting officers or even complaining neighbors in danger.”
Nothing Left to Fight over– Well, Almost
Most years, springtime would be crunch time for the city manager’s office, because the City Council would be gearing up to fight the battle of the budget. But this year, it looks like the council will only have about $150,000 to fight over. Since the progressive faction took over in 1996, an increasing number of programs have received more or less permanent funding, leaving the council with less and less wriggle room. Rucker will likely continue to recommend that programs such as the Housing Trust Fund receive their annual stipend.
In addition, the economy is taking its toll on the budget this year. Although Berkeley’s economy is making a relatively soft landing, thanks in part to the diversification of West Berkeley industries as mandated by the West Berkeley Plan, the city has been hurt by a decline in the number of businesses and properties that are changing hands. Fewer property transfers mean less revenue from the property transfer tax, and that means the budget is lighter than it’s been in a couple of years.
The odds are that the City Council will use what little discretionary money it has to fund youth programs, replacing the federal funding that recently dried up. “The only way to have any significant discussion beyond [$150,000] is if we start talking about what we’re going to cut,” says City Councilmember Dona Spring. “My assumption is that this year, we’re going to go along with the city manager’s budget, which is quite different from as long as I’ve been on the council.”
But though Rucker’s easygoing nature may help us ride out problems that are bigger than the city, there’s one area where he may be called upon to act: traffic and parking. As the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre facility, the Aurora Theater, the Gaia Building, and other arts institutions open for business, downtown parking will be a bigger headache than ever, and the fight over whether to build a multi-story parking garage at the corner of Oxford and Kittredge is just beginning. It will no doubt be an epic battle pitting Mayor Shirley Dean and the Downtown Berkeley Association against City Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, with Rucker caught in the middle. But he’s seen the tumultuous times come and go, and he’s still here.
“Berkeley’s a very deceptive place, and it can lull you,” Rucker says. “[City staffers] coming in think it’s just an old city that’s built out, but it’s full of very intelligent people, and democracy is practiced by everyone. You have to respect citizen participation; it takes you a while to get used to it, to pick up on the nuances that can get you in hot water if you’re not careful.”