News, as of the morning of press day, is that Berkeley’s City Manager ( Weldon Rucker, known to almost everyone as Weldon) plans to retire in the very near future. This is not unexpected, since he admits to being in his early sixties, and is known to have had a few health problems in the past. It is, however, sure to be distressing news to Berkeley citizens who care about the health of the body politic.
Weldon succeeded one of the least beloved city managers in Berkeley’s recent past, a gum-chewing goateed whippersnapper from the Sun Belt who tried to shove through a general plan draft which, if he’d gotten away with it, would have caused Berkeley to look a lot more like Tucson. Weldon, on the other hand, is a real Berkeley kind of guy. He still lives on Dohr Street, historic home of Berkeley’s African American elite. He’s come up through the ranks in city government, making friends at every step because of his genuine and frequently expressed desire to understand all points of view and to do his best to turn problems into solutions. As Deputy City Manager, he usually handled the hard cases, when mouthy citizens were mad at the bureaucracy and not shy about expressing it. As City Manager, he answers his own office number a good part of the time, and he always returns email messages promptly. Last time I checked, even his home phone number was listed in the telephone book. A cordial personal style and unfailing good manners are not the only requirements for success as City Manager, but they go a long way toward making things work as well as possible when times are tough.
From now on, it looks like times in Berkeley are going to be even tougher. The city barely scraped through without a deficit in the last fiscal year, but current projections are looking at a potential deficit in the $4.7 million range. The new city manager will be saying “no” more often than “yes” to petitioners, it seems, and that won’t be much fun. He or she will certainly need brains, charm, patience and a thick skin, all of which Weldon has demonstrated in his tenure in the job. What else is needed might turn out to be Aladdin’s lamp, since it looks like more than one genie might be required to balance the budget next year. And the year after will probably be even worse.
Many callers among the sizable number who called the Daily Planet to tell us about Weldon’s retirement expressed the earnest hope that his replacement would be someone who knows and understands the city as well as he does. They were decidedly unenthusiastic about the traditional national search for someone who wants to leave some other city somewhere for some reason, a methodology which had some notable failures in the nineties, both for the city of Berkeley and for the Berkeley Unified School District. The Chamber of Commerce is about to launch a “Shop Local” campaign. We should take their advice, and shop Berkeley first in the search for a new city manager.
Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.