An in-depth look at the finalists for Lodi city manager: Blair King
News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Blair King, a finalist for city manager of Lodi, is an American success story with a vision for planning and open space issues.
Those who know him say he is focused, goal-oriented and a good communicator. One of the few spots on his record, though, involved a salary survey that some city officials say led to inflated city salaries -- a controversial issue in Lodi, as well.
King, 47, is among the three finalists for the Lodi city manager position, left vacant in August when former City Manager Dixon Flynn resigned to run for City Council.
King is currently earning $166,000 as the assistant city manager in Milpitas, where he has been for 31/2 years. In total, he has 10 years of city manager experience with three cities smaller than Lodi: Half Moon Bay, where he served from 1997-2001; Imperial Beach from 1993-96; and Soledad from 1991-93.
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Flynn's replacement could be chosen as soon as next week when the new council members interview the finalists. In addition to King, they include Brian Nakamura, currently the public works director in Riverside, and former Ventura City Manager Donna Landeros.
With his eldest child starting high school next year, King is looking to put down roots in a community he can give back to.
"That timing is partly driven by the ages of my children," he said.
"I have a window of opportunity … and Lodi appears to be the kind of community I can contribute to (professionally) and improve the quality of life for the residents."
He praised the size, location, family atmosphere of Lodi.
"I have lived in every community that I have worked in. I'm not looking to be a council member, a sixth vote on the council."
In his free time, he enjoys traveling, cooking, holding dinner parties, bicycling and running 10K races.
King, who has a master's degree in public administration from California State University, Fresno, is married with three daughters. He and his wife were born in South Korea, and they are both naturalized United States citizens.
After being adopted at age 31/2, he grew up in Madera and Mariposa counties, even working briefly in Washington, D.C.
"That's one reason I came into this profession … I wanted to contribute and give back to people," King said.
"I chose this profession because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. I think, if given the chance, I could do that in Lodi."
Today, he and his wife are active in international adoption issues, even serving on a variety of adoption boards.
"No matter how many times you hear his story, you get teary-eyed," said Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for the San Francisco office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. King has been the special guest speaker at an annual citizenship ceremony in Sacramento at least three times.
"He's a fabulous, fabulous person," said Susan Curda, officer in charge for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Sacramento.
"When we first had him come speak for us, we had never met him. We just knew he was an adoptee and was a great speaker.
"He got up and spoke to them, and he absolutely captivated them. He's a great person to work with. I think he would do wonderful in any position and would be a great person to work for."
Background in California
There is something King feels sets him apart from the other job candidates.
"One of the things that I point out to people is I have served my entire municipal management career in California," he said.
And, all that experience came after Proposition 13 was passed. The measure affected property tax allocation and forced cities to look elsewhere for funding.
"My challenges have been to maintain city services and understand how they pay for them with the least impact to the public."
King was also the assistant city manager in Coalinga, from 1988-91 and the assistant director of public works in Eureka from 1983-88. He cites land-use, public works and infrastructure as his strongest skills.
"I have more than 20 years of experience in municipal management in California. I consider myself a well-rounded generalist manager."
He has had experience creating open space along the California coast and foothills of the south Bay Area.
In Milpitas he has been working to keep the area's hills green. He's also been working on a plan to introduce more housing into retail projects.
"That is a concept in new urbanism," he said.
"What Lodi is trying to achieve is that hometown atmosphere, but one that can exist with jobs, housing and retail, yet maintain its own identity.
"You're trying to make sure you're creating a level playing field for those who are involved."
He likes to bring those parties into the planning process and allow them to speak directly to officials.
"People need to be able to present their concerns, and allow policy makers to make the best decisions."
For this, former Half Moon Bay mayor and council member Debbie Ruddock called King a visionary. "He can see down the road and help people see the consequences of policy making."
King also has experience with redevelopment agencies, an effort that was squelched in Lodi years ago. The agencies are created to improve rundown areas through a shift in tax allocations.
Attorney Steven Mattas worked with King in both Milpitas and Half Moon Bay, and said King is knowledgeable when it comes to redevelopment law.
"He's able to find more efficient ways to accomplish tasks that cities are involved in, and is willing to make suggestions.
"He's an innovative city manager. He brings a lot of creative thought and energy to the work that he does."
In Milpitas, as overseer of the 12th largest redevelopment agency in California, King created an amendment that added 691 acres to the project area and increased the tax increment level to $2.4 million.
"I understand they can be politically charged issues. People have concerns with imminent domain … I have worked with communities on how to use it as a tool," King said, adding that he has held public discussions to discuss the pros and cons of such a tool.
"If I was fortunate enough to come to Lodi, I would be willing to explore it, but I wouldn't force it."
And, when it comes to handling a budget deficit, King said he would explore what services are supported by sales and property taxes, and how to expand the city's tax base.
Productive tenure in Milpitas
The reason he left the top position in Half Moon Bay for Milpitas was simple.
"I have a plan, and part of that included showing a portfolio of experiences. I feel I have In order to do that, I needed to work in a city of comparable size," he said.
"I am an assistant city manager who wants to be city manager."
Milpitas, located in Santa Clara County, is slightly bigger than Lodi with a population of about 65,000. Its annual operating budget is $67 million.
Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves said the last two years have been productive for the city and King has had his hand in many of the redevelopment projects. Among those are a new City Hall, new library and downtown development plan.
"He also has been a huge support for other city staff. Whatever projects the employees have, they are able to get information from Blair. He is very knowledgeable in city government issues."
At community events, Esteves said Blair talks to the public and answers their questions about concerns.
"He's performing more than his position needs," he said. "If I had to hire a city manager, I would consider him."
When asked about areas where he could improve, King admitted sometimes he can be too "task-oriented" and not notice other things going on around him, such as someone in the office having a bad day.
"I feel like I am improving on that because I think of myself as a sensitive person."
Salary survey sparks reaction
While in Half Moon Bay, King oversaw a salary survey later called flawed by the council members who felt it inflated department head salaries. During labor negotiations, King explained, it became apparent that the employees were some of the lowest paid in the area -- but any adjustments had to wait until the city's revenue was increased.
Even so, after King left, Mayor Mike Ferreira publicly said the salaries were out of line for a city whose population is 11,000, the San Mateo County Times newspaper reported.
One department head, for example, received a 34 percent raise under King's survey, raising his $82,750 annual salary to $111,216.
But King maintains all the raises were granted after he left for Milpitas.
"That was a decision other people made. I wasn't part of it. I wasn't consulted about it," he said. "I only know what happened from what I read in the newspaper."
Ruddock said some people didn't think the salary survey was representative of what employees there should be paid.
"We are basically a satellite of Silicon Valley, so some felt the staff needed to be brought up. There may have been some squabbling about it, but I think it was the right thing to do," she said.
The survey issue may be pertinent, as some officials and residents feel a survey conducted of Lodi city salaries has led to escalation of pay here, as well.
While leading Half Moon Bay, King helped obtain nearly $1 million for a pedestrian trail, developed a skatepark and helped oversee the construction of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Ruddock counted as one of King's best characteristics as one of his most challenging.
"Overall, he did an outstanding job. Blair tends to be not just big picture, but detail-oriented. And, folks might have felt a bit micro-managed, but he got a lot done," she said.
"He got along very well with the community and the council. I had a very good relationship with him."
She described him as politically savvy and good at getting back to people.
Looking back on her year as mayor, Ruddock said whomever Blair works for needs to be clear on what information he or she wants from Blair.
"I feel he was a pretty good communicator, but sometimes there were conflicts with what I wanted to know and what he told me. You need to be straight about what you want to be kept up to date on."
The president/CEO of the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, which receives funding from the city similar to Lodi, said King turned the relationship with the city around in the four years he was there.
"When he came in he said he always worked well with chambers," said Charise McHugh, adding that he helped draft a cost-sharing contract and improve relationships with local businesses.
"Blair was the one who pointed out we could work out well together. I don't think, before that, (the city) really knew what the chamber could do for the city."
But McHugh has known King on a personal level, as well. They two met when King was 4; he was living near McHugh's family vacation home.
"We didn't really remember that until we met for the second time," McHugh joked.
She said, from her viewpoint, King worked well with department heads and the public.
"He was very hands on and was a strong city manager. He had a good head for what needed to be done and making priorities. I think he got along well with City Council."
McHugh said he also attended local events and chamber functions.
Mattas, too, said King gets along well with the community, the council and staff. "He's a pretty tireless worker. He can accomplish a lot for a community."
Contact reporter Jennifer Pearson Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.