Novato City Manager Michael Frank has been at his post since mid-May and already he has taken a pay cut – voluntarily.

In fact, Frank, who replaced the interim city manager who vacated the post after one year, volunteered to join the city’s top administrators in taking a pay cut to help offset a $3 million budget deficit because he says it was the correct thing to do.

“I couldn’t ask my employees to make a sacrifice when I wasn’t taking a hit. Yes, I could have made an argument that I had just finished negotiating a difficult contract with Council … and I made that argument a number of times in my head … but in the end it didn’t feel right,” he says.

In other words, it was his idea and no one asked him to take a cut.

“After I arrived, Council had clearly given direction to the labor negotiators to get a 5 percent salary reduction from all employee groups with the exception of any public safety member on the street that would require overtime. They were to get a 2.5 percent salary reduction and the other employees in conjunction who were taking the 5 percent salary reduction were also taking a furlough for that period of time.”

Frank comes to Novato with 20 years of public management experience and has worked in some of the Bay Area’s top cities, including San Francisco, Palo Alto, Hayward, Fremont and Santa Rosa. He was the Administrative Services Director and Assistant City Manager for Santa Rosa, where he had supervisory responsibility over Finance and Financial Planning, Information Technology, General Services, Risk Management, and Emergency Preparedness.

Fast Forward

These days, Frank, 45, says he is enjoying his new role, but things have been hectic to say the least. He’s had to do a lot of reading and catching up on everything from technical issues about wetlands to learning about levees.

“It’s all fascinating but overwhelming and I am losing my assistant city manager shortly. Just the amount of information to process in order to make solid recommendations is a lot. Cities are complex organizations in communities made up of various individuals, interests, constituencies and histories. Add on top of that various Council member motivations and it is a wonder I haven’t made a huge blunder. Well, maybe I have and just don’t know it yet. It is energizing and fascinating though.”

Frank relocated to his new home in Novato about two weeks ago and he has been busy ever since he unpacked.

“Not unlike most cities, the biggest issue right now is fiscal stability. This needs to be our focus over the next year. Council, staff and the community need to work collaboratively to develop a level of revenues and expenditures that are sustainable into the future. There will not be one solution, but a host of difficult deficit reduction measures that no one is going to enjoy,” he says.

Besides catching up on his reading, and working on the budget, Frank says dealing with the tough economic climate has also been a challenge.

“We are refining a 5-Year Forecasting Tool to help us develop a financial sustainability strategy such that we are not in this budget crisis mode year-in and year-out. We are looking at reorganization, efficiencies, service reductions, new revenue and collaborations with neighboring agencies,” he says. 

Making Progress

When asked what were three examples of some of the ways the economy has affected the city he says: “The most obvious is less property and sales tax. This, in combination with other revenue reductions and State take-aways, is giving us a pounding. This has led to our budget deficit.  Development has come to a grinding halt. The bright side is that in those areas where we have had to bid out construction contracts we are getting a lot for the public’s tax dollars.”

In addition, Novato is also struggling with what it means to maintain a small town character when it has grown to be a mid-size city of 54,000 people.

“We are going through our general planning process now, doing visioning and having discussions about our downtown,” he says. “In a lot of ways, downtown feels like a small town, and half the community is open space with the hills being protected. We have the rural feel even though we are a city; we have a traditional old time Fourth of July parade each year. There are aspects that are very small town in nature and that people like, so it is not necessarily a pro-growth, no growth situation. There are some folks who don’t want any growth and believe that that will maintain the small town character and others who believe that it’s the people and community building that makes up the town character.”

To date, there have been some revitalization projects including the incoming of a Whole Foods grocery store and some condominiums.

“There has been some opposition and angst in the community about the scale of that project, but overall, people are excited about Whole Foods,” he says. “The community started as a ranching town and still has aspects of that with its original Italian families that are still here. We also have a lot of retired San Francisco police and firefighters in the community and newly located young families; so we have a mixed population.”

His Role

He says his job as CM is not to dictate or create what the vision is but “my hope is to have those discussion with the community in a community building way and in a constructive way as opposed to a divisive fashion. It’s not my way or the highway; but to help the community and council create a forum for those discussions.”

Another thing that he has been actively doing is reaching out to other local city managers and the like to get advice on the best way to serve the City of Novato.

“I’ve gotten tips around dealing with Council members individually, while at the same time, respecting the majority. As a CM, that’s what I am learning; I need to follow the majority of what Council wants but at the same time I want to please all Council members. In addition, I will have some of my own views on what I think is in the best interest of moving the city forward. It’s balancing, so that’s what the tips have been.  I want to make every Council member shine and look good. I try to be as open and honest as possible. I share my opinion freely but embrace Council direction once it is clear.”

But as for making Novato a better place, he is eager to make a difference.

“I’m not sure what ‘better’ means. It is already beautiful with rolling oak studded hills everywhere and extremely low crime. I hope to assist the organization to become the most efficient, effective and innovative city around. We won’t be able to do as much in the future due to fiscal constraints but what we take on we will be the best at it. For the community and Council, I hope to assist them figure out what ‘better’ means in a fashion that brings folks together.”