Q&A with Bellflower City Manager Jeffrey L. Stewart

City of BellflowerThe City of Bellflower is located in Southeast Los Angeles County and is home to more than 78,000 residents and 4,000 businesses. Jeffrey L. Stewart has led the City as city manager since 2011. With more than 30 years of administrative experience, Stewart has also served the Cities of Los Alamitos, El Segundo, Rosemead and West Covina. Hear from Stewart on his proudest accomplishments, what Bellflower is prioritizing post-pandemic and his advice for new city managers.

Jeffrey Stewart

Could you give us some background on the City of Bellflower for those not familiar with the City?

Bellflower was incorporated in August 1957 as a “Low Property Tax” city. It was one of several cities in Los Angeles County that incorporated during the late 1950s and early 1960s as a “no and low tax” cities taking advantage of the economic efficiencies of providing essential services through the “Lakewood Plan,” which gave rise to the “Contract City” model.  Today, that model currently serves more than 30 cities in Los Angeles County alone and more than 80 cities statewide. By the way, the term “Low Property Tax” city means that Bellflower receives only $6.66 cents from every property tax dollar collected. 

The contract system still stands in Bellflower and providing services as efficiently as possible is still the governing philosophy of the City Council and staff. Currently, the community exists as a mostly traditional suburb of 78,000 persons in Southeast Los Angeles County. We have a full-time staff of 82 professionals who take great pride in their community and in “doing more with less.”

Where is your favorite place in the City?

To anyone who knows me, that question is obvious – Bo’s Cigar Lounge on Bellflower Boulevard. In addition to liking cigars, Bo’s was the first economic development project on which I worked after arriving in 2012. Three years ago, Bo’s Cigar Lounge was listed as the top cigar lounge in California by the trade publication, “Cigars and Leisure.”  But, more importantly, it was a nice project to help put our burgeoning downtown on the map. 

You’ve been with the city for nine years. What are some of your proudest accomplishments as City Manager? What successful initiatives have you been able to implement?

The thing I’m most proud of is the change in attitude of our staff over the years. When I first arrived, there was a sense of pride, but it was borne of giving one’s best effort, regardless of the success earned. However, since then, we have successfully created an ambitious Economic Development Department that has developed a sense of “swagger” and creativity in light of several successful projects – mostly, in the downtown district of the City. That attitude has carried throughout the organization, most notably to the Planning and the Public Works Departments and even the Finance Department, whose staff no longer flinch (at least, as much) when I tell them I need a million dollars for some project or another.  I am very proud of the growth and leadership of Jim Della Longa, Economic Development director, and his driven staff in helping promote an attitude of success.

However, the initiative and project that I’ve found most rewarding is the creation of a program to interact effectively with our local homeless population and the construction of our fully staffed 50-bed temporary homeless shelter/navigation center, New Hope. I believe the project has been an extremely effective effort to manage the issue of homelessness in our community. I am proud of the City Council’s effort to lead the charge and effectively address a very difficult issue.  

What lessons have you learned over the course of your city manager career that has helped you lead Bellflower during the last especially-challenging year?

I’ve always believed that we manage best when forced to. The fact is that during the course of my career—which has spanned at least five economic recessions, the end of Redevelopment and the rise of a hostile legislature—I have always kept in mind that, ultimately, we would need to execute a contingency plan when times get difficult. I often speak of such possibilities with my staff even during “good” times – and, as a result, we tend not to be overwhelmed when it’s time to freshen the “doomsday” plans.

And, as one might suspect, a big part of such planning is not to go too crazy during boom times.  If we have an opportunity to spend discretionary funds, I generally recommend one-time public improvement expenses that add little to ongoing service costs. It may not be the most positive, popular or, even, a psychologically healthy approach for most. But, I feel that local government, in particular, is very susceptible to negative economic issues with very little notice.

In recent years, Bellflower has placed a priority on economic development. With the pandemic basically obliterating any economic opportunities for businesses, how has the City had to realign its economic development efforts to meet the need during the pandemic? 

Our response to the pandemic has been two-fold. First, we are seeking to “protect” the projects that we have opened over the past couple of years. Those efforts have ranged from creating an expanded palette of economic development grants to providing direct staff assistance in helping at least one restaurant develop an outdoor dining plan. In Bellflower, it is project by project, and all are important to us.

Second, in a more macro sense, we are working to develop a comprehensive view of what is appearing to be a post-retail marketplace in the post-pandemic era. For example, we are in the middle of a thorough economic analysis of the impact of higher density housing in traditionally commercially zoned sections of town. We are also in the nascent stages of revising our downtown development standards to allow micro-manufacturing uses. We certainly do not know for certain what the future holds. But, we do know that good decisions follow good data and good data analysis.

What initiatives or programs are you focusing the City’s efforts on going into 2021? What are you hoping to accomplish this year? 

  1. Develop a reliable method of funding current and future CalPERS obligations 
  2. Create a stable source of funding for homeless and shelter services
  3. Complete a revamped housing element that can be approved by the State DHS 
  4. Complete the effort to amend downtown zoning to allow micro-manufacturing uses and additional residential housing  
  5. Create a working environment that will help our employees recharge and re-engage after weathering the terrible isolation and economic impact of the pandemic

What was something odd you’ve had to do that you didn’t realize was part of the city manager job?

More than once, I’ve volunteered (read: press ganged) to sit in a dunk tank for a period of time while my “friends” in the community tried their best to ensure that I spent most of the afternoon in the tepid water below. It’s all good when it’s for charity, I suppose.

What is some advice you’d give to other City Managers or someone aspiring to be a City Manager?

There is no escaping that the job can be a grind occasionally. I’ve found four things that helped to restore balance during those times:

  1. Don’t take it home and don’t take yourself too seriously. Your family won’t get the politics and they probably don’t think you are as big a deal as you think you are. Take heart in that.
  2. Develop a cadre of friends who are city managers.  Their perspectives are pure gold in crunch time.
  3. Remember, it isn’t brain surgery. Most solutions really are rooted in common sense. 
  4.  And, last, don’t panic if you get fired. I freaked out when I lost my job several years ago and it did me no good. In fact, the kids remember the time Dad was home as one of the best ever. Keep perspective and remember that if you work long enough in the profession, you will likely be unemployed at some point. If or when that time comes, you will also likely land in a better place.  I’ve lived it and seen it many times.

If you’re a city manager in California and are interested in being featured in a PublicCEO Q&A, please reach out to PublicCEO Editor Alexandra Applegate at alex[at]publicceo.com. 

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