The City of Lomita is located in southern Los Angeles County and was incorporated in 1964. Ryan Smoot has led the City as city manager since March 2016. Smoot began his career in local government by volunteering in the Bellflower City Manager’s Office before later serving as assistant to the city manager and acting economic development director.
How would you describe the City of Lomita for those who are not familiar with the city?
When I mention the City of Lomita, the first thing people say is “Lomita? Where’s that? I’ve never heard of it.” I have learned that Lomitians embrace that question. Lomita is a small, close-knit community where people know each other and take care of each other. Once people find Lomita they usually stay here, and the same goes for our City organization as well – Once people come to work here, they figure out pretty quickly that they become part of Team Lomita. We’re a small organization that works hard to make sure our residents have the quality of life that they deserve. Our employees know each other well and know the community even better – we’re fortunate to have an inordinate number of employees who also happen to be residents. From the City Council to our part-time coaches, our employees look out for each other and work as a team. It really is a fantastic community and an even better place to work.
Where is your favorite place or space to visit in the City?
The City of Lomita sits at the base of the Palos Verdes hill, and our Water Production Facility sits at the southern border of the City, just up that hill. Because water is so important to our community, over the last few years we have started providing tours of the facility to our residents, and as part of that tour, we get to take them to the top of the City’s 5.3 Million gallon water reservoir where they can get a holistic view of the city and our surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a great place to get a spectacular view of the LA basin from Signal Hill all the way to the Hollywood sign. Those tours have been one of my favorite parts of my time in Lomita because there is nothing more rewarding than connecting people with the services we provide for them and helping them see the amount of care and professionalism that goes into something as basic as having safe, clean drinking water come from their taps.
Your local government career started as a volunteer in a City Manager’s Office. How did this experience facilitate a career in public service? What advice would you give to someone who is unsure about pursuing a career in local government?
My career path has been anything but ordinary, but I have been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to serve some great communities. My career in local government started somewhat by accident; at the time I was helping to care for my mother and needed flexibility in my scheduling but was also looking to put my talents and skills to good use. A good friend who worked for the City of Bellflower reached out to me and suggested I have a conversation with the City Manager about volunteering with the City. That connection turned into a pivotal moment in my career because it showed me the value that local government can provide to the community, but as importantly, it showed me the personal value a career in local government can have. When you do something for free and still want to do more of it, you realize what you’re doing is more valuable than the money it can provide as a career. That foundation has served me well, and I have had incredible mentors around me that have encouraged me and supported me in taking risks to build my career.
A career in local government is never going to make you rich, and while it is often frustrating and difficult, finding solutions to that difficulty is what makes it worthwhile. Certainly, an ambitious individual can be successful in any number of arenas, but local government touches so many facets of everyday life and always provides new and unique challenges just begging to be solved. Once you realize that you have an opportunity to directly shape and impact some of the most foundational aspects to improve people’s lives, all of the challenge and frustration become just a part of the process of improvement.
The City’s Lift Up Lomita campaign successfully connected and engaged the community during the beginning of the pandemic. Why is community engagement important to crisis management? How does the City plan on expanding its community outreach as pandemic restrictions are lifted?
The Lift Up Lomita campaign is a great example of what makes Lomita such a great community. The campaign started with a small group of our City employees that used money from their own pockets to quietly buy and deliver supplies to seniors and those in need in our community. Once the rest of our employees heard of what they were doing, the idea exploded and we partnered with our local stores to get basic supplies set aside and our City teams were able to deliver them out to those in need. As we asked our residents to send us their needs, we quickly realized that before we could find a way to meet them, another resident was already there ready to step up in ways we had never thought of, and we shifted to using our platforms to highlight stories of Lomita’s biggest strength – its innate calling to support each other in the hardest of times.
The pandemic forced us to rethink every aspect of what services we provide and how to connect our community, which forced us to step back and listen to our residents’ needs and find new ways to meet them. Keeping our residents informed and engaged with the City and their neighbors became a priority focus of our organization, and we’re already planning for the post-pandemic changes that we’ll see not just in Lomita, but across the local government spectrum. Instead of making residents come to us for information, we’ll continue to focus on meeting them where they are. Virtual and hybrid meetings, as an example, are not going anywhere. Allowing residents to participate in their government right from their homes in real-time has become the norm, and at least in Lomita, I expect we’ll be carrying that “meet people where they are” focus well into the future.
Lomita is working to upgrade its Cypress Water Production Facility with a new filtration system. Why is it important for the City to invest in the facility and have local access to water moving forward?
Like many communities, Lomita has recognized the importance of a safe, local source of drinking water. Since the City took the water system over from the County, the City has invested millions of dollars into upgrading and improving its ability to provide local water. The development of the Granular Activated Carbon project is something I am really proud to have helped bring to life. It’s a great example of the way local government is supposed to work. The project stems from direct input from our residents – they brought their concerns to the City – rather boisterously – and we developed a project to address those concerns and save the City money in the process. Investments into the City’s ability to meet its needs independently without relying on outside agencies or regions are critical to the future of the community and allow us to continue to serve our residents’ needs even in times of drought. As we go forward, we’ll continue looking to expand our ability to produce water locally and provide the resilience and redundancy our residents expect.
An ongoing priority for the City has been to develop and reimagine Lomita’s downtown area. What is the City’s vision for a revitalized downtown and how are you pursuing this vision?
When I came to Lomita, the first thing I noticed was the incredible potential of the Downtown area. Its walkable sidewalks, small businesses, public spaces and small-town feel all seemed untapped and ripe for new life. We have branded the downtown with “Small Town, Big Ideas” and we take that motto to heart. We’ve created an environment where our team can come up with what seem like crazy ideas, and our Council has given us the tools to make them happen. And we let business owners and developers do the same – bring us your crazy ideas, and let’s make them happen. Some work and some don’t, but ultimately everything that we do points us toward our long-term vision of a vibrant and inviting downtown core to be the heart of the Lomita community.
I believe in the power of the visual – letting people see what’s possible and then finding a way to make it happen. I love showing residents what an area of the downtown could look like, or what a project will be when it’s finished and being honest with them – we have no idea how we’re going to make it happen, but let’s make it happen. I think when they see us get excited about improving their community, they start to buy into it alongside us and the change starts to happen organically. Our next efforts will include bringing new events into the heart of Downtown – car shows, live music, recreation programs, maybe even a craft beer festival or barbeque contest! Whatever it is, Downtown Lomita is going places and we’re excited to see what our team can come up with.
What initiatives or programs are you focusing the City’s efforts on for the remainder of 2021? What are you hoping to accomplish this year?
2021 is already proving to be a busy year for us. Like everyone else, we’ll be focused on pulling ourselves out of the COVID-19 fog, but we really see it as an opportunity to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. There’s no denying that local government has been forced – and rightly so – to catch up with the rest of the modern world, and we’re embracing that. As a small City, we can shift, adjust or simply scrap programs and start over as we need to, and we’re taking the opportunity to do just that.
In 2021, and probably over the next few years, we’ll keep making investments into the City’s water and street infrastructure – my top priority is completing the GAC project at the Cypress Water Production Facility – but we’re also going to be trying new things. We’re investing in broadband infrastructure, creating business incentives for start-ups, partnering with our Chamber of Commerce on recovery projects, creating new ways to provide services without our residents ever having to come into City Hall and building up our organization to take on new and creative ideas. The City also has some challenging decisions to make in the near future around housing and development, revamping and modernizing our antiquated codes and creating an environment where businesses invest and succeed. The past year has shown us that we can make things happen when we are forced to, and we’re challenging ourselves to keep that change moving ahead. 2021 is going to be a good year to be in Lomita.
Has there been anything odd you’ve had to do that you didn’t anticipate being part of the city manager’s responsibilities?
When I started in Lomita, I was the youngest City Manager in LA County, and I expect one of the youngest in the State. I really had no idea what to expect, except that it was going to challenge me in ways I’d not even thought of. I thought I was ready for the unexpected, but I’ve learned that you can never be ready for everything – you just have to be ready to take on the challenge when it’s put in front of you. The City Manager’s role is hard to define, especially in small agencies. One day you’re presenting a multi-million dollar budget, and the next you’re replacing a light bulb. You’ve got to be willing to do it all but that’s also what makes it fulfilling. Doing something different every day lets me stay connected to the organization.
If there is one thing I underestimated coming into the job, it’s the importance of staying grounded. It’s easy to get separated from the day-to-day workings of the organization when you’re pulled in so many different directions. But taking the time to connect with every level of the organization, to individual members of the community, to contract service providers and realizing the people around you are human and are working toward the same goals helps keep the world in perspective. I’ve also found that I have to be OK with taking time to separate from the job. Devoting as much time to my family life as I do to my work life keeps me focused on why I do what I do instead of what I need to do next. It’s a tough balance, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work for a City Council that recognizes that and allows, even pushes us, to strike it well. If there was a place for someone as young as I was to take on the Manager’s role and grow into it, Lomita was the place to do it.
What is some advice you’d give to someone aspiring to be a city manager? What skills should they develop or expertise should they have?
Sometimes, I’d like to say my advice would be “reconsider…” but ultimately, despite all of the challenges, stress, and headaches, leading a local government organization, especially a small, close-knit one like Lomita, is a fantastic way to better the world around you. A mentor of mine has a painting on his office wall of a group of businessmen, all wearing matching suits and ties. All of the men are pointing their arms in one direction, and the last man is pointing a completely different way. That painting has always resonated with me – if I am doing the same thing everyone else is doing, I’m doing something wrong.
The best advice I could give is to not be afraid to take a different path than those around you. Too often in local government, we can get into a sort of “group-think” where we tell ourselves that everyone else is doing things this way, so we have to do the same. I’ve found that most often the best path forward is to be the one challenging that direction and charting a new path altogether. That’s how we drive ourselves forward and how we can create communities that stand out. No improvement has ever come from doing the same thing we did yesterday. Have the courage to seize an opportunity when it’s in front of you, and don’t look back.
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.