California City Management Foundation’s Profiles in Management: Fairfield City Manager David Gassaway

CCMF LogoWhat inspired you to enter city management?

I always had an interest in government. I studied political science at San Diego State University and, after graduating, worked in the private sector for a few years. My first job out of college was in management in the private sector. I quickly learned I liked the aspects of leadership and solving problems but was not fulfilled. So, I decided to quit my job and pursue an MPA. At the time, I wasn’t sure what level of government I wanted to serve in, only that I wanted to serve. It was then I discovered the city management profession and something about it hit me—it just seemed to be a perfect fit. So without any experience, or really knowing anything about the profession, I decided I wanted to be a city manager.

How did you become a city manager?

Through a healthy balance of hard work and sheer luck. When I was an hourly employee just starting out in local government, the HR manager pulled me aside. She noticed I showed up early everyday at city hall and was still there most days when she left. The reality was that I would stic

k my hand up for any assignment I could, always filling my plate well beyond what could normally be accomplished in a standard 40 hour week. That hard work paid off for me through promotions that only exposed me to more and more opportunities.

As for the luck, I lucked out in having the best mentors anyone could ever ask for. All of my managers really took me under their wings and taught me about the job, the profession and the political awareness needed. Their mentorship unlocked doors for me, exposed me to exciting new projects and challenges and helped me to learn the ins and outs of the job. I’ve always assumed that my hard work and willingness to take on any assignment helped justify their risk in investing in me. There’s lots of people who work hard in this profession, so I was just lucky that I had managers that were also great mentors.

What do you enjoy the most about your role?

I most enjoy having the opportunity to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Local government historically has the highest approval rating of any level of government. That’s because we are most directly linked to the quality of people’s lives. And that’s a part of what originally inspired me; making a meaningful impact in society.

What role does a city manager play in local government, and how do you feel it differs from that of a councilmember or mayor?

I view the role of the city manager as twofold: one related to hard technical skills and one to soft skills. Through the soft skill side, I believe the manager acts as a community facilitator. We must understand the complexity of community issues, do our best to hear from the diversity of stakeholders and facilitate solutions. The technical skill side involves knowing the nuts and bolts of the service operations our organizations provide.

For the most part, it’s the technical skill side of the job that differs the most from the role of a council member or mayor. Usually, that’s not their background as part-time policy makers. Conversely, council members and mayors are much more in-tune with the soft skill side. They must identify issues in their community and work towards solutions, otherwise they’re likely out of their job. That’s where the role of the manager is similar. If the manager does not have the soft skills, they too are likely out of a job.

What does your typical day look like?

My typical day includes a lot of meetings. I try my best to give as much of my time as I can to my council members, my department heads, community members and any other staff that may need my attention. I usually start early with an hour or so of desk time and end late after the kids go to bed, sorting through emails.

What city project are you most proud of?

There are lots of projects I’m proud of! Anyone that gets me talking about our efforts to revitalize downtown Fairfield better have time on their hands. It’s one of those projects that my personal passion fits perfectly with the council’s vision, which makes it a legacy effort that few get to undertake in their careers. But I also have to give a shout out to our Fire Department. Recently, we agreed to contract out fire services to a small fire district that was struggling to keep open. The call for service volume we added is nominal, it improved service reliability to unincorporated areas surrounding our city and it offsets general fund costs. I challenged our Fire Chief to think entrepreneurially, and out of the gate, he delivered. I am certainly proud of that.

What are the greatest challenges facing city managers in the state today?

Three topics: homelessness, over-legislating by the state and a changing financial environment. Homelessness is pretty self-explanatory and is the crisis of this generation. The state is adopting legislation that impacts us, particularly on the housing front, faster than we can implement the changes. And the reduction of gasoline/sales tax revenue in an all-electric vehicle future, online sales tax distribution and fintech are upsetting our traditional revenue streams. Simultaneously, we’re inching closer to being social service providers, fighting to maintain local control and doing it with less revenue.

When and how do you interact with the residents of your city?

I try to attend as many community events as I can. I am a member of one of our Rotary Clubs, and make myself available to meet with folks upon request.

What is the role of a city manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?

City managers must be the sterling example of a moral and ethical public servant. Someone who dedicates themselves to deliver the most service possible with the resources we have. Someone who listens to the needs of our community and acts responsively. Someone who tells the truth, even when the truth is hard. And someone who epitomizes the definition of a servant leader willing to put service above themselves. If a manager can be ethical, dedicated, attentive, honest and selfless, they should have success in upholding the public’s trust.

2023-04-05T17:17:32-07:00April 4, 2023|Administration, Cities, Local Government, Public Information|

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