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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 4:57 pm | Fair 72º


Jim Armstrong Proud of Continuity as He Retires After 13 Years as City Administrator

Official credited with steady leadership through recession, fiscal shortfalls, political changes and the day-to-day challenges of running Santa Barbara

Retiring Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong points with pride to his 13-year record of balancing the wants and needs of elected offiicials and the community — especially downtown. “We have one of the most successful downtowns in California, if not America,” he says. “We’re the envy of every city in the state that I talk to.”
Retiring Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong points with pride to his 13-year record of balancing the wants and needs of elected offiicials and the community — especially downtown. “We have one of the most successful downtowns in California, if not America,” he says. “We’re the envy of every city in the state that I talk to.”  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

In a week Jim Armstrong will trade one Riviera for another when he boards an airplane headed for the south of France and says goodbye to Santa Barbara, the city he has run since 2001.

He’ll come back after a three-week vacation with his wife, Linda, but when he returns he’ll be on the outside looking in, no longer the city’s top administrator. Armstrong, the straight-shooting, fiscally conservative man of few words, is about to retire from City Hall.

While most city managers last about six years in the position, in his 13 years Armstrong has weathered the Great Recession, the liberal-to-conservative-back-to-liberal City Council political shift, and major turnover within municipal departments.

A cyclist, runner and avid pilot with an airplane at the Santa Barbara Airport, Armstrong has come to know Santa Barbara from top-to-bottom, from inside of City Hall to the downtown streets and from the air above.

Armstrong arrived from Fullerton to succeed retiring City Administrator Sandra Tripp-Jones and immediately found himself facing a myriad of challenges. A jury awarded two female police officers a combined $3.2 million in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Police Department, although the amount later was reduced. A 15-year-old girl drowned in a city pool. And Armstrong took on a task that would eventually define his tenure: cutting the city’s $170 million budget, which in 2002 projected a $4.8 million shortfall.

“What he did in terms of the financial organization during the Great Recession has to go down as masterful,” said Dave Davis, executive director of the Community Environmental Council and a former longtime city community development director.

“He came out of a very dark, dark, financially challenging time to a place where the city is probably stronger now than when we went into the Great Recession.”

When Armstrong was hired he was heralded as a straight talker who knew how to manage money. During his first year, he set the tone inside City Hall, ordering department heads to cut their budgets by 2.6 percent.

He also introduced a “P3” program of performance measurements that linked department to goals. If departments achieved the goals they identified for themselves annually, Armstrong would reward those managers with more money. The program forced department heads to scrutinize their activities, and take nothing for granted. Although performance measurements are common in the private sector, the concept is not often found in government.

“Jim stressed efficiency and looking for ways to do the job better,” said Paul Casey, the acting city administrator. “He instituted a performance management plan that allowed the organization to focus on the tasks that are most important, and then ask the question if there is a better way to do things more effectively or more efficiently.

“‘This is how we’ve always done it’ was never a satisfactory answer.”

Armstrong also zeroed in on public-employee unions in the area of pension contributions. The city had guaranteed that 9 percent of police officer salaries would go toward their pension plans, but Armstrong wanted them to pay more of the contribution.

Under his leadership in 2008, in the throes of the recession, the city was able to get public-safety employees to pay more into their pensions, and eventually commit to a 100 percent contribution.

“I give a lot of credit to his leadership working with all our bargaining units and senior management in creating a situation where we weathered the financial storm while still providing key services and without layoffs,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. 

Layoffs were never implemented but the city has fewer employees today than it had when Armstrong was hired. When somebody left, he often asked whether the position was needed, or if the job could be absorbed by existing employees.

Armstrong, who earned $230,000 annually, developed a reputation for being a tough budget cruncher, but also for his even hand in dealing with the city’s elected leaders. 

When Armstrong was hired, the late Harriet Miller was finishing up her last few months as mayor before handing the gavel to Marty Blum. Armstrong was there in 2003 when young liberals such as Schneider and now-Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, took office, giving the council a wide liberal dominance. But he was also there in 2007 when a new majority of moderates and conservatives emerged, led by Dale Francisco, followed by Michael Self and Frank Hotchkiss.

Armstrong was respected by the conservatives for his approach to fiscal matters, but also by the liberals for his ability to stay out  of the politics and leave the decision making to those who had been elected. 

“We went from where we were to the rise of the Franciscans and some division on the council and some split votes and that whole period of disruption, and frankly he worked very well to insulate his staff from some of the negative politics happening above,” Davis told Noozhawk.

“At the same time, he continued to be quite responsive to the changing nature of the community. He worked with Helene to bring civility to the council meetings.”

Davis said Armstrong could always be counted on to be “the grown-up in the room.” Council members trusted him, and he typically met one on one with them to discuss agenda items, helping to prepare them for the council meetings.

Whether it was support of a living-wage ordinance or increases in salaries and benefits for public-safety employees, Armstrong didn’t always like the council’s decisions, but he know ultimately that the final decisions weren’t his to make.

“He is the most politically savvy nonpolitical city administrator who I have every worked for,” said Marcelo Lopez, who began his career in Santa Barbara as Tripp-Jones’ assistant and advanced to assistant city administrator under Armstrong. “He never crossed roles with the City Council. He never played games with the City Council.

“He knew that his responsibility was to give the City Council the best recommendation possible and let the City Council make the political decision.”

Councilman Gregg Hart is in the unusual position of having been on the council when Armstrong was hired, taking an eight-year-break, and then returning to the council toward the end of his tenure.

“If you think about the way the council has evolved over the past 13 years when Jim was there, it has been pretty incredibly,” Hart said. “There was Rusty (Fairly) and Dan Secord, Helene Schneider, Roger Horton, Grant House, Das Williams, Dale Francisco — you could not have a more different group of policy makers. He’s incredibly savvy, but he doesn’t get involved, scrupulously so.”

In recent years, Armstrong has overseen another kind of transition, but one that has been less visible to the public. He has seen several of his top managers retire, from his right-hand man, Lopez, to City Attorney Steve Wiley, to airport director Karen Ramsdell and waterfront director John Bridley. Only Police Chief Cam Sanchez remains a department head from the time Armstrong was hired.

When asked to analyze himself, Armstrong told Noozhawk he’s proud of the continuity he was able to build over the years and his ability to thread differing perspectives from his council bosses along with the needs and desires of the community.

He said he appreciates the fact that employees and the employee unions agreed to concessions, and department heads made cuts to help rescue the municipality. Today, the city has a $277 million budget, and Armstrong believes it’s financially well-positioned for the future.

Armstrong is happy with how Santa Barbara has revitalized its downtown, reduced crime and emerged from the recession. He said he hopes the city continues to focus on its homeless troubles as well as on downtown investments that he says are possible even without the redevelopment agency.

“The homeless problem has probably been one of the most vexing issues I have had to deal with, just because we continue to hear from the Downtown Organization or merchants,” Armstrong said. “Whether it’s any worse than when I got here I don’t know, but it continues to be an area of concern.”

He said locals must remember that being homeless is not illegal, nor is asking people for money on State Street. Despite the homeless problem, Santa Barbara is doing well, he says.

“We can complain about the homeless problem, but just look at State Street not even in the summer, but the winter,” Armstrong said. “There are tons of people who come here to visit.

“Despite all the protestations from people, the vacancy rate on State Street is like 1 percent.”

Armstrong said it can be tempting for locals to emphasize every problem Santa Barbara has, but outsiders are impressed with how the city handles itself.

“We have one of the most successful downtowns in California, if not America,” he said. “We’re the envy of every city in the state that I talk to.”

So much so, that Armstrong, who loves to travel and could live anywhere in the world, is choosing to stay here in retirement. But only after he takes that last vacation.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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