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After leaving Richmond, Robert Bobb became a local-government superstar. Now he has some advice for River City.

First Step: No Indictments

After 11 years as Richmond's city manager, Robert C. Bobb moved to Oakland, Calif., where he took the same job in November 1997.

An ailing Oakland had just ditched its council-manager government — similar to Richmond's — for a strong-mayor government, which ended up putting the city's mayor and manager on equal footing, with both of them a step above city council.

So far, the reshuffling has worked. Civic and political observers are closely watching Oakland, which has solved community problems and in the last three years has recruited 300 new firms into the city and 10,000 jobs.

Bobb and Mayor Jerry Brown — California's former governor — are coming to Richmond to discuss how they turned Oakland around. They speak Thursday, March 29 for the closing program of the Jepson Leadership Forum: Views and Voices on the City, at the University of Richmond.

Last week, Style caught up with Bobb.

Let's talk about Oakland's system of government, the strong-mayor system, which our City Council doesn't even want to study. Do you think it would work in Richmond?


What would be the advantage for Richmond in adopting it?

I want to be careful in how I respond to that question, in that each community would have to have considerable amount of dialogue and conversation and debate ... to determine what structure is best. The council-manager form of government in Richmond has certainly served that community exceptionally well — since 1948, I believe, when former … Justice Lewis Powell chaired the charter commission back in Richmond. And so, from my standpoint, the council-manager form of government in that community is strong and well.

What Richmond lacks, of course, is having City Council members who are elected for a period longer than two years, because what happens, it does take some time for new council members to learn not only their job as policy makers, but also their roles and relationship between policy and administration.

In addition, there are tremendous advantages where I think Richmond is perhaps behind the times, and that is, having a mayor who is elected at large.

Whether or not you change from the council-manager to the mayor-council, it's clear to me that there are tremendous advantages to the community by having a mayor who is elected on an at-large basis.

What would they be?

Well, one of the advantages is that [when] the mayor speaks, it becomes very clear that the mayor is the political leader of the community — not answerable, as it were, to a city council. And it gives the office of the mayor the power to use the mayor's office as a bully pulpit, as it were, based on the mandates that he or she has been given through the election by a majority of the city's community. But having said that, it is absolutely clear that the mayor must work in a very collaborative relationship with the members of city council.

And also, I would imagine, with the city manager, like you and Jerry Brown have worked together.

Yes. I mean, the city manager provides, in our case — and it could be very different with a personality other than Jerry Brown — but in our case, we have a charter that gives the city manager tremendous power with regard to hiring matters, termination, discipline, contracting matters, etc.

You and Jerry Brown seem very different. How is it that you came to get along with him so well?

Our philosophy on what it takes to run good government is very similar. And our passion for improving the lives of individuals in communities — from the very poor to the most affluent — are very similar. And our passion to change the perception of Oakland, and to improve Oakland's city government, is very similar. And the fact that we both recognize that for Jerry's policies to be carried forward, that he needs a very strong administrative leadership. … To make both of those things work, we have to have a very close, working relationship with the Oakland City Council.

Do you have the types of council members there that we've seen here over the years — the Reva Trammells, the Sa'ad El-Amins, the Chuck Richardsons?

Well, we have a very strong city council. The president of our city council is an extremely tough politician. And we have members of the city council, some of whom come out of the Berkeley era of demonstration and community involvement and community service. An extremely smart, and well-educated city council. In the three years that I've been here, we've not had anyone on city council indicted for anything.

Our city council here operates much like a legislature does, because of the way we're structured, which is much different from Richmond. … Our meetings are on streaming video. I can watch a city council meeting from Hong Kong when I'm traveling abroad. We have very strong, open-meetings requirements here, and sunshine laws that are far more rigorous than was the case in Richmond.

Is there something that you would have accomplished in Richmond that you couldn't because of our system of government?

No. I think I had very good success on issues in Richmond. At the end of the day, the form of government does matter. However, what really matters is, whether or not there is the political will and courage to take on more difficult community matters and to move them forward in a collaborative relationship — not only among and between members of city council, but with the community itself.

Any advice for our current city manager?

Go to the gym every morning at 5:30. Make sure you have some way of taking care of your personal mental health, first. You can't take things too seriously. And never believe, at the end of the day, you're going to get a fair shake. And if you think you are, you've been lured to sleep, and anesthetized, by the political environment in which you're operating.

With all those rolling blackouts over there, would you like me to send you some batteries?

You know what, we're going to be so glad to be in Richmond because we wouldn't have any fear of rolling blackouts. That is really a concern. … It's really hard for people outside California to imagine, that on any given day, you can find yourself driving down the street with no traffic signals, in the middle of the day, or early evening, and seeing people trapped on escalators, or elevators. … But you know what? Despite the rolling blackouts people are still moving into California in droves.

Tickets are free to Robert C. Bobb and Jerry Brown's discussion of "The Oakland Experiment," on Thursday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m at the University of Richmond's Jepson Alumni Center. Call

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