Curiel started as a high school intern
Five city managers. Twenty-plus city councilmembers. A new mayor every year. Two city halls (plus a remodel). It’s been a long road for Healdsburg City Clerk Maria Curiel, since she started as a 16-year-old intern at Healdsburg City Hall in 1977.
Curiel has a sign on her desk. On the front — the public side — it has her name and title. On the back — an inside joke at city hall for years — the words: “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
It’s not that Curiel is controlling or mean. The phrase refers to her determined focus on keeping the city — and its elected officials — in adherence to laws and policies that govern procedure, voting and local elections.
Former Healdsburg City Council member Jason Liles, who is now chief of staff for State Senator Mike McGuire, remembers Curiel as his guide to city protocol: “From the first day I met Maria as a newbie city council candidate till today, Maria has been my absolute go-to person for everything at the city hall,” Liles said.
Curiel was a hesitant resident of the United States when her parents brought her here in 1975, at age 14. “My dad started in the bracero program — which brought workers to this country — in the 1940s. He worked for Syar Vineyards. He and my mom gradually brought us kids over. I was in the last group. I wanted to join my family, but I was happy in Mexico.”
Curiel started at Healdsburg High School not knowing a word of English, but two years later qualified for a migrant education program that placed her as an intern at Healdsburg City Hall. She spent afternoons after school filing, typing and other entry level tasks.
“There was no inventory of our filing system,” she recalled.
“Nobody knew how to find anything.”
She continued to work at city hall after school and summers until she graduated high school and stayed on when she started attending Santa Rosa Junior College. In 1985, Curiel took on the duties of city clerk, but there was a problem — she couldn’t be appointed city clerk without being a U.S. citizen, since only a citizen can fulfill the public officer role of administering the oath of office to elected officials.
By the following year (1986) Curiel had attained her citizenship and became the city clerk, a career that ends this week. Her last day in the office is Aug. 31.
What sort of changes has she seen in four decades? “Communication styles,” she offers as an example. “Now, everyone emails; you used to have to talk to someone in person if you wanted something done.”
She also worked through the city’s adoption of computer information systems and the construction of a new city hall (the former city hall was downtown, where Oakville Grocery is now).
Her favorite city councilmember? “Bob Haviland,” she said with a smile. “That council (in the 1980s) was so old-fashioned. Bob Haviland, Bob Rose, Ben Collins, Rita Schroeder — they were very protective of the city and of me. It was the good old days. I feel like the city and I grew up together.”
Curiel says the 1980s and 1990s were a time of change for Healdsburg. “We were focused on infrastructure, we were building a city. Now, we’re focused more on ‘nice to have’ needs.”
At the Aug. 20 city council meeting, Curiel received a proclamation from the city, along with another from the State of California.
State Senator Mike McGuire, who could not attend, sent his district director (and former Tribune editor) Kerrie Lindecker to present the framed state proclamation.
“Maria has always been the person you can go to for sound advice, information and she would never hesitate to break out the 2-by-4 to set us straight. She really has been the glue that kept it all together. The city operation won't be the same without Maria,” said McGuire (by email).
In the city proclamation, former council member Eric Ziedrich is quoted as saying: “What I appreciate most about Maria is she had answers ready before council members had developed their questions, regarding a myriad of subjects. She was amazing in her ability to maintain a professional, business-like composure when the average citizen or staff member would have popped a cork.”
Current councilmembers praised Curiel as well. “Over the years you’ve helped a lot of people,” said council member Shaun McCaffery.
“It can be very stressful up here and your presence is very calming. I’ll miss that,” said council member Joe Naujokas.
“You’ve been our rock,” said council member Leah Gold.
Healdsburg City Manager David Mickaelian added: “Maria really exemplifies public service. I cannot imagine coming into city hall and not seeing Maria. I will miss Maria’s innate ability of keeping me out of trouble.”
For her last public task as a city clerk, Curiel walked the council through a procedural item, a change in the local conflict of interest code for elected officials. She explained it in a steady, quiet voice and the matter was approved unanimously.
A new city clerk has been hired. Stephanie Williams was away hired from her job at the City of Santa Rosa, where she recently served as the deputy city clerk.
When asked why she is retiring, Curiel becomes emotional. “See what you made me do!” she said, blushing and dabbing at her mascara.
She isn’t sure about the next chapter in her life.
Curiel attained her bachelors degree in public administration in 2006, normally a stepping stone for advancement, but she has no immediate plans. “I want to go hiking and spend time in the garden,” she said. “I don’t have a plan right now.”