Incoming Healdsburg City Manager Jeff Kay didn’t start his career in the city manager world, but over the years has crafted the skill and a love for working with cities. Kay starts his new position in January and is excited to take the reins and to help the city navigate through the crossroads of affordable housing, development and community engagement.
After working in tech for a few years, Kay went to graduate school for urban and regional planning with a concentration in economic development in municipal operations. After graduate school, he moved to California and started work in consulting for governments.
“Through that, I did a ton of work for cities and counties mostly in California and I think probably through that experience ended up presenting in front of about two dozen different city councils around the state and it strengthened my interest in municipal operations,” Kay said.
Over the course of doing consulting work for two years, Kay grew more and more confident in his idea of working for one city, rather than working in consulting where you do work for one city for a few months and then move on to the next project.
“Things take a while in government and if you want to be able to see things through, the fruits of your labor, sometimes you need to be around for a while,” he said.
While the consulting career gave him years of valuable experience when a job opportunity came up with the city of San Leandro for economic development and finance management he couldn’t turn it down.
“That is what got me into local government. I’ve always been interested in cities and economies and how that works and how we can make governance and economic development more inclusive and fair,” Kay said.
During his time in San Leandro, Kay held several different positions including economic analyst, assistant city manager and city manager.
He said he didn’t go into government work with the intent of becoming a city manager, however, circumstances like experience and good timing led to his role as San Leandro city manager.
“Managing economic development was something I wanted to do and so I did that, it was job number three. So I did that for a few years and got to the point where I felt like I was doing a pretty good job and was enjoying it, but the opportunity to be assistant city manager came up at the time,” Kay said.
Getting to know Healdsburg
While Kay will be wrapping up business with his current role in San Leandro he’ll also be working on getting to know Healdsburg more, before his official start with the city on Jan. 1, 2021.
When the Healdsburg city manager position popped up Kay did some research on the city and spent time around town on the weekends on several occasions.
“I am going to be on the learning curve for a while, but I have been up there several times since first applying for the position,” Kay said. “I think being there and walking around and experiencing things is a good way to get to know a community and I’ve watched city council meetings, candidate forums and to learn much as I can remotely I’ve already begun that process.”
Under normal circumstances Kay would also work on meeting with community members and locals, however, the COVID-19 pandemic makes that a bit more difficult. Nevertheless, Kay said he wants to listen and learn and talk to people throughout the community rather than impose his own solutions for the city.
“Unfortunately I’ll probably be doing that with more Zoom and phone calls,” he said. “I intend the first few months to be a process of really listening and doing my best and asking lots of people who else I should be talking to.”
Looking towards the future of Healdsburg
Healdsburg is at the crossroads of several major topics including affordable housing, development, community outreach, connectivity, equality and a financial downturn and even though that list may be daunting for some to traverse through, Kay said he’s excited to be working for a city with a lot going on.
“There can be a perception in smaller cities that the mindset is ‘Don’t change anything,’ and I haven’t gotten that at all. People are protective of all of the great things about Healdsburg and I understand that but I see a lot of exciting changes coming and I see a willingness to tackle a housing problem and that appeals to me and is important work and something I am eager to work on,” Kay said. “I see some other projects coming down the shoot (development projects) and the other kind of big change is I see a city that is really trying to make good strides to be a more inclusive government and to bring more people into the fold as part of the process.”
For Kay, communication and public outreachare equally important, and over in San Leandro council items and packets and other city materials are often translated into three different languages depending on the topic.
San Leandro is a diverse community and its residents speak over a dozen different languages from English to Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese and others.
For this reason, Kay has lots of experience in working to improve outreach to reach out to more people.
“When you translate materials it’s only as good as when you can get it to the people and if they can benefit from it. Translation is important but it's not the entirety of the challenge. You’re really talking about something bigger when you’re talking about reaching more people and how they can get feedback back to us ” Kay said.
In terms of fostering that connection with the community and garnering feedback Kay said he’d look to continue what interim City Manager David Kiff has been doing as much as possible. Kiff has been posting regular updates to the city’s social media pages as well as continuing the tradition of the city manager update newsletter.
Kay, who looked at the outreach the city did during the Walbridge Fire, said he thinks the city has a good communication team who are doing good work so far to keep folks informed.
“I don’t think I need to come in and reinvent the wheel, but I think I need to continue supporting them with the resources and support they need,” he said.