Incoming City Manager Bob Russi Chats with La Verne Online

July 18, 2010
Share this story:

 Mr. Lomeli, who has worked for the City of La Verne for 30 years, including the last 23 as city manager, announced his retirement to the council in a letter in early July. As one of the longest tenured city managers in the San Gabriel area, Mr. Lomeli earned an annual salary of about $195,000. Mr. Russi’s salary remains to be negotiated. In a cost-saving measure, his assistant city manager position will not be filled.

New campus center on the University of La Verne campus.

New campus center on the University of La Verne campus, photo of Bob Russi to be posted after Monday City Council meeting.

On a unanimous 5-0 vote by the La Verne City Council, Bob Russi, 44, was named to succeed Martin Lomeli as city manager in early August. Mr. Russi, who has been the assistant to the city manager and then assistant city manager in La Verne since March 2001, came to the city from Walnut where he came up through that city’s Parks and Recreation Department before moving into the city manager’s department for the majority of his tenure there. Mr. Russi lives in Upland with his wife Tina and his daughters, Jessica, 16, and Amanda, 12. He is a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona.


Mr. Russi graciously granted an interview last week. That interview follows:

Congratulations. I know Marty has been grooming you for the city manager’s role for almost a decade. What have been your primary responsibilities these past 10 years?

I have been responsible for the operational side of things. I handle a lot of our labor details — personnel, risk management, all the day-to-day stuff out of the administration department. The manager role obviously has a more long-range focus, working with all the department heads and their goals and interfacing with the council. I did have the ability to work in those capacities from time to time, but certainly my role was more of the day to day stuff.

So you were more like a corporate COO instead of a CEO?

Yes, right. I’ll still be doing some of that because the plan is not to backfill my position, mostly for cost-saving measures at this point. We’re going to look to the other departments to pick up some extra assignments and juggle some things around for the near term.

How involved were you in preparing this last budget?

I have been getting progressively more involved with the budgets over the last three or four years with regard to the overall citywide budget. Of course, I have my operational area through the general government budget and the clerk’s budget and the like, but I was more involved in the overall budget of each department. Each department is responsible for developing their budget, and then there’s a manager review of each of those budgets to kind of determine, okay, here’s what your requests are, but here’s kind of what we can really afford to do. So, we needed to work within those confines — what’s the best way to get there and what’s the best way to do it? I took a more active role in that.

Were you looking to slash budgets across the board by 10 percent?

That was the goal. But from there we had to look and see what we could reasonably do without starting to affect services. Marty pointed out in his budget message there were really three goals: minimize the impact on services, minimize the loss of existing staff, and try to share any cuts amongst all departments equitably. Obviously, that meant the police department, having the largest budget, as one of the stories ran, took the biggest hit, relative to their budget. But I think in relation to what cuts we had to make, it was pretty proportionate.

What cuts were made specific to the police department?

Well, there were a couple of officer positions that were vacant and budgeted for that they weren’t going to fill, so they lost those positions. Two full-time police captains went to two part-time positions. Those were the most significant. There was the loss of a police clerk position. That was an actual body that we were able to transfer to a vacant position at City Hall, so nobody got laid off in that regard. And then in some other cuts, they lost their air support contract. Now they go through the county versus going through the JPA (Joint Powers Agreement) we were a part of. So a lot of adjustments like that were made throughout the budget, but the significant ones were obviously the captains and the officer positions.

I was never a big fan of helicopters flying over head all the time. It made me feel as if we lived in some urban jungle, but you say we’ll still have some service.

We’ll have it now on a request basis, strictly. If we have an issue, we can call the county. That was the case before. When we went to the FAST (Foothill Air Support Team) program that was Pasadena air support and they would just provide periodic patrol, but then they would also be right on call for the immediate stuff. We might fall a little further down the priority list is all it means by going with the county.

What’s it been like to apprentice with Marty all these years?

I can’t even describe … it’s been an amazing opportunity. I’ve learned more from him, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level, more than I ever imagined learning from an individual. I’ve been fortunate to have a good group of mentors all through my career, but certainly working with Marty has taught me some insights into just how to make government even more accessible even at the local level — being very upfront and direct with individuals, being the face of the organization, how to be accessible to not only the residents but the staff and how to empower the department heads so they can then empower their staff to get the job done. You bring good people in and you let them do their job and it’s amazing what an organization can do. That’s what I’ve learned from Marty.

How big is the present payroll here for the city?

Our entire budget is over $40 million, when you throw in all the special funds and things like that. But the general fund, the operating budget, the one that we really track closely because those are the funds that are very limited, is about $22 million, $23 million, and I want to say conservatively 85% of that $23 million is payroll related.

How many employees do we have? Ultimately, they’ll all be reporting up to you.

We were up to at one point, 170. We’ve brought that down to the 150, 155, 160 range. It’s hard to predict because we had a couple of retirements that we’re not backfilling.

Let’s talk about some of the different departments and divisions that will be under your supervision. How are we doing with regard to the city’s water conservation goals?

In the last numbers I saw, we came out really strong. We have dropped a little bit, but we are getting conservation. We are not at the 10% (reduction goal); we’re probably in the six to seven range, so we’d like to see that improve. Obviously, we’re getting to the hotter months, and this is the time when it really becomes more difficult for people to conserve.

What are the means of persuasion or communication that the city uses if we’re not meeting our targets?

We try to get the message out through water bills, through the city website. We will review how successful the first year has been; it won’t be a one-year fix. This will be something that we need to do in future years as well. So we’ll look at some of the things we’ve done and see what was successful and then we’ll look at, okay how do we go forward to encourage more conservation, to go beyond that 10% if further restrictions are imposed?

I understand West Covina Nurseries is moving from its long time Wheeler location because the MWD wants to build an eight-acre solar plant on the site. What can you tell me about that?

I know they were proposing something and going through the process. I know they had put a notice out. Where it is at this point, I don’t know. They had gone through the discussion. They had the public meeting.  And I think they took those comments back (for review). We haven’t seen anything back from them yet as to what their plans are. I know they’d like to go forward because they’re seeing that as a big part of the energy to feed the operations in their plant and to become more energy efficient.

We have some influence over them, but we don’t have regulatory control over them, just like we really don’t over the school district if they’re taking actions within the bounds of their charter.

Do you get frustrated some times by the low turn-out at city council meetings? Would you like to see meetings televised? Or do you feel, because we’re regarded as a well-run city, there’s no compelling need for citizens to show up at city council meetings?

I think the public process is always good, engaging the community where there are issues that apply. You don’t want people filling up seats just for the sake of, gosh, we just feel we need to show up.

If there’s an issue, we’d like to know about it and address it. I think we do a good job of going out and getting that input when it needs to be there. Fire Station 3 is a perfect example. Before we built that, we went out and reached out to the community. We said, look, this is what we’re looking at, let’s get some sketches of what we’d like to do and get your input before we take it that next step and look at those types of things as opportunities for us to reach out to the community versus feeling like you have to come down here. We’re going to go there and try to engage you. So there are a number of ways to do that. I don’t think that coming to a council meeting is the most productive way some times to do that. I think it’s some of those smaller groups that go out and focus on the issues that are more effective.

Another example might be the recent vote by residents in the La Verne Heights area who voted down a proposed assessment to keep common areas green.

And they may still come back and say you know what, we want to revisit that issue. That was a very close vote. The 149 may come back and say you know we think we need this. So, if they want to pursue it, we’ll help them. We’ll give them the information and attend the meetings to communicate it, but they are going to have to at least take that on a little bit of their own.

How quickly could they turn that decision around?

A similar thing happened in Rancho. They have a group of three or four residents that have taken on the responsibility of trying to get it to another vote. I don’t think you want to turn it around that fast because you want to get out there — you want to communicate the message if you want to get the vote changed. You really need to do a good job of communicating to everybody. There were 500 notices (in La Verne) that went out and we received to 300 back. That was a pretty good turnout, but you want to get those other 200. So I would not encourage them to do a knee jerk. So let’s get an education campaign out where you’re walking door to door and talking to those residents. That would take a little more time to get a successful result.

How are we doing with our trash recycling efforts?

The goal is 50%. We may not hit the 50s but we’re right in the high 40s, 48, 49. We’re close to that state-mandated range. Even before it was a mandate, we were doing a voluntary program and we put in one of the first recycle programs in the area, so we’re very good about being environmentally conscious.

How active or activist should cities be regarding some of the leading issues that go beyond our borders, such as this year’s marijuana legalization initiative or the proposition to repeal the anti-air pollution act, AB 32. Is it important that La Verne make a stand?

With marijuana, you can see what the (Los Angeles) county is going through when they took an unregulated approach to it, and the crime issues that have followed it. (Los Angeles County Supervisor) Antonovich just kind of said, wait a minute, we need to fix it, so I think from that standpoint, that’s got a local impact. That’s got a significant local impact for law enforcement. Federal and state laws are in conflict, so until they come in line with one another, we are just going to choose not to do anything.

So there’s something on our books about keeping these dispensaries out of La Verne?

We have a moratorium. Since they’re in conflict with one another at this point– even for medicinal purposes – until that is worked out – we’re just choosing not to allow any dispensaries in town.

At first blush, it seems like a great tax generator, but in the wake of some of these recent murders at dispensaries, cities may be ill equipped to handle the increased crime these dispensaries will no doubt attract.

I’ve heard that argument that you can make it taxable and generate income off it. Okay, but is that a good thing? What are the long-term effects socially or medically for individuals? Just because we want to generate a tax I don’t know that that’s a good thing — that we should say, okay it’s good now. That gets into the social side of things but from a local standpoint, clearly the impact to your local law enforcement and the element that it brings into your town is probably something we want to be interested in (monitoring).

Addressing the greenhouse and the sustainability side, there are some good pieces to that, trying to encourage more of that. The timing of that seems to be difficult, considering everything has just come to a standstill for California as a whole. We want to do what we can to encourage development, and if we have all these restrictions in there, is that really helpful in getting that wheel turning again? In a moving economy, it probably is helpful, but in this time we just like to see development going on. If we have to put all these restrictions in place, is that a good thing?

As a city manager, do you try to influence your city council one way or the other?

What we’ve tried to do in La Verne is where regional issues have an impact and state issues have an impact on our residents, we will try and get involved or at least write letters of support for opposition. But we try not to go beyond that and get into issues because everybody has a different view within a community. But if it has a direct impact on our community, that’s when we need to get involved. Because that’s what we’re here for.

We have several groups, the League of California Cities and CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) that track these issues for us, and when there’s an issue that is of consequence or significance, we will get behind it. We will contact our state legislator or our representative, such as David Dreier. But we don’t want to overextend that I believe. You want to use that voice for the issues that really affect you and you have some influence to give input on.

So we’ll use the channels available to us, but you’re not going to call the Daily Bulletin tomorrow and say this where we stand on this particular issue.

You want to use that (communication channel) sparingly; otherwise you become noise.

Do we employ a lobbyist?

No. The only time we would do that is if there was ever a piece of legislation that we wanted to sponsor and we really needed to get it through. We’ve never had a situation like that that has come up. That would be the only time that you probably want to bring on a lobbyist in my mind to help you navigate through the bureaucracies.

What’s the daily M.O. for you and your department heads. Do you meet briefly at the start of the day to discuss the day’s pressing business or priorities?

No. We actually have a staff meeting coming up today. We do it once a week. We get together for an hour. We kind of talk over things. We talk about the next (city council) agenda, any pertinent issues that are relative to all. Outside of that, it is just day to day. If there are issues that come up and the police chief, or other staff or department head needs to talk to a manager or me — needs five minutes, needs 10 minutes — come on up and we’ll deal with it.

What’s the condition or quality of our streets? Are we managing to maintain them in this environment?

We are. In talking to Dan (Keesey), obviously his budget got cut back a little bit this year in that area like everybody else’s did. I think that means he is going to be focusing more on preservation than reconstruction. They do a good job every year of analyzing all the streets and grading them on A through D. Those that are in the lower range, they make plans to do some reconstruction. Obviously, this year there won’t be as much reconstruction. We did a lot of work last year with the federal money that we received as well as some of other funds that he had set aside, so he was able to leverage some of that and get some of the work done that he wanted to. So this next year, we’ll be busy, but just not as much reconstruction as just preserving.

So we received stimulus funds. Where did we apply those in the city?

One area was Golden Hills. That small section of Towne Center, believe it or not, was a portion of the stimulus as well. And we’re in the hopper for some other money for some energy retrofits to reduce energy costs in other areas.

Have we been able to maintain the majority of our parks and recreation programs? Also, is there anything new with regard to that the huge parcel of land the City sold off to the University below Arrow and just west of Wheeler?

We’ve extended the time frame for the University, given the current economics. We did keep two parcels there, the two northernmost parcels there for the city.

Is there still a plan to use one of those parcels to build a fire academy?

That’s in the discussion right now. That’s one of the things we’re still looking to Mt. SAC for and trying to pull something together to work with them on that.

What about the current recreation programs, such as the city leagues, etc.? Are they all still going forward?

Those are all intact. The only thing that was affected was rec swim. We had cut it down to Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but we had to cut it completely out of the budget this year. (During recreational swim, the public could use the pool at its leisure for a small charge of $2 or $3).

You couldn’t just raise the price a dollar or find some other alternative to keep it open?

It was close to losing $15,000 in a summer. There were about 500 kids in the summer using it, so you just couldn’t make it cost-effective. Unfortunately, you need to have the guards in the tower whether you have two kids or not in the pool.

So, we programmed the time to offer swim lessons and we filled those. Our swim lessons have always been popular. So we were able to reprogram the time so the pool is still being used; it’s just that we don’t have the rec swim piece.

Can we still afford our own fire and police departments. We often hear estimates, at least from other cities, that the sheriff’s can provide comparable services for less expense. At the same time, you always hear how much residents love our La Verne PD. It’s what makes the city unique.

Having your own police and fire is expensive. There is no doubt about. But it’s a priority of this community. It’s certainly something the city values and something that we see as being part of who we are in La Verne. There are other communities that contract that service out. We have neighbors who do that. That’s the level of service they feel is appropriate for their community. Maintaining our own police department has been our way of doing business. We just have to figure out how we make that more cost effective as we go forward.

Aren’t there some improvements being made right now to the police department.

It’s minor stuff. They did their major overhaul with federal grant money. We received $1.4 million, $1.3 million, from the federal government. David Dreier helped us to get those funds to do some technology improvements down there and we leveraged that with some other funds for some of the other major improvements we did. Now we’re going through and just making reuse of the space that we moved out of, especially communications and such, and then redoing the lobby. The lobby area needs to be made a little bit more efficient. So there are some other things, smaller projects we’re doing; the major stuff was completed.

But it’s still a tight squeeze?

They were able to improve the locker room space they had. They were really in tight quarters down there. The improvements gave the female officers the area they needed. Our department has grown, and our female force has grown accordingly as well. We have to be able to accommodate that. We’ve done that and addressed that. We’ve freed up some space but for the size of the operation they are, they do need some more room. How we make that work we still need to figure out. Building a new facility at this point just isn’t fiscally in the cards. So we need to look at, okay, what do we do; we’re not going to add on, we need to live with what we have, but how do we make it as efficient as possible?

Is anybody at city hall talking about floating a bond or raising taxes? Or that’s just a non-starter in this environment.

We’ve talked about it. I mean we had the study, two years ago. There was support there, but the survey results came just as the economy was showing signs of decline. I think the school district had just gone and done their second bond as well. So we just felt that it was probably time to take a step back and reevaluate in another couple of years, and unfortunately things haven’t turned around yet.

Well, let’s talk about the economy and economic development here in the city. Are we beating the bushes a little more to attract new business here in town? How proactive are we on this front?

I think we have to get proactive. We have to sell La Verne. I mean we’ve got to get out there and talk to the developers. They know we’re here, but we have to get out to them. Hal Fredericksen, our community development director, he takes a big lead in that. I think it’s important for us to be talking to them, giving the brokers, if nothing else, the information they need so they can sell La Verne to their prospective clients – so they can say this is why you want to be in La Verne; hey, you know, we were listed as one of the top 10 communities to raise a family. That’s good information. We need to market that. We need to use that to our advantage and make them want to be part of this community. This is obviously where families are. If you’re a family-oriented business, if you cater to families, maybe you want to be here? Those are the types of things that we need to do.

The longer it takes for businesses to get up and running, obviously that’s less time they’re making money. They want to know how is it to work with staff, and I think if we can bring them a team that says we’re interested in having you here and we’re interested in getting you up and running as quickly as possible, we’ll attract new businesses here.

Do we have a task force or quick-strike team so that when we do get a nibble, we can move quickly? Do you tell Community Development that you want 10% of the department’s time devoted to this area?

You don’t have to even say it. I mean if there is somebody who is going to come in, and if they’ve got a project, we will work with them to efficiently get them through the process. We’ll put a planner on it. It won’t be the only thing that they do, but they know they don’t just go in blind with everybody else or with every other project. It’s one that we need to make sure we get in and get through the process quickly and efficiently. Panera was a good example of that. We want to do what we can to work with them to get them up and running. It’s those types of things that will start to generate new business. The timing may not be there for businesses to start getting into these vacant spots, but if nothing else, we’ll get the information out there so that when the time is appropriate, they’ll have what they need from us. Brokers and businesses will say, yeah, let’s go visit that site. That’s what we need to be doing.

Are we still shooting for mid-August with Panera?

I’ve heard that. I’m surprised that is still their timeline. I would think that because of when they started, I would guess September some time, but they seem to be moving like gangbusters through the construction side of things.

Anything else coming to town. I heard that Aruffo’s, now in Claremont, is going to move into the Gambino’s location.

Yep. I’m not sure when that’s going to be open, to be honest. Also, Casa Sanchez downtown has been open a couple of weeks. I was just down there yesterday.

Are tax revenues in the city declining or are they holding steady?

They’re flat. We had a little bit of an uptick for the first quarter, but nothing worth jumping up and down about.

So is everything on the table, including raising taxes, if the economy worsens?

Before you go looking at raising taxes, you have to really look at everything in house and say have we done everything we can. Then you have to go to the community and say, do we change how we offer services or do we want to pay more to have the same services. Then that becomes a community decision. Look at what Maywood did. They contracted everything out. I’m not suggesting we go that direction, Don’t get me wrong. But I would say you want to look to the community and say what level of service do you want to be at?

How much money do we have in our rainy day reserve?

We have a little over $4 million after this year. We’ve programmed a million dollars into this year’s budget.

What was the high point for the reserve?

We were at $6.5 million, $6.7 million, something around that range.

It’s always good to have a little in reserve.

That’s kind of one of the uneasy things. I’m really excited about this job and to get into this position, but certainly the timing, as far as the economics, is not the easiest. But I think it’s an opportunity too.

We don’t necessarily have a blank slate, because we’re not a new community but we’ve got some areas for redevelopment that we can start looking at and say okay, what do we want to be over the next 20 years?

Why don’t you address that? What does La Verne want to be? What’s on the horizon for us?

Obviously, the biggest challenges are getting through this economic time and dealing with the (commercial) vacancies we have and trying to hold on to the businesses that have been successful and doing what we can as a city to help them succeed. As a city we can’t give them money, but we can certainly make sure that we’re providing all the services that make this an attractable community for people to continue to come and shop and to enjoy.

Beyond that, as I said before, make sure we’re getting the word out about La Verne so as things start to turn around, we can start attracting some of those businesses that fit well into the community. Some of the key pieces are the dealership on Foothill. We don’t want to just jump at the first thing that comes through the front door. Let’s look at it and say, what is going to be better for us in the long term?

Another critical piece is the vacant Vons, figuring out what we can do. It is still owned by Vons. They have limits on what they allow in there. It’s a little frustrating, holding us hostage a little bit and figuring out how we reach out to them. We’ve attempted to. We need to go back to them.

Looking to the south. I think the Gold Line is going to be a huge catalyst over the next 15 years. It is something that has been on the horizon. Well, now it’s coming to Azusa (from Sierra Madre), and that’s supposed to be done 2013, 2014, hopefully, and then the next phase is supposed to be 2017 to Claremont (going through La Verne), then on to Ontario Airport. I think that catalyst for development along all the foothill communities is going to be incredible. If you look at the Gold Line itself, and what’s already been done, how some of the transit-oriented development has been a catalyst for change, that’s exciting.

Then, continue to provide the quality services that we have been able to provide for the last 20 or 30 years as this community has grown. We’ve come to a point, where we grew, and now there’s not a lot of development or growth left, so now it’s a matter of how do we take this community and sustain what we have.

Maybe it’s good we have nowhere to grow, or we might have become a Victorville or Moreno Valley.

We got really lucky with housing. The fact that we were a developed community and we didn’t have all these new homes that were being built and being sold for crazy dollars and then all of a sudden the crash came, helped spare us. We didn’t have this big foreclosure bust like a lot of others did, so we were really lucky in that regard.

What’s going on with the former Shell station that used to be across the corner from the Chevron station as you entered the city from the West on Foothill?

The guy next door (Chevron owner) bought it, and so he closed the one.

How can residents help assist the city. What can pressure can they apply to get things moving, for example, with the vacant Vons? Write letters?

At some point, that may be an appropriate way to go as a community because it’s affecting the daily lives of individuals. There are people who live in town that might like to own businesses there. We could do a lot more with that center if we had another traffic generator there. It would start to redefine itself. They’re just kind of sitting on their hands, enjoying a beautiful new store that we frequent, plus their other store here. Other than Stater’s, they are the only game in town.

It’s something to watch as we go forward. I would not say at this point (getting residents involved) but it may be a card that needs to be played at some point for the betterment of the community.

Many people of course don’t worry about any of this. They leave La Verne early for work and come back into town late. Many may not ever venture out on the boulevard or go downtown. Maybe they would shop La Verne a little more often if they knew how important their purchases are to helping the city maintain its level of service to the community.

Certainly, shop La Verne. I used to have an economic development commissioner in my other city who called it leakage. The more you can prevent that leakage and provide these services in town, the more you keep those dollars working for you. We need individuals to shop La Verne where they can. We realize that we do not provide every commodity that’s needed. I think a lot of people understand we do a pretty good job, but I’m sure there is leakage that goes on. We don’t have a Costco. Costco stays pretty busy.

How open is the city to receiving comments and suggestions. Talk to Bob, talk to Hal.

We are always open to suggestions. We never turn down an email. We always respond to an email or letter or a call. So that opportunity is always there. Make that phone call, if you see something. Our staff is obviously out there every day of the week. But if there’s something that somebody sees, call.

Sort of like the PD’s stance?

That’s right. No call’s too small.

So, you have the same mindset here at the City.

Sure. We can’t catch everything. We can’t see every pot hole that’s out there. We try to. We’re going to miss some stuff and we need to know about it. That helps us do our job a little better. We’re not afraid to take the suggestion or at least the information to go from there. Just like graffiti, get that call to us. We want it down in 24 hours. We don’t want to see it there.

How long do you plan to serve or would you like to serve?

As I told the council, I would love nothing more than to do what Marty did and retire from here. Dependent upon how things go, that’s my intent.

Filed July 19, 2010 by Peter Bennett

2 Responses to “Incoming City Manager Bob Russi Chats with La Verne Online”

  1. Hey Peter,

    You didn’t ask him why the city council decided to sell city water rights. If the city’s residents were not well informed, because the fact that the city allowed the most important resource we have to be sold for a pittance is ridiculous. But there is one part of La Verne that isn’t affected. Fox Glen gets their water from Golden State Water. The sale was shortsighted for sure.


  1. CITY BUSINESS: Standing-Room Only Crowd Officially Greets New City Manager Bob Russi

Leave a Reply