In his first meeting with our board, City Manager Mark Prestwich spoke articulately and intelligently about the city’s challenges and opportunities.
But what impressed us most was how calm he was.
It’s easy to foresee his mild-mannered demeanor quietly working wonders inside City Hall, where morale reached a low point under Gary Broad and improved under Jennifer Phillips. The employees who left during Broad’s tenure deprived the city of valuable institutional memory, and we can’t afford another mass exodus of a talented team.
Fortunately Prestwich seems like a good guy to work for. He held a contest in which employees competed to name the city’s upcoming newsletter. Little team-building activities like that aren’t expensive or time-consuming (Prestwich is paying for the top prize out of his own pocket), but as anyone in management knows they can go a long way toward making employees feel valued and happy.
His personality is also well-suited for interacting with the public, an especially important skill at such a politically tumultuous time. He said he wants to continue rebuilding trust in city government, and starting his tenure with a series of meet-and-greets was a good first move.
Public participation will be a crucial aspect of a comprehensive report on city facilities and properties, compiled by the St. Helena Assets Planning Engagement (SHAPE) Committee with input from consultants and focus groups. We were pleased that Prestwich envisions a nine-member committee with diverse perspectives. He wants the committee to report to the council by April, an ambitious but admirable goal.
At the council’s direction, Prestwich is also pledging to release City Council agenda packets two Fridays before the meeting, which is a full week earlier than they’re currently released. That will give the council and the public more time to digest pertinent issues, and it will give the Star a chance to publish the agenda for the following week’s meeting.
In addition to city staff and the public, Prestwich’s even-keeled attitude is also a good fit for a City Council that’s starkly divided on some key issues.
It’s easy to see him guiding the council toward consensus. Last week’s pleasingly harmonious goal-setting meeting was a reminder that everyone on the council shares the same underlying values, and a good city manager can capitalize on that.
Personality aside, Prestwich has a good handle on the issues. He’s young enough to admit he doesn’t have all the answers, but experienced enough to look for them in a structured and disciplined manner.
He compared the city’s finances to a hospital patient who’s stable but still faces some risks. He’s hiring a consultant to run a financial diagnostic that will give everyone a better idea of how St. Helena’s finances stack up compared with other cities.
Prestwich noted some reasons to be optimistic: a balanced budget, 25 percent General Fund reserve, and new revenue streams from the Measure D sales tax (already in effect) and the countywide Measure T sales tax for roads (next year).
Pending council approval, Prestwich wants to start paving the badly deteriorated Kennedy/La Quinta/El Bonita neighborhood in this fiscal year. Between the General Fund, Measure T, and the new statewide SB 1, St. Helena’s budget for road repairs will increase from $300,000 a year to about $1 million.
Prestwich seems like the city manager we need now. His low-key approachability has us optimistic about his tenure.