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Editorial: Strategic thinking amid our crisis response
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Editorial: Strategic thinking amid our crisis response

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Downtown Napa

It is widely said that inside every crisis is an opportunity.

The crisis that grips us now — the coronavirus and the attendant economic crash — is easily the largest and most pervasive in a century.

While it is hard to predict the details, it seems clear that what we are experiencing now will affect the way we work and live, in both small and profound ways, far into the future. Already many businesses are adjusting how they get work done, where employees work and how they are managed. Certainly, that is the case here at the Napa Valley Register.

It stands to reason that similar opportunities exist in the way our governments operate.

We met over recent weeks with Napa City Manager Steve Potter and newly elected Mayor Scott Sedgley.

Together they face a terrible situation. They tell us that the city will be lucky to get away with a $20 million shortfall in the current fiscal year because of the economic downturn and increased costs of dealing with the pandemic. In a city workforce of around 500, 76 positions are vacant and frozen and as many as 10 more are off duty on any given day because of COVID exposure or symptoms. Several key department head positions, including Human Resources and Police Chief, are vacant.

How Potter and Sedgley respond to the immediate situation is a powerful test of leadership and there are no easy answers.

But we were heartened to find that both men were looking at the longer-term consequences, considering the opportunities that the crisis offers.

At first, Potter told us, the city had to use the blunt tool of hiring freezes to handle the economic downturn without resorting to layoffs. But that tends to be a random and unbalanced approach that can have disproportionate effects on certain departments or leave key positions unfilled.

Now that the immediate shock of the pandemic has eased, however, the city is taking a more strategic look at those vacant positions, determining which need to be filled and looking at remaining employees to see where they can be redeployed to cover more vital positions that are vacant.

This kind of rethinking leaves open the possibility to reconsider and restructure government: what services can and should local government provide? What technology can be deployed to boost efficiency? Where does the public expect to interact with public services in person and where is remote service acceptable?

The most visible effect of this rethinking is the apparent death of the plan to replace city hall with some kind of larger civic center.

It remains true that the city government is scattered across a motley assortment of buildings scattered around downtown, an expensive and inefficient way of doing business. But, both Potter and Sedgley told us, the possible changes in the way work is done makes it much less desirable to build a huge, in-person worksite full of traditional work stations.

The lessons of remote working during the pandemic show that many jobs can be done from home or from smaller remote sites. Other jobs may not even be necessary on the other side of the pandemic.

This leaves open the possibility of a much smaller city hall replacement or renovation project than anyone might have imagined just a year ago.

We applaud the city for undertaking such long-term rethinking even amid the short-term pain of the financial downturn.

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The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of NVR President Davis Taylor, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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