Q&A/Outgoing city manager reflects on long career
Seeking a new city manager in 1965, Nevada City, Calif., had no candidates. That is, until Beryl Robinson, a native of the city, resigned his post on the city council and applied for the job. At 29, he became the fourth city manager for the small town of 3,000, and, this May, at 66, he will be retiring after 37 years on the job. He is the longest-serving city manager in California; the average stay for other city managers in the state is six years.
Q: What were the issues when you were first appointed city manager?
A: At the time, a freeway that was under construction had cut the city in two. A large portion of the downtown area, the business district, was in very poor shape. The city’s bookkeeping wasn’t the world’s best at the time.
Q: How has the city changed since you’ve been the manager?
A: We had 23 employees when I became manager. We clearly couldn’t afford that. I cut the staff from 23 to 16. By 1972, we were involved in an economic development administration grant for the improvement of downtown. We put in the first gas lights downtown; we restored a building; and we put in a couple parking lots. At that time, things started looking up for the city. A lot of people started improving their buildings [focusing on] their original architecture. Tourism became more of an important factor, and, today, the town has come back. Today, we have 25 employees.
When I started, we did not have a water treatment plant. We only chlorinated the water. There were no employees to manage it. We were in trouble with the California Department of Health, and our wastewater plant was not maintained by any personnel. Today, we have a very sophisticated water treatment and wastewater plant, and we have four operators that [run] the two plants.
Q: What do you consider to be some of your biggest accomplishments?
A: The United States National Forest Service had a maintenance yard about a block from the City Hall, right on the edge of our main business district, and the warehouses were just typical tin warehouses. We felt strongly that the buildings did not have historical significance. We started in 1990 working with our congressman and working with the National Forest Service’s regional office in San Francisco trying to enter into some kind of agreement to get them to move out of downtown. The city bought a piece of property that met their requirements outside the city, and we built new buildings on that site in exchange for the same amount of value of the land downtown. We gave them the deed to the new property and buildings, and we got a deed to the old property and tore down their buildings and put in a fairly large parking lot.
We just finished renovating City Hall. The building was a WPA art deco building that was built in 1937. We upgraded that building using the art deco style of architecture. We tried to make it a very friendly, open, well-lit building. We opened the building in January 2001, and, daily, people go through here because it is known to be a beautiful City Hall.
The new city council chambers are named after me. For a city manager, that’s a pretty high honor because, usually, you name things like that after mayors, not city managers. Also, in [an historical downtown] building, there’s an area where we’ve put a lot of historic artifacts. They named that plaza after me.
Q: What are your plans for retirement?
A: I’ve always had a hobby that is slowly becoming a business. I collect coins. I’m not a person that’s just going to sit around. I’ll stay very active.
Q: What’s been the best thing about being the city manager for Nevada City?
A: I find that it’s really a hands-on job. I think that being a manager in a small community is fantastic because you can see the end results of your actions so much clearer than perhaps managers in larger cities.
Q: Have you ever been challenged for the position?
A: No. I’ve had great support from the community. There have been times that I’ve made decisions, and people have said, “The city manager is stupid,” but that’s pretty normal for city managers. I don’t have a contract. I started without one, and it’s never been a problem. This decision to leave is just because it’s time to go. I love the town, and it’s just been a great experience.