Sacramento delays city manager search, gives Steinberg say in hiring decision

Howard Chan, left, greets a motorist at the entrance to the parking lot at the Amtrak rail station in Sacramento on Friday December 29, 2006. At the time, Chan was the city’s parking services manager. He will serve as interim city manager until June 2017. Sacramento Bee/ Randall Benton
Howard Chan, left, greets a motorist at the entrance to the parking lot at the Amtrak rail station in Sacramento on Friday December 29, 2006. At the time, Chan was the city’s parking services manager. He will serve as interim city manager until June 2017. Sacramento Bee/ Randall Benton Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

A national search for a new city manager has been postponed until Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg takes office, leaving a popular City Hall insider to fill the job on an interim basis.

Assistant City Manager Howard Chan has accepted a seven-month offer to replace departing City Manager John Shirey.

The decision to go with Chan was made during a closed-session meeting of the City Council on Tuesday. The council will vote to approve the contract during next Tuesday’s meeting.

“Howard Chan has the confidence of the entire council,” Mayor Kevin Johnson said in a statement. “For the last 14 years, Howard has served this city with distinction, which is why it’s not surprising that we turned to him when we needed someone to step up. Howard’s appointment will assure that we have a seamless transition and continue the strong momentum we have as a city.”

Steinberg said he is “in full support of the council’s decision.”

Steinberg unofficially participated in the months-long interviewing process, but the confidential nature of personnel matters largely kept him on the outside of a decision that will have a significant impact on his tenure. Hiring Chan as a temporary city manager allows Steinberg to steer the hiring process once he takes the mayor’s seat.

Steinberg said that despite being unsuccessful in finding a permanent hire, the recruitment process was useful and “definitely gave me a head start in my own thinking.” He added that he was unsure if he would immediately reopen the search when he takes office in December.

“I just came to the realization that … you have to be there to really be immersed in the job and understand the culture and understand the kind of individual that you want to partner with,” Steinberg said. “You can best do that once you’re actually on the job.”

Throughout the mayoral campaign and postelection, Steinberg has outlined an ambitious regionwide agenda that tackles economic development, homelessness and neighborhood services. Many of his ideas would require significant buy-in from the city manager, who runs the daily operations.

Chan will begin serving as interim city manager after Shirey departs on Nov. 18, less than a month before Steinberg takes office.

Chan said he will move forward with his own agenda to address personnel issues, prepare for budget discussions and spearhead a new diversity and gender equity initiative. He does not see himself as a placeholder without power.

“There will be times probably in the near future where I might have a difference of perspective on issues with particular council members,” he said. “I just trust that if I’m honest and communicate why I think we should go a certain direction that they will give me some consideration. There are nine different people and you’re not always going to have everybody on the same page, but I think if you’re thoughtful about it and we have open and honest communication, that’s a recipe for success.”

He added that he does not listen to the “noise” about Sacramento’s power structure but instead works to build consensus.

“Strong mayor, strong city manager, we are all on the same team,” said Chan. “You could have a strong mayor with the current form of government. It’s just how you establish those relationships and how you decide how things get done. If you are strict to the (city) charter, you can pull the document out every time you sit down to meet with someone. That’s a recipe for disaster. That’s not my style at all. If we can get to the point where we’re all going in the same direction, that’s a win no matter the form of government.”

The City Council conducted a months-long extensive search for a permanent hire without luck. The city received nearly 80 résumés; of those, 10 candidates were interviewed and at least one received final consideration.

Search firm Ralph Andersen & Associates handled the process, charging the city about $30,000, according to Crystal Strait, chief of staff to Johnson.

But in the end, the council kept coming back to Chan, said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

“Everybody kept coming back to, ‘What about Howard?’ ” she said. “The timing and fit for Sacramento weren’t quite there (for other candidates) and at the same time sort of sitting on our bench is this diamond in the rough.”

Chan, 48, began with the city in 2002 as a parking manager and was promoted to assistant city manager in 2013. Prior to that, he worked for parking and transportation companies in the private sector.

Chan is the middle of three sons of Chinese immigrants. He grew up in San Francisco, where his mother cleaned hotel rooms and his father worked as a bartender at a popular Chinatown bar. He has two children, ages 12 and 14, and lives in Natomas.

By many accounts, he is well-respected by colleagues, council members and rank-and-file staff. He is described as straightforward, a problem-solver and someone with the ability to complete complex tasks.

“He is one of the staff members I turn to when I need something done,” said Councilman Rick Jennings in a statement. Jennings chaired the search committee.

“I trust Howard ... Howard will provide the leadership our employees and our community needs as the mayor-elect assumes office and we as the council evaluate our next steps,” he added.

Chan said that he expected the transition between himself and Shirey to be smooth. He said he considers Shirey a friend and mentor.

“He and I have a relationship like no other,” said Chan. “I am going to need John’s help and I know he is going to be there for me. I know it with certainty.”

Chan will receive a prorated annual salary of $262,627. Shirey, appointed in 2011, currently makes $268,423.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa