Q&A: As he departs, Rancho Cordova city manager reflects on last decade

Rancho Cordova has known only one city manager since it incorporated in 2003. Ted Gaebler, then interim city manager for East Palo Alto, was recruited to fill that spot. He plans to step down at the end of January.

Gaebler, 72, brought a wealth of knowledge in governance when he arrived a decade ago. He launched his career in public service during the summer of 1963 as an intern for the city of Oxford, Ohio. Since then, he has worked for six cities and one county.

He is co-author of the book “Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector,” which former President Bill Clinton said “should be read by every elected official in America.” Published in 1992, the title is still being translated into foreign languages; last year, a Mongolian version was released.

“I’ve been trying to find ways to help governments get better,” Gaebler said. “They should be respected like other institutions in our society.”

Gaebler expects to leave City Hall on Jan. 22 if the national selection process to find his replacement is successful.

What has been your key guiding principle in leading Rancho Cordova for the last 10 years?

Our focus has been on fulfilling the promise of cityhood. Seventy-eight percent of residents voted to have the city incorporate. They had hopes and aspirations. We wanted to make sure we fulfilled their expectations and relieved the frustrations they had with the county government.

To get a building permit, citizens had to go downtown to Sacramento. Having a government close to them was one promise. Many were concerned with the county dumping social services. Other concerns included road maintenance, police and garbage collection.

We have provided a voice representing the citizens here. We’ve torn down some of the disreputable motels, one bar and three apartment units. The answer, by and large, is we’ve fulfilled many of the promises.

What do you envision Rancho Cordova to be in the future?

I hope it’s a shining star, but none of us can predict that.

A Sacramento Area Council of Governments report predicted Rancho Cordova could one day accommodate as many as 300,000 people or more. Clearly, we’re going to be a city of at least 100,000 with 25 square miles of land to build on. Whether that takes 20 or 40 years, who knows?

In my tenure, we have tried not to make tiny and short-term decisions. We’ve made long-term decisions. For example, our City Hall has 80,000 square feet so we have room to grow. No city manager in the next 20 years will have to relocate City Hall.

We also designed roadways to improve traffic for a city much larger than we are now.

What’s one challenge the city faces that you will leave your successor to deal with?

There aren’t very many first-tier suburbs that don’t have a downtown. Henderson, Nev., and Bellevue, Wash., are all suburbs with a downtown. Cities that are going to be of some size usually end up having a walkable, nicely proportioned downtown.

In the next 10-20 years, this community should look at creating a downtown.

Rancho Cordova hasn’t run a deficit since incorporating. What’s your secret to managing a city?

Although you can’t run a government like a business, you can adapt some of the best practices of business. For instance, we invested in IT and good audit practices.

But it takes political will. Since this is a council-manager form of government, the City Council is my partner.

What do you plan to do in retirement?

I was just appointed as a “range rider” through a program sponsored by the International City/County Management Association and the League of California Cities. As a range rider, I will provide advice to 59 cities small and large in Northern California, from Isleton to the Oregon border. My job is to visit periodically and provide free advice, whether it’s on a bond issue or closing a fire station. Once in a while, city staff need a shoulder to lean on.