Former city manager Phil Kamlarz, just before his retirement

Phil Kamlarz, city manager for eight years and a city employee for 36, retired this month. He first became a Berkeley city employee as a temporary associate accountant in the Berkeley Public Library in 1975, and a year later transferred to the city manager’s office. He became assistant city manager in 1987, and then acting city manager in 2003, before getting his full appointment the following year.

Two weeks ago, when the City Council marked Kamlarz’s retirement, the encomia from councilmembers were effusive. Mayor Tom Bates noted that Kamlarz “has provided Berkeley a platform of fiscal stability which is enviable”. He cited Kamlarz as a “calm, collected leader” with “compassion, foresight and a good nature”.

Kriss Worthington said: “He has been the most non-political city manager you can imagine, which is exactly what you want in a city manager form of government.” Jesse Arreguin said: “Phil really respects and reflects the values of our community.” More personally, Linda Maio said, “My security blanket is leaving.”

Before he stepped down, Kamlarz spoke with Berkeleyside about the changes he’s witnessed in Berkeley and the tasks that remain to be done.

What’s changed during your years with the city?

The council works extremely well together now. We used to have council meetings until two, three in the morning. It’s much more efficient in how we get our work done.

The staff and council work together well. There are always disagreements on issues. But people have come together on the major issues.

Have the issues changed substantively?  

A lot of the big issues haven’t changed at all. The issues of the safety net, the provision of good services.

There’s a lot of criticism about the cost of Berkeley government. Is that fair?

We have more police officers per capita. We have more fire stations. We have voted with two-thirds majorities for more medical services. We have more library employees. No city our size had four pools. We do have more services and more employees than other places.

Our refuse services cost money. There’s the long-standing policy of not contracting out here. It’s different than many other cities.

People want more and not less.

But in the past four years, we’ve cut 216 positions. We have been cutting back and it’s been surgical. Although we’ve cut back, the impact on services has been minimal. We’ve been making those adjustments over time.

You’ve spoken a lot in the past year about the burden of the city’s pension obligations. How can that be resolved?  

The path is through labor negotiations. We reached agreement with maintenance and clerical workers. The lowest paid people in the city stepped up.

Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion [with the police] before I get out of here. [Ed: This had not been accomplished at the time of writing.]

We share our information with the unions. We have tough negotiations. And we have avoided a financial crisis. You don’t want to reach a crisis state. Our job is to avoid that, but there isn’t the same impetus for the unions to make dramatic changes.

What’s different about Berkeley?

I learn something every day. With the university here, there’s always going to be innovation. People are very smart here. In Berkeley, everyone challenges you. It’s process-intensive.

That results in what I often describe as the “last-person-standing” policy approach. There’s a danger that policy is made based on the people who are most persistant. There’s a real issue as to how do you have a public discussion in those circumstances.

I like the example of National Night Out, which gives you an opportunity to talk to more people and get different points of view.

Some people say those different points of view don’t really get heard. That a small group of people make the decisions that count in Berkeley — it’s a conspiracy or a cabal. 

Berkeley is a small town. A lot of it is the relationships. We know that we can work it out. If we could get our shit together to have a conspiracy, that would be great.

The truth is you’ve got to get 50 people around here to agree to get anything done.

Almost everything here is public. No one has ever asked for my calendar. There is nothing to hide. We meet with anybody.

Are you optimistic about Berkeley’s economy?

Most people feel good about the town.

We’ve had the economic downturn. Major retailers want to come. Businesses want certainty in the process. We do have a land use regulatory process here.

Businesses can understand it. With Apple, they were appreciative of that. With BMW – we were able to persuade them to stay in Berkeley. They’ve been patient.

One of the advantages of having someone here for a long time, is that some things take a long time. The arts district – that developed over a 15-year period. We had to work to keep Berkeley Rep here. There were loans for the Freight and Salvage, Aurora and the Jazzschool

Then there’s the redevelopment of Fourth Street – that was thanks to Denny Abrams. It was blight before. Having that longer view helped.

I’m convinced that downtown is going through a major upcycle in the next few years.

What unfinished business do you leave behind? 

Waiting for the economy to turn around.

I wish we were in better shape fiscally. We really can’t affect the overall economy. The influences are far greater. We’re a piece of a larger region here.

Crime is down compared to neighbors. People feel safer now.

We have aging infrastructure and that needs to be addressed. The storm water system is 100 years old. It’s not that sexy until it breaks.

City Manager Phil Kamlarz announces his retirement [09.26.11] 

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...