In Closed Session

A peaceful transition of power has always been a hallmark of the United States of America — in nearly 250 years, there has yet to be a military coup and our elections have been, on the whole, scandal-free.

That's what you might call a successful succession plan.

Succession planning is a bit of a buzzword these days in business and nonprofit circles. If you think the entity you are a part of, even if you are the founder, finding good leadership to continue the work when you're gone is key.

There's a sports analogy, too. It can be summarized in a three-word cliché — Next Man Up. It means that the substitute has to come in and do the job when the star falls (ask the Pittsburg Steelers and a handful of other NFL franchises just how important that it to a season).

For the most part, the best succession plans involve training people in the organization to eventually take the top spots. That can be difficult if you don't have the talent you need in the organization; hence the ubiquitous "nationwide search."

When it comes to government, though, it's common that the long search ends up coming back home, to promote from within. That's usually because of knowledge of local issues. Hopefully, that knowledge is complemented by some decent leadership/management skills.

Which brings us to the current state of affairs in Long Beach's city manager's office. When Pat West stepped down, it was time for the next manager to step up, just like has been the case with city managers before him. After all, somebody's got to mind the city store while that nationwide search takes place.

Tom Modica, who has been the assistant city manager for a few years now, is sitting in the big chair as the acting city manager. There's some lawyer's language in the City Charter that pretty much required that to happen if the City Council actually wanted to conduct a search for a permanent replacement. (Question. Why do they call these positions "permanent" when we all know the person will leave eventually — one way or another?)

One of Modica's first orders of business was to backfill the management ranks. He did so fairly quickly, with some interesting choices — and one gives a strong indication where the city government's emphasis must be right now.

First, he tapped Rebecca Guzman Garner as acting assistant city manager. Garner is a longtime city employee and a longtime member of the executive management team — as the administrative deputy to the city manager.

In some cases, administrative deputy is PC language for secretary. Don't even think that in this case. Garner has been part of the discussion when city policies have been discussed, and helps with the implementation of those policies.

Full disclosure, she also is married to Chris Garner, the general manager of the city's Water Department. Because the City Charter separates the Water Department from the General Fund chain of command, there is no conflict — or awkwardness, at least that I've seen.

Note the acting part of the title. That means Garner can go back to her former position when a permanent city manager is named, if he or she wants to name their own assistant.

Just as key are the deputy city managers. They'll tell you that that's where the real work gets done. And the position is designed to put boots on the ground, with hands-on management of details.

Modica has kept Kevin Jackson in the role of deputy city manager, with direct oversight of several areas, including government affairs, sustainability and the lead for the city's Census 2020 efforts. Jackson came to Long Beach in 2017, and still brings fresh eyes to city activities.

Modica's most interesting appointment is the creation of an interim deputy city manager position. It is unclear how interim Teresa Chandler's appointment is. But her long experience with homelessness issues as the Human Services Bureau manager in the Health Department shows Modica is taking the direction from Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council that solutions for the homeless population is a top priority. She also has experience with violence prevention and youth services, both areas of emphasis.

It's still unclear whether Modica will even throw his hat in the ring to become permanent. Whether he does or not, he gets points for quickly dealing with succession planning.

I did say that's a key to success, didn't I?

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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