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Gridley Herald

Retiring City Administrator Speaks Highly of Council and New Admin

Jan 03, 2024 12:11PM ● By Cindy Scott

Cliff Wagner, outgoing Gridley City Administrator, stands with Elisa Arteaga, who is now serving as administrator. Photo by Cindy Scott

GRIDLEY, CA (MPG) - Cliff Wagner recently retired as Gridley City Administrator, leaving the position to Elisa Arteaga. In an exit interview, Wagner spoke of his tenure and the team he felt fortunate to work with.

Before Wagner took the position of city administrator, he worked in the California State Legislature for 27 years, 18 of them as chief of staff to several assemblymen and senators. However, he had long considered municipal government, taking mostly public administration courses while completing his political science master’s degree at Chico State. 

After graduation, Wagner kept his employment at the Legislature, but continued familiarizing himself with municipal operations and observing the recruitment cycles at area cities. He knew some of the Gridley city council members and eventually let them know he was interested in applying for the next vacancy. After competing with other candidates, he was offered the position of Gridley City Administrator.

Wagner noted that he was fortunate to bring 27 years of legislative experience to the new role, noting, “What we’re doing here is legislative and policy work. The mechanics are slightly different, but the principles are the same.”

Wagner said, “The first objective that I had was alignment, to make sure I knew what their [the Council’s] priorities were, and to make certain that the department heads were clear on the expectations and directions of the Council.” 

Wagner also focused on deficits in the electric, water, and wastewater funds. Looking over the last several years of budget summaries, he saw “negative trajectories” for these utility funds, saying, “Those don’t self-correct. Someone has to do something. And the process starts with a comprehensive analysis which is best, performed by people who are subject-matter experts in doing that.”

The Council approved an exhaustive rate study, which Wagner said gave the city a clear picture of where they stood if they did nothing and gave several design options for a rate increase. Wagner added, “What we found out…is that our rates are some 40% less than PG&E. That’s a pretty significant difference. The challenge is, if our electric utility fund isn’t managed and kept current, because costs of maintenance only escalate, we have to make a regular review and adjustments to make sure that it stays healthy.”

Wagner explained that the city owns an electrical franchise that, if poorly managed, can be stripped away by the state and given to PG&E, “Notwithstanding the fact that everyone universally opposes rate increases, you have to manage the franchise. If we’re not managing the enterprise, that special fund, or water/wastewater, we won’t be in a position to do rehabilitation of aging infrastructure.”

One challenge Wagner encountered was out-of-date audits, which he called the city’s “fiscal business report card.” Covid had interrupted the auditing process, which affects the city in grant applications and reports. It can also affect the city’s standing with the California State Treasurer’s Office and applications for state and federal funds. A new auditor has been hired, and a two-year audit is underway.

Wagner also addressed the bigger, slower initiatives, projects that take years from inception to completion. He gave Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) as one example. The city currently uses metering technology that is 20 years old–staff drive around with an Itron device to collect use data.

AMI, a newer technology, provides data on both sides of the meter, revealing urgent transformer problems that need addressed. AMI will be useful as residents install electric car charging stations and the California legislature moves the state toward full electrification. Wagner said, “We want to be able to keep pace with the regulatory machine in Sacramento by having the most modern capabilities.”

AMI will also be useful in times of uncertain power supply. Wagner explained the hypothetical, “The California Independent System Operator contacts NCPA and says, ‘We need you and your affiliates to shed load by 15%.’ NCPA contacts us and says, ‘Your portion of that is 5%.’ AMI metering will allow us to keep all of our medically sensitive homes on and to strategically shed load on a rotational basis, in a way, we might shut off your jacuzzi, but leave your freezer and your refrigerator and AC on.”

The city has seen several development projects during Wagner’s tenure. A trucking company and storage company will operate out of the industrial park, with other parcels in process of development. The cookie company Avatar will operate out of the Stapleton’s facility on the north end of town. When operational, they will produce 4,000 lbs of cookies every hour. 

Calling the Orchard View apartments going up on Hwy 99 another example of a slower initiative, Wagner reported that the city first earmarked community development block grant funding for the project in 2017. Orchard View plans to make 33 income-adjusted units available December of 2024. When completely built out, Orchard View will top out at 104 units. 

Wagner has most enjoyed working with his colleagues, “I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given to work with this team–the employees, the management, and this council. There’s few things more rewarding than being able to make a difference in your own community.”

He reported that there are 37-42 city staff, fluctuating with vacancies and seasonal employees. Wagner said, “My time in the military setting reinforced my experience here, in that we function as a team: the staff, all its departments, which are very interdependent. Go without your sewer main for 12 hours, and your public works department will become your number one priority overnight. All of those departments matter a great deal to our residents. …We have good people doing good work. We cannot succeed without every department fulfilling its essential role, including the Council.”

Wagner spoke of the role of the city council members, which he described as, “Far more workload than anyone bargains for…” Calling them the policy-making legislative body for the city, he described their work in approving contracts, designing budgets, and reviewing and approving capital outlay. The Council meets twice a month, each meeting with a packet of 100-300 pages with supporting documents and staff recommendations.

Wagner noted the professionalism and capabilities of the council members, saying they take their roles seriously–they don’t rubber-stamp anything. Wagner added they have healthy, vigorous debates on divisive concerns, but “They set aside their personal concerns and work to do what’s highest and best for the residents of Gridley.”

Wagner lauded the council members he has worked for, “... I consider myself very fortunate to have a council of people who are different one from another philosophically. It is a diverse council, but it also represents the makeup of the City of Gridley. They are each independent-minded people.”

Speaking of Mayor Mike Farr, Wagner noted his background in agriculture and his two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter door gunner and crew chief, “He is a person who cares very deeply about the welfare of this community, and he is someone who volunteers for a second tour of Vietnam. He loves his country.”

He noted that Vice Mayor Bruce Johnson is going on 10 years of service on the Council, “He has, as every city council member does, taken a lot of grief. He’s been doing that for 10 years. He brings an enormous amount of expertise, experience of the city’s history…He helps provide a level of continuity.”

Speaking of Councilmember Angel Calderon, Wagner stated, “He has been serving our community and its members working against gang activity with our youth, through the Catholic church, as an extension of his work as a mental health professional and is someone who cares very deeply about the residents of the city of Gridley.”

Wagner noted that Councilmember Catalina Sanchez grew up in Gridley, attended schools here and “knows everybody.” She has worked in the California State Legislature and understands state policy-making. She is the city’s liaison to the NCPA, serving on several committees and as a member of the NCPA Executive Board, pushing information and attention items to the city admin, utility director, and the Council. Wagner continued, “It requires an enormous commitment, and she’s demonstrated a great level of commitment to this community.”

Wagner noted that Councilmember James Roberts served in the Gridley Police Department, making a career of putting his skin on the line to keep us safe. Roberts has a “heart for public service,” serving as president of the Moose Lodge and as city liaison to the Chamber of Commerce on their events.

Wagner described the impressive attributes Elisa Arteaga, his successor, brings to the position of City Administrator. Wagner reported that Arteaga has worked for the city for over 20 years in the Financial Department, bringing with her a comprehensive knowledge of the city budget and the status of current capital improvement programs, grants, initiatives, and services.

Arteaga brings experience with grant compliance, working with state agencies, problem solving, and she has well-honed interpersonal strengths. She has served as union rep, bringing an understanding of the needs of employees.

Wagner spoke strongly of Arteaga’s two greatest assets – trust and continuity, noting that, when there’s an opportunity to promote internally, there is added trust: she is trusted by her colleagues, and she has been trusted with the city’s money. Wagner said, “Continuity exerted itself because she had already earned their trust. They [the Council] already had a relationship. When we build upon that, we are able to…achieve that mission.”

Wagner added that Arteaga will, “Bring good decision making and bring an affable approach and a professional approach and unify this team. She’s absolutely that person.”

After serving two years and seven months as Gridley City Administrator, Wagner will return to political consulting, eager to do it from home in his pajamas. He looks forward to being a very present grandfather to his three grandchildren. He plans to continue his community service in the VFW, American Legion, and the Biggs Gridley Cemetery Court of Honor Committee, which organizes the Memorial Day and Veterans Day events. 

Calling himself a “faith-driven person,” Wagner also hopes to serve a mission, with his wife Marla, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For that, he will have to wait until she retires.

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