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It's an in-your-face welcome for new city manager


Penny Culbreth-Graft got a great taste of Council after - being sworn in Monday by Mayor Lionel Rivera. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Penny Culbreth-Graft got a great taste of Council after being sworn in Monday by Mayor Lionel Rivera.

Remember your first day at school?

Nervous, squirming in your brand-new outfit, you gaped at all those unfamiliar faces. Thankfully, your teacher eased you into your new surroundings. You spent the day sharing stories from family vacations.

One had to wonder if Penny Culbreth-Graft was thinking back to simpler times as she sat through Monday's 4-hour City Council meeting, which was followed by a closed executive session. This, after spending the morning getting to know her two assistant city managers the guys she beat out for her new job.

The meeting began with smiles and clapping as Mayor Lionel Rivera swore in Culbreth-Graft as city manager. That was the last anyone would see of the welcome mat.

Councilmembers soon showed off their ability to spat, complain, laugh and, ah, brainstorm over the city's financial predicament.

"Trial by fire," Councilwoman Margaret Radford said with a good-natured grin. "Or exhaust fumes."

About that. Early in the meeting, Culbreth-Graft was presented with one of the city's many fiscal challenges: maintaining and replacing aging vehicles and large equipment.

Paul Lauria, president of the city-hired firm Mercury Associates, gave an all-too-familiar warning: Put off paying for this now, and you'll pay a heck of a lot more later. His solution: Loan or lease vehicles, and you'll save money and have a nicer fleet.

Sound like a slam-dunk? Not with this City Council.

How much would a newer fleet save on maintenance? What would we do with maintenance workers if they weren't needed? How much could be saved by buying more fuel-efficient vehicles or by sharing responsibilities with the county? Council asked all these questions, but neither Lauria nor city staffers had answers; the study had a limited scope.

Council sent staffers back to collecting data, but not before berating them. It seems staffers put an item on Tuesday's consent agenda that would have OK'd a partial implementation of the loan/lease idea in 2008 something staff hadn't yet brought up.

"I really don't appreciate that ... I thought you were going to tell us what you were asking us to consent to, but you're not," Vice Mayor Larry Small sternly told fleet manager Tom Monarco.

Looking reserved, Culbreth-Graft endured the uproar, and then dutifully faced the ravenous media preparing to swallow her only bathroom break.

It was the midpoint of a long day. Over the remaining hours, Culbreth-Graft had a chance to learn a lot about our city and Council.

For instance, the city has $432.8 million in unfunded capital-improvement projects, with about $285.9 million considered "high-priority." Not included among those was a four-month, $1 million, emergency-type fix of the crumbling deck of a North Nevada Avenue bridge.

Perhaps most importantly, she learned Council members aren't shy. One moment they're taking turns scolding the Trails, Open Space and Parks Committee (which wasn't present) for taking a position against the county's proposed motorcycle park. A short time later, it's all chuckles as they debate whether their backsides deserve better cushions. (Most agreed they should have new chairs.)

So what did Culbreth-Graft make of all this?

"I think it's a great taste of what's in store for me," she said. "And I like the taste."

But isn't she worried she might end up on the receiving end of one of those infamous Council rants?

"Thick skin," she said, "is part of the job description."

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