About 35 years earlier I sat in the same office talking with former City Manager George Morgan about his resignation — to become manager of Beverly Hills.
Morgan shared an anecdote, after noting (rather candidly for a manager known for being tight lipped) that he realized Beverly Hills was a lateral move professionally.
He said when one is named to a top post one is handed a figurative "pile of positive chips" that are "benefits of a doubt" and good wishes.
But soon the manager does or says something or fails to do something and someone gets ticked off, maybe a bunch of someones in a highly observant and critical community.
Some positive chips move over to a second, negative pile, Morgan said, sliding his fingers across the round table in his office as if moving poker chips.
A manager who wants to advance up the career ladder needs to move on before the negative pile gets bigger than the positive pile, he said, indicating he may have stuck around a bit too long.
"How are your respective piles doing?" I asked Benest Nov. 27. He recounted successes he has had as manager, and the interview went on from there.
While Benest has had a particularly bumpy ride, it is not the first such experience for Palo Alto's six city managers.
It is a bit spooky being able to relate to a déjà vu experience three and a half decades apart, and to realize I have known and worked in some capacity with every city manager, save one, that the city has had since it became a council/manager form of government in 1950.
I was assigned the beat in mid-1966 as a kid reporter after two years covering Mountain View, Sunnyvale, NASA-Ames, Moffett Field Naval Air Station for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.
I was plunked smack in the middle of a major revolt over traffic and growth in Palo Alto, a time when the 13-member City Council was bitterly divided along 7-to-6 voting lines between the "residentialists" and "establishment" members.
A near fist-fight between two short-fused council members, residentialist leader Bob Debs and establishment Councilman Bob Cooley, was averted when Morgan, a former Marine, physically held them apart so they couldn't get out a doorway into a back garden area of the old City Hall, now the Art Center. But the almost-fight and politics led to an all-council (part regular, part recall) election that decimated the residentialist ranks from 1967 until a comeback in the early 1970s.
The first manager, Jerry Keithley, was firmly pro-growth establishment, and the 15-member council of the 1950s was dominated by men with similar sentiments. As a period known as "government by referendum" challenged the pro-growth actions, Keithley's pile of negative chips grew substantially during a period of unprecedented growth that saw the city's population double, the creation of the Stanford Industrial Park that did much to stabilize the budgets of both the city and Stanford University as well as create a huge traffic challenge, and numerous proposed projects.
Keithley left for the East Bay in the mid-1960s just before I inherited the beat.
Morgan was named manager in 1966. He was a Keithley protégé from the early 1950s, when Keithley gave him his first assignment: to "solve the downtown parking problem."
When he resigned in 1972, I wrote one of my favorite news-story leads: "City Manager George Morgan, the man who steered — or rode — Palo Alto through some of its stormiest years, resigned Tuesday." In addition to the growth debate there were riots downtown, troubles within the police department, burnout in the planning department, the birth and rise of the environmental movement, lawsuits over zoning of Stanford foothills lands and perennial budget woes.
Morgan acknowledged he was better with budgets than with people challenges. One could tell when Morgan was angry or upset during meetings or hearings by how much he pursed his lips in self-containment.
So don't believe it when someone says recent years have been the most contentious or bumpy in city history. They've actually been pretty smooth compared to some periods, if one leaves out potholes in the streets and perhaps some exploding toilets.
Morgan's departure coincided with the regaining of the council majority by the residentialists.
He was replaced by George Sipel, who had made a personal vow to become manager of a significant city within 10 years of getting his masters degree — he made it with about three months to spare. He brought a different kind of revolution to City Hall, a process known as "organizational development," or OD. That broke down rigid walls between departments and made some managers really uncomfortable with multi-departmental task- or results-oriented approaches. He failed to get the City Council to try OD itself, however, after the late Stan Norton reminded others that council members were elected to represent constituents, not necessarily to get along smoothly with each other.
Sipel was effective, good with people and generally far more open and candid than Morgan or later managers. Sipel's growth in the job included an impressive mustache and longer hair in what I once termed "the greening of George Sipel."
He wrestled with demonstrations, personnel challenges and the difficulties of restructuring a major organization. One longtime department head, Public Works Director H.M. Witbeck, in one top-management team meeting rose from his chair to his full height, declared, "I quit!" and stalked out of the room, never to return. Sipel also faced the first and only city-employee strike, short but harsh with a lingering. bitter aftertaste.
Sipel resigned in 1979 after battling a feeling of staleness and lack of challenge, and was replaced by Bill Zaner, who became another strong manager.
Zaner in his nearly 13 years on the job rebuilt departments, named new managers and generally kept a tight rein on city affairs in a usually low-profile manner. He was considered a traditional manager strong on fiscal issues, and was credited with preserving services in the face of budget cuts and working more closely with neighboring cities on common problems.
Zaner was replaced in 1992 by his longtime assistant, June Fleming, one of the first African-American women to become manager of a significant city in California. Former head librarian, Fleming inherited Zaner's department heads and struggled with a variety of the same omnipresent budget challenges that curse most managers.
She became increasingly beset with criticisms, and some felt she withdrew too deeply into the tower fortress of City Hall.
A few lines of judgment by definition are unfair to any manager, and I've always tried to see the bigger picture of the manager as a human being, beset by often unfair, not fully informed and sometimes just mean critics.
Benest is no exception. He came into Palo Alto confidently and almost brashly, but was taken down by the illness and death of his wife, Pam, and his own extended battle with cancer. He has been plagued by a huge scandal in the Utilities Department, disclosures of other personnel problems and an alleged difficulty in maintaining hands-on contact with the city staff and operations he heads.
His critics have judged him harshly, despite the accomplishments he cites with pride, the awards the city has garnered and the positive showing in public-opinion polls about satisfaction with most city services. Positive chips.
Yet Benest declined to assess the relative size of his chip piles, diverting to listing his accomplishments — perhaps a measure of his closed-ness, even compared to tight-lipped George Morgan.