East Palo Alto has a new city manager who comes with experience in negotiating complex multimillion-dollar projects related to real estate and wastewater treatment; improving the financial ratings of cities where he has worked; and developing a cannabis industry in an agricultural community.
The City Council voted 4-0, with Councilman Ruben Abrica absent, on Tuesday to approve a contract with Jaime Fontes, the former city manager of Greenfield, a city in Monterey County. His first day will be May 1.
Dressed in a dark-colored suit with a red, patterned tie, Fontes thanked the council for a professional, ethical and interactive selection process.
"One of the things that folks made not know about city managers is that there is a spiritual component to what we do. It's manifested through our faith, our families and endless optimism that a city can improve," he said.
"I believe that East Palo Alto can become a regional leader in terms of economic development and sustainable finance but the kind that supports a multicultural and multilingual community in terms of public safety, public health, education, housing and infrastructure."
In his positions managing other cities, he has supported developing a cannabis industry in an agricultural municipality and shepherded complex multimillion-dollar projects related to real estate and wastewater treatment.
Fontes graduated from Nogales High School in Nogales, Arizona, a city just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. He has a bachelor's degree from Arizona State University and doctorate of law from Western State University College of Law. Prior to his city manager positions, he was employed by San Diego County's Department of Public Works as a real estate program coordinator, supervising real property agent and senior real property agent; was CEO for the Economic Development Authority on the Tohono O'Odham Nation in Arizona; and was the real estate manager and assistant planning chief for Maricopa County in Arizona, according to Nogales International news.
As the city manager of Nogales, and of the cities of Santa Paula and Greenfield in California, he has a history of getting stalled projects moving. When he started working in Nogales in 2006, he oversaw the Wastewater Treatment Plant, a project that had been stalled since 1996 due to red tape. The negotiations required working with multiple groups including state and federal water and environmental-protection agencies, banks and a border-protection commission, according to the Nogales International news. Under his tenure, the project received $62 million from the federal government. He also oversaw $199.4 million in federal funding for expansion of the Nogales Mariposa Port of Entry, which was previously stalled for three years.
The city of Nogales also received an AA bond rating from Standard & Poors under his stewardship, "a feat unprecedented in recent memory among Arizona municipalities and county governments," the newspaper reported.
In 2010, he left Nogales to join Santa Paula as its first Latino city manager, where he stayed for seven years. He oversaw the Harvest at Limoneira residential development and the city's buyback of its wastewater treatment plant, projected to save Santa Paula millions of dollars.
In 2017 he joined Greenfield, a city previously known as the Broccoli Capital of the World, where he supported the work of then-Community Services Director Michael Steinmann, an attorney who was tasked in 2015 with developing and implementing the city's cannabis ordinance. The industry development included growing and processing the plants and was expected to bring in $8.5 million in cannabis-business-tax revenue annually from 11 grow facilities.
"He brings a wide track record of getting things done within the communities he has worked with," Greenfield interim City Manager Robert Perrault told Greenfield News after Fontes was hired. "Including the restructuring of financing in the City of Santa Paula that eliminated deficient spending as well as help them develop reserve funds."
"We want to enhance the facilities that would give the youth in a largely Hispanic, lower-income community, developmental opportunities that will incentive them to go on to college or trade school," Fontes told Central Coast public radio station KCBX.
But incoming Mayor Jesus OlveraGarcia and at least one council member saw things differently. In a document obtained by the Monterey County Weekly, Fontes said that just two weeks into his job, the mayor directed him to fire Steinmann. He refused to do so absent of any proof that Steinmann was corrupt. As city manager, he had the discretion to hire and fire staff, but the council and mayor did not. Fontes said the mayor and council member were opposed to the cannabis business developments.
Despite community support largely in his favor, the council voted 3-2 to fire Fontes without naming the cause. He and Steinmann are suing the city for wrongful termination.
Fontes' tenures at the other two cities were unblemished. Santa Paula decided not to renew his contract citing that after seven years they wanted a fresh approach. Fontes had agreed, stating he was interested in other pursuits.
In Nogales, he opted to have his first annual review held in public. He was lauded by the mayor and two council members as a good manager. But they also criticized him for not communicating enough with some members of the council or not providing timely information about city finances and other issues, according to Nogales International news.
Fontes's wife, Clarisse, who he called his best friend, and their daughter, Dominique, were inside East Palo Alto's Council Chambers on Tuesday to watch the City Council approve a resolution for Fontes' appointment. The couple has two sons who were working and could not attend.
Mayor Lisa Gauthier also thanked interim City Manager Sean Charpentier "for all you've done to keep us afloat." He received a round of applause and a standing ovation from City Council members.