City Manager John Shirey gestures at the vast space at the Sacramento Valley Station during a groundbreaking ceremony for a modernization project of the train depot on Sept. 26, 2014. Shirey’s contract as city manager ends Nov. 18. Randall Benton Sacramento Bee file
City Manager John Shirey gestures at the vast space at the Sacramento Valley Station during a groundbreaking ceremony for a modernization project of the train depot on Sept. 26, 2014. Shirey’s contract as city manager ends Nov. 18. Randall Benton Sacramento Bee file

City Beat

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City Beat

Sacramento’s ‘strong city manager’ heads for the door

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

November 06, 2016 01:13 PM

No one would ever mistake John Shirey for Boss Tweed.

Shirey, less than two weeks away from his final day as Sacramento city manager, is less of a politician and more of a details guy. He seems as impressed with rehabbing a water treatment plant as he does with building a downtown sports arena. But as Mayor Kevin Johnson tried time and again to make himself a “strong mayor,” Shirey played the role of a “strong city manager,” threatening to quit if the mayor was given more power than him.

And while Johnson appears at times like a guy who can hardly wait to get the heck out of City Hall, Shirey has privately expressed a strong desire to remain in the job he’s held the past five years. There’s a perception that Shirey is being forced out of his seat by a City Council that is largely loyal to Johnson.

It ends for Shirey on Nov. 18. That’s the last day of his contract, and that night, they’re throwing a party for him at Memorial Auditorium (tickets cost 55 bucks a pop).

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After chewing through city managers in the years before Shirey was hired in 2011, the City Council was looking for stability. Did Shirey provide that?

“A steady hand at the wheel for the city” was how Councilman Larry Carr described Shirey last week during a brief airing of accolades at a City Council meeting.

“A very steady hand at the wheel,” added Councilman Jay Schenirer.

“A steady hand at the wheel,” added Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

“A real guiding light,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, clearly missing the point.

There’s no doubt City Hall’s finances are in better shape today than they were when Shirey took over. The budget has gone from barely having enough cash on hand to cover a single payroll for the city workforce to a substantial cash reserve equaling 10 percent of the general fund budget. Shirey also pushed the council to persuade voters to pass a 2012 sales tax measure that’s paid for cops, firefighters and parks.

His accomplishments – like that newly rehabbed water treatment plant near the Sacramento River – weren’t all sexy. And it’s clear that Shirey has been better at government than at politics. His predecessors spent a lot of time counting votes on the council, trying to predict at any time whether a majority of the council wanted them fired. Shirey hasn’t had to do that and at times butted heads with council members.

Johnson kicked off the minitribute to Shirey last week, saying he had done “an unbelievable job.” He said Shirey had “spearheaded” the development of Golden 1 Center and that his legacy was placing the city’s “fiscal house in order.”

It was Johnson’s addition to the City Council in 2008 that shook up City Hall and led to some of the instability that resulted in the city having three city managers in the 18 months before Shirey was hired. The two often struggled for power at City Hall – with Shirey holding his own – but Johnson said Shirey was “the right man for the job.”

“We’ve accomplished a lot together,” the mayor said. “It’s been a great ride.”