Clovis News

Many Valley officials don't live where they work

Every weekday evening, the top city administrators of Mendota, Parlier, Orange Cove and San Joaquin get in their cars and drive home.

To Fresno.

It's part of a pattern in the central San Joaquin Valley: About one-third of city managers and police chiefs in the region's 29 cities live outside the communities they serve.

The trend is not limited to small farm towns. Clovis Police Chief Janet Davis lives in Fresno, and Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer lives in an unincorporated area near Fowler.

The advantages of living in town are obvious: Police chiefs and city administrators often need to be on hand in case of an emergency; many residents feel more comfortable approaching them at the grocery store than at City Hall; and it's only fair that they live by the policies that they enforce -- including tax increases.

There also are intangibles to consider. Ed Todd, who has been the Dinuba city manager for 22 years and has lived in town most of that time, said he has a much better understanding of his city.

By living outside the community, "you lose out because you don't have that personal connection outside of the job," he said.

Living out-of-town

But while it was once taken for granted that a city's top officials would live in town, today the state Constitution prohibits cities from requiring it.

Some city managers and police chiefs say there are many reasons they don't live in towns where they work: Small towns can have limited housing options and underfunded school districts, making them less appealing to officials who have good salaries and school-age children; police chiefs and city managers serve at the discretion of the City Council and often spend only a few years on the job, making it unreasonable to expect them to move into town; and some police chiefs feel it is safer for them to live elsewhere, especially if they have a family.

Some officials say that by living outside of their city's limits, they avoid conflicts of interest, such as the pressure to have better police coverage in the chief's neighborhood.

Also, if a city only hired people who were willing to live in town, it might miss out on the most qualified candidate, say city officials who live in one town and work in another. In the end, they say, what matters most is how committed you are to the city that issues your paycheck.

"Here's the bottom line: Is the job getting done and is the community being served?" said Fowler City Manager David Elias, who lives in Hanford.

Some city officials acknowledge that they would rather live elsewhere. Orange Cove's city manager, Alan Bengyel, works for a town that is mostly Hispanic. But he doesn't speak Spanish and prefers to live in an urban area.

"It's a cultural thing," said Bengyel, who lives in Fresno.

"Orange Cove doesn't have my favorite German or Italian restaurants. It doesn't have a theater or a night club."

The housing options are also limited in small towns: "I like swimming pools," Bengyel said. "I like houses that are 2,500 square feet or above."

Even so, many city officials say they spend all their waking hours in the cities where they work.

"I pretty much live here," said Farmersville City Manager Rene Miller, who lives in Visalia. "Just ask my husband."

Nonetheless, some small-town city council members say they wish their city employees lived in town. In Mendota, the police chief lives in Clovis and the city manager lives in Fresno. The police department has 11 officers, but only one lives in town. Four live in Fresno.

City Council Member Joseph Riofrio says City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez has been the best administrator the city has had in decades. Still, he said, it's disappointing that Gonzalez lives more than 30 miles away.

Recently, the City Council asked Gonzalez to spend more time walking around downtown to get to know the community.

"It can be tough at times and frustrating because you're paying him over $100,000 and he's the most well-paid person in this poor community, but at times it's a struggle to make contact with him," Riofrio said.

Gonzalez, who has been city manager for six years, said he does his best to get to know Mendota and spends much of his time in town.

"Regardless of whether I live in the community or not, I strive to stay in tune with the community," he said.

Nonetheless, Riofrio said, sometimes residents get angry because they feel as though the city's employees who live outside of town don't care about Mendota.

Deciding where to live

When Dyer became the Fresno police chief nine years ago, he kept the country home that he built years ago. He said that he's dedicated to Fresno, even though he lives 3 1/2 miles outside city limits -- in an area patrolled by the Fresno County sheriff.

"You can be part of a community without having to live in it," Dyer said. "I've attended church in Fresno for more than 18 years, and I'm actively engaged in that community."

The situation is similar for Davis, the Clovis police chief. Her Fresno home is half a mile from the Clovis city limits.

Across the state, it's not rare for nonelected city employees to live outside the town they work for -- especially in cities where the cost of living is high. The Central Valley has the opposite problem: Some small towns are so poor and the housing options are so limited that city councils typically don't expect city employees to live in town.

When Bengyel was city manager of Fairfax, in the Bay Area, and Marysville, north of Sacramento, he lived in town. But that wasn't the case in Huron or in Orange Cove, where he now works.

The expectations can vary by town. Colleen Mestas, who became Visalia's police chief last year, moved from Fresno.

"The community has an expectation that their police chief live in the city of Visalia, and that's an absolute expectation," she said. "There's just too much going on to have a police chief living an hour away."

But Mestas' husband, Carlos Mestas, has been the police chief in Hanford for seven years and still lives in the family's Fresno home. He said he tried buying a house in Hanford in 2004 but was outbid. Still, he said, "I have a commitment to Hanford." The couple plan to sell their Fresno home next year so they can both live in Visalia.

Some police chiefs say it's important to live in town because it encourages officers to live close by. Most officers in Orange Cove's new police department don't live in town, but Police Chief Frank Steenport said he moved to a home close to the city a month ago to set an example for his officers.

The central San Joaquin Valley city manager with the longest commute -- at least on weekends -- is Huron's Gerald Forde, who was hired in June. He spends weekends at his Long Beach home and rents an apartment during the week -- in nearby Coalinga.

As part of his three-year contract, the city agreed to provide Forde with a new Toyota Prius that he can use for both business and personal use. The city covers the cost of maintenance, insurance and gas -- including for his trips back home.

Forde said that even though he's more than three hours away on weekends, he still takes phone calls and e-mails. "I'm available 24-7," Forde said.

But that doesn't mean he'll be in town. At 4:15 p.m. last Friday, a woman at City Hall said Forde already had left for the day.