Clovis News

Clovis loses strong leader as Millison leaves

A 27-year era ends this week at Clovis City Hall with the departure of city manager Kathy Millison.

Millison, who started as an assistant to the city manager in 1983 and was named city manager in 1991, starts her new job Monday as city manager of Santa Rosa.

She leaves behind a city with a refreshed downtown, a network of trails, a new water-filtration plant with a water recycling system, four new fire stations and a new police and fire headquarters -- all projects that came into being under her watch.

"I think that she definitely has a legacy here," said Pat Wynne, who served as a Clovis City Council member from 1990 to 2003.

Earlier this week, the council approved hiring a recruitment firm to find a replacement for Millison, 58. But, a permanent city manager is not likely to be named until the middle of 2011, after the City Council election in March. Robert Woolley, the city's finance director, is serving as interim city manager until a new one is named.

Building relationships, not edifices, was Millison's greatest strength, Wynne said.

She said Millison could resolve conflicts and forge compromises among those on different sides of an argument.

"She could work with anybody and knew how to get people together," Wynne said.

Some of the city's key projects, such as the Clovis Botanical Garden, came about because Millison devoted time to building relationships with private nonprofit groups as well as other public agencies, said Mayor Harry Armstrong.

Much of her vision has shaped how the city looks today.

But Millison also knew how to make hard decisions, Armstrong said. Her ability to handle budget issues over the past three years saved the city from massive layoffs, although the city has had to cut dozens of positions. The budget reductions also led to pay cuts for all city employees.

When Millison arrived in 1983, Clovis had about 34,000 residents. It's about 97,000 today -- about half the size of Santa Rosa -- but its growth was always carefully planned and managed.

"Kathy very much had a strategic view of how to maintain quality in a community while accommodating the needs of future growth," said Ed Tewes, who preceded Millison as city manager and today is city manager of Morgan Hill.

It was not long into Millison's tenure that Clovis entered some of its darkest political days.

The FBI came to town and found developers secretly meeting with three City Council members, promising money for their votes on housing plans that did not conform with the proposed general plan.

Between 1992 and 1994, those council members -- Glynn Bryant, Leif Sorenson and Dave Lawson -- also made sure that city staff did not get a say in opposing those projects by prohibiting staff recommendations. The result was a series of 3-2 votes with Armstrong and Wynne on the short end. It left city staff suspicious about the way decisions were made.

"Our planning and development staff and my office felt a little under siege," Millison said.

Soon after the triumvirate came to power, the city's attorney, Leland Stephenson, was replaced, and public works director Leon Lancaster resigned.

Wynne said a larger plan was at work: fire Millison, John R. Wright, the city's planning director, and Jeff Witte, the assistant city manager.

But nobody knew for sure what was going on behind the scenes until developer Bill Tatham Jr., wore a wire for the FBI's Operation Rezone.

Within months, indictments were coming down against developers, their representatives, council members in Fresno and the three pro-developer council members in Clovis.

"We knew these relationships were just too close," Millison said.

The information came to light just weeks before the April 1994 election, angering Clovis voters. Kent Hamlin, now a Fresno County Superior Court judge, defeated Lawson and joined Armstrong and Wynne as the council's new majority.

For Millison, Hamlin, Armstrong and Wynne, it was time to find a way to regain the community's confidence and add transparency to the council process.

To build confidence in the council and city staff, Millison said, the City Council started turning back land-use decisions passed in the earlier 3-2 votes. Council members also started declaring their potential conflict-of-interest relationships.

"The council deserves credit for slowing down their method of making decisions for the public to gain confidence," Millison said.

With a shrinking budget, that public confidence is more valuable than ever, and it's shown in large-scale volunteer efforts such as tree plantings and community cleanups.

But it's the city's willingness to innovate, with its paseo trail plan, indoor sewage-treatment plant and sewer pump house that looks like a Craftsman-style home, that sets it apart, Millison said.

"Clovis has to be counted on to be a leader in the region," she said, "and the next city manager has to understand that."