More than three decades after he came to work for the city of Arcata as a bus driver, Randy Mendosa announced Wednesday that he plans to retire his post as city manager in July.
“It’s a great job — I’ve really enjoyed it,” Mendosa said by phone, before adeptly deflecting the praise and attention that came with his announcement. “Arcata’s a really special place to live and work… I’m just really thankful to our really incredible, hard working city employees, without whom we couldn’t have this great city. I want to take this opportunity to tell people how really talented and wonderful this group of people working here is.”
Mendosa earned his first paycheck from the city of Arcata in 1980 as a bus driver for the Arcata Mad River Transit System. Two years later, he joined the police force and went on to work his way up the ranks over the ensuing decades until he was sworn in as the city’s chief of police in 2002.
One day in November 2008, Mendosa said he was running late for a department heads meeting at City Hall when he ran into then-City Manager Michael Hackett, who was leaving the building. “I said, ‘Hey, you’re going the wrong way,’” Mendosa recalled. “He said, ‘I have to go, and can you be acting city manager?’”
It turned out Hackett had received a terminal cancer diagnosis (he died in August of 2009) and wouldn’t return. But Mendosa stepped in and learned the job on the fly. Mayor Mark Wheetley said Mendosa quickly developed a reputation for being a quick learner, treating everyone with respect and tackling whatever the council threw at him. “There’s no problem too small and no task too large for him to undertake and resolve in a positive manner,” Wheetley said.
Mendosa served as acting city manager, and later interim city manager, before the council decided in January 2010 to hand him the reins on a permanent basis. Tom Chapman, who came up under Mendosa in the police department, was then tapped as Arcata’s next chief. Chapman said it’s important to remember Mendosa stepped in at a time of great change for the city.
“City management was really in flux at that time, and the city desperately needed somebody to stabilize the internal dynamics, to provide leadership to the department heads,” Chapman said. “He was able to provide a lot of structure to city hall, and I feel like we’ve seen improvement in communication within the city, with departments working better together.”
For his part, Mendosa said the city had a need and he was happy to help, despite the fact that becoming a city manager was never a part of his career plans. “For a long time, I would say, ‘I’m not a real city manager, but I play one on TV,’” Mendosa said, adding that he grew into the job. “I feel like a real city manager now — I’ve been doing the job long enough.”
Mendosa said it’s time for the city to have some fresh blood come in, and time for him to move into another phase of life. “I don’t intend to slow down, but I’ll do some other things,” he said. Just what do those “other things” include? Well, Mendosa said the only things he has on the docket currently are spending more time with his family and helping with a certain local political campaign. Mendosa declined to say which while on the clock but, after leaving City Hall Wednesday evening said he's looking forward to offering his help to Maggie Fleming's campaign for district attorney.
Meanwhile, Mendosa's departure leaves the city with some big shoes to fill. Chapman said Mendosa’s work ethic, passion for the city and institutional memory will all be missed greatly, while Wheetley pointed to Mendosa’s steadying influence and ability to work with folks from all backgrounds and political persuasions.
Mendosa said the timing of his decision has a lot to do with his confidence in the current city council, which he said is experienced and seasoned and will be able to find a new, capable city manager and show him or her the ropes. Retiring in July, Mendosa said, will also allow a new city manager to step with a budget already in place for the coming fiscal year.
Wheetley was blunt when talking about the task that Mendosa’s retirement leaves the council with. “The process of hiring a city manager is one of the most important decisions a council will face,” he said. “A good city manager can raise the functionality of any city, and a bad one can leave behind ashes.”
Chapman and Wheetley both said that whoever the city hires next will have a tough act to follow in Mendosa. “He’s a consummate professional and just a completely dedicated public servant,” Wheetley said. “I think if we had more Randy Mendosas, the world would be a better place… The people of Arcata really owe a debt of gratitude to Randy and all he’s done for the community over all these years.”