First Week, Top Issues for New City Manager

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Newport Beach City Manager Grace Leung at NB civic center on Wednesday.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

 

Newport Beach’s new city manager has hit the ground running in her first week, studying some of the biggest issues facing the city, while also getting to know staff, residents and what makes the community unique.

On Aug. 14, City Council unanimously selected Grace Leung. She started her role as the top administrative spot on Sept. 4, replacing Dave Kiff, who retired on Aug. 31.

Her first week has been great, she said during an interview Wednesday.

“Getting to the know the city has been a fantastic experience,” Leung said. “It’s been a whirlwind.”

Leung participated in her first City Council meeting on Tuesday, which included writing her first “Insider’s Guide,” a newsletter Kiff started that summarizes a few items on the Council agenda.

She is learning the “goings on” of the city departments, meeting with staff and residents to understand the top issues, and getting to know the characteristics and features of the diverse villages. She also emphasized the importance of the city’s history.

“You want to maintain the character and what makes Newport Beach so unique and attractive, yet you still have to grow and adapt with the changing economy and changing demographics,” Leung said. “How do you keep growing but maintain what’s special and what’s unique, and finding that right balance? Protecting, but growing.”

She’s heard a lot of pride and love for the city from longtime residents over the past week. It’s important to keep that, yet still evolve, she noted. It’s a challenge to determine the “right” amount of growth, and what is “too high” or “too dense,” she said. The key is to work through these issues with the community, she added.

“Those are the things you need to work through and figure out how you balance all of that together,” Leung said.

Part of finding that balance is communication with the residents. Newport Beach has a very engaged community and a lot of diverse opinions, she added.

“You want to continue to foster and cultivate that,” Leung said.

The tough part is that not everybody will always be completely satisfied, she continued.

“But I think it’s important that people feel that they’re at least heard, and that their opinions have been heard and that they matter,” Leung said.

That also plays into her professional approach to City Council.

Working for all seven Council members, and working collaboratively so everyone is heard, but come to a decision and move forward, she said. Stick to the facts and communicate as much as possible, making sure everyone is aware of the direction.

“One of the key parts of my job is to implement the policy direction of the Council, and, in doing so, making sure, as best as I can, that they are working effectively together as a group,” Leung said. “And that’s what I am going to work to do.”

Everyone has distinct personalities, varying opinions, and history with each other, she pointed out.

“If we all honor the decision-making process…then I think we’re in a good place,” Leung said.

There are several issues she is already focusing on, including John Wayne Airport, unfunded pension liability, and the new Harbor Operations Department.

Newport Harbor has its own challenges and dynamics, she noted, and understanding that and how it works into the entire city is important. Although she has some exposure to a harbor during the early part of her career in Long Beach, it’s relatively new to her professionally.

“That’s one of the bigger learning curves,” Leung said.

She’s coming on board in the middle of a significant harbor-related change. The city took over management of the moorings last year and, more recently, merged harbor functions into a single, newly-created Harbor Operations Department.

Another important issue Leung has been working on: John Wayne Airport.

“I’ve been delving right into that,” she said.

Leung has spent time learning and working with the community groups and the Council sub-committee on airport issues. They have discussed next steps and what action to take, she said.

Her first week also involved digging into the city’s biggest issue: Unfunded pension liability.

As an older city with more retirees, there are more payments going out, which creates more risk. Newport has taken a hard look at the pension issue and is working to pay it down, she noted.

“A lot of good work has been done so far, and we need to keep our eye on that,” she said. And “setting a budget that really works for the city.”

As the former director of finance for the city of Sunnyvale, she has experience in dealing with city budgets, a quality several Council members praised when she was hired.

Communication, both internally and with the community, is also key for Leung.

“There’s been a great amount of work there,” she said, and her priority would be to effectively maintain and improve upon that.

Getting to know the issues important to residents, she said, and what has been working well and what areas can be improved.

It’s also about her own work-life balance.

Leung, who has two kids, loves outrigger paddling, particularly heading out past the wedge and getting out on the open water, she said. She met her husband, Jim, through dragon boating, a team sport involving 20 paddlers.

“We love the water,” she said.

Although she has several favorite spots in Newport Beach, there is something special as she drives into work on MacArthur Boulevard, on the little hill just before turning to head to city hall, and she takes in the view.

“(Seeing that), I think, ‘Life can’t be bad at all when you have that,’” Leung said.

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