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Ventura County

A Pay Cut and a Homecoming to Santa Paula

New City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz left a good job up north to return to his roots and to what he sees as a land of opportunity.

November 18, 2002|Suzie St. John | Special to The Times

Before accepting a three-year contract to become Santa Paula's new city manager, Wally Bobkiewicz said he did a little soul-searching. Not only would he be leaving a job he really enjoyed, but there was also the issue of taking a $22,000 cut in salary.

Nevertheless, "It didn't take me long to decide that the opportunity in Santa Paula was tremendous," said Bobkiewicz, who left his four-year position as assistant city manager in Novato, Marin County's northernmost city. "Like Marin County, Ventura County and Santa Paula value the quality of life and cherish the environment.

"I looked around the city and said, 'Look at all the potential.' That's what sold me."

Taking the $105,000-a-year job also represented a homecoming of sorts for the 36-year-old administrator. Although born in Chicago, Bobkiewicz's roots are firmly entrenched in Camarillo, where he spent his youth. His parents still live there, and his sister resides in Simi Valley with her husband and daughter.

"The idea of living close to my family again was certainly a consideration in accepting the job," said Bobkiewicz, who is living with his parents while waiting for escrow to close on a home near Santa Paula Memorial Hospital. "I like the idea of having Sunday dinners together."

Santa Paula Mayor Ray Luna said Bobkiewicz's county connection worked in his favor when the City Council was interviewing candidates for the post vacated last November by Peter Cosentini, who resigned after nearly four years to take a job in Half Moon Bay. Santa Paula Fire Chief Paul Skeels served as interim city manager until Bobkiewicz took the reins Oct. 7.

A number of things set Bobkiewicz apart from the other 20 job applicants, Luna said.

"Besides being highly qualified, he came on very strong with his knowledge of local issues," Luna said. "He had been subscribing to the local paper and followed city happenings online. Wally is also very enthusiastic, very caring and is a great listener."

Another point in his favor, said Vice Mayor Laura Flores Espinosa, was Bobkiewicz's efforts to revitalize Novato's downtown and his overhaul of the former Hamilton Army Airfield, which had closed in 1975. Under Bobkiewicz's guidance, affordable housing was constructed, wetlands were restored and hangars were converted into office space.

"He is a consensus-builder, and his track record in economic development made him the strongest choice," Espinosa said. "These are two issues that are very important to Santa Paula right now."

The city has been working toward a complete revitalization of its downtown area for a number of years. Most recently it embarked on the railway plaza project, which closed a portion of Mill Street and will result in the addition of a public park.

"The community wants the downtown to be vibrant, and there's a lot of frustration over plans that haven't been implemented yet," said Bobkiewicz, who earned a bachelor's degree from USC and a master's from Syracuse University, both in public administration. "My job is to take a leadership role in the community and move those plans forward."

He said the first step in accomplishing that goal is to meet with members of the community, his staff and others involved with city government.

"The citizens of Santa Paula pay the bills, so customer service is a top priority with me -- I want this to be a model city," said Bobkiewicz.

He would not say whether he favored development in Adams Canyon, but said he isn't against development in general.

"We have one of the most picturesque downtowns, with real historic buildings, but there are a lot of empty storefronts, so there is a lot of opportunity there," he said. "We need to build on the strength of our business community."

He views one of his biggest challenges as keeping Santa Paulans from traveling elsewhere for dining and shopping.

"I want the people of Santa Paula to shop and dine here," Bobkiewicz said. "Ventura County is a wonderful place, but not enough people understand what a jewel Santa Paula is. Clearly, resources are an issue, but I'm a firm believer that money should never stop you from accomplishing your goals."

He said he knew it would be a challenge to come from a larger city with a budget three times the size of Santa Paula's, but council members believe he's up to the task.

"With him as city manager, we can create a 'we can do' attitude," Luna said. "I know he seems too good to be true, like a classic car that looks so good you start looking for flaws. It's the same with Wally -- I keep looking for a flaw or a weakness, but I haven't found any yet."

Added City Councilman Rick Cook, "He's got his work cut out for him, but we plan on him being here for a long time."

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