An Exclusive Conversation with New Emeryville City Manager Carolyn Lehr

Published On August 31, 2015 | By Rob Arias | Community Voices, In the Neighborhood, Interviews, News & Commentary, Politics

When it was announced that two-year Emeryville City Manager Sabrina Landreth was recruited back to Oakland by Mayor Libby Schaaf, it kicked off a national search for her replacement. In June it was announced that Carolyn Lehr has been selected amongst the pool of candidates to take over the important administrative role.

Lehr is a Sacramento native who received her undergraduate degree at San Jose State and her Masters of Public Administration at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Lehr brings a combined 25 years of city government experience scattered around parts of California with a brief stint in Michigan. Personally, Lehr is married to U.S. Chief Information Officer and former Microsoft CIO Tony Scott and has two grown sons whom both graduated from the University of Michigan.

We reached out to Lehr for an exclusive interview and she graciously obliged. Lehr provides a bit of her personal history that led her to this current opportunity as well as her insight to problem-solving and city priorities. Lehr also provides a revelation about her current living arrangement that I think E’villains will be very happy with.

Lehr officially began her job on June 19th and her introduction to the Planning Commission at City Hall can be viewed in the below EPOA YouTube video:


Interview has been edited for clarity.

An Exclusive Conversation with New Emeryville City Manager Carolyn Lehr

EE: It’s Wednesday, August 12th. I’m here at Emeryville City Hall with our new city manager, Carolyn Lehr. Lehr of course, replaced Sabrina Landreth on June 19th. She’s been here on the job for almost two whole months. Carolyn graciously agreed to an exclusive interview with The E’ville Eye so we can provide our readers with some insight into how things are going for you and get to know you a little bit better. Thank you for agreeing to this.

Carolyn: Thanks for giving me the opportunity, Rob. I think it’s really important to me that the community has this opportunity, this outlet to get to know who I am. I would like to make sure that they feel very comfortable contacting us with any of their concerns or comments.

EE: Thank you. Well, We don’t know too much about you, but we do know that you’re from Sacramento originally. What’s been your perception and interaction with Emeryville thus far growing up and professionally? You’ve probably spent some time in the area and probably passed Emeryville many times.

Carolyn: I have to admit that growing up in Sacramento, in my time in the South Bay, through college and so on, Emeryville really was not very much on my radar, being more of an industrial location. There weren’t very many opportunities or reasons other than to drive through and be generally aware of its location at the base of the Bay Bridge. Clearly, now having come back for this opportunity, arriving in town to prepare for my interview, it was quite a surprise to see the transformation to a very vibrant city where there is so much activity. It made the interview process pretty exciting for me. It was a revelation.

EE: So when you tell all your peers, “I’m working in Emeryville now.” they might actually know where that is?

Carolyn: Yes. They are generally aware of the transformation that it is going through and certainly through the redevelopment years. I think that my colleagues who also had a lot going on in the redevelopment area, I think they viewed Emeryville as, as one of them put it, “Redevelopment on steroids.”

EE: [laughs] I’ve heard that before. Lots has been written about redevelopment and the pros and cons of it. That era is over now, and Emeryville is trying to get its foothold without it.

Carolyn: Well, it is and it isn’t. As far as the state funding is concerned, that mechanism certainly has wound down. I think that the community leaders have been generally pleased that development in many areas has continued to mark our city. The level of interest from developers is still very much there.

EE: So we know some of your qualifications, and I’m sure there were a lot of highly qualified applicants but you were ultimately hired. Can you think of anything that made you stand out amongst the other candidates with the current set of Councilmembers? Any qualifications that you think that made councilmembers say, “Yeah, she’s the person we want!”?

Carolyn: Well, of course, professional qualifications are usually at the top of the list. I would guess that I would have more years of actual experience as a City Manager than my competition at that time. 13 years of city management experience for a few different cities. The range, the variety of my experience is very deep. I’ve worked for very suburban cities, and I’ve worked for larger cities, not only as a city manager but also as a mid-manager. I think the range of my experience means that there’s almost no type of project that I have not dealt with in one form or another. Having worked my way up through the ranks, I’ve worked in just about every department, every area of municipal services.

I also had a sense that there was a strong connection with my ability to glean from the councilmembers during the interview process, what it was they were all about, what their priorities were, my ability to relate to what they sought in a new city manager.

EE: Personally, I saw that you identified yourself as a boating enthusiast as one your hobbies. You probably spent some time on the ocean as City Manager of Rancho Palos Verdes. Do you plan on spending any time at our beautiful marina and was this a consideration for wanting to work in a city like Emeryville?

Carolyn: Well, we’re not doing very much boating at the moment, but we did do some while living in Southern California. We hope someday to pick up on that hobby again. The first thing I did when bringing my husband into town and giving him a tour of Emeryville, he was very impressed with the ambiance and the vibrancy of the city, and we did go to the marina for a quick tour. He was checking out the marina and found the facilities to be pretty cool. Someday, if we get back into the boating, we would definitely love to take advantage of the fact that I would, for the first time, be managing a city that has a marina. The close-proximity to San Francisco is really something that took my breath away.

EE: Is there anything else you can share that will help Emeryville residents get to know the new city manager a little bit? Anything personal that you might share?

Carolyn: Well, I think the fact that in my early college years I began my part-time job. It was working as a parks and recreation leader. I did spend 9 years in that field. That made quite an impression on me. It gave me an opportunity to work with community groups of all sorts. It helped me get that grounding in municipal services that I think made me feel very comfortable looking at a wide range of city services. Also I have 9 years of experience in private business, which is unusual for someone in my profession, having spent 7 years in an emerging Silicon Valley high-tech company for a company called Dysan. Most of the time, you find that one’s entire career has been spent in local government.

EE: Not the vacuum cleaner company (Dyson)? [chuckles]

Carolyn: No, magnetic media. My experience in that field gave me an appreciation for working both for high-tech companies and also two-year in the healthcare field working in a management level position in marketing. I think it helps me to gain a better insight and appreciation for both the importance of attracting business, the whole area of development gives me another perspective.

EE: That’s the entire career gamut. Parks and Recreation, to corporate high-tech, to …

Carolyn: And working on multi-million dollar purchasing contracts and so on.

EE: I think you only had one day of overlap with Sabrina Landreth. Did she in fact offer you any advice that you could share with us, or tell you about any approach to transitioning to this new job? Did she have any words of advice for you?

Carolyn: The overlap focused a lot more on sharing information with me on the current state of major projects. The insights into the Council priorities and goals. The strengths and weaknesses within the organization itself. What some of the coming challenges would be. I found that to be the most helpful. I think that City Managers don’t get into giving advice to the next guy, I think our preference is to let your successor get in there and discover for themselves and reach their own conclusions and make their own observations. I had already given some thought as to my first 100 days. It was something that I’d talked to the council about during the interview process. What I would envision in the way of a transition. That’s worked out well. Listen, learn, observe. Don’t give so much advice or quickly reaching an opinion, but sit back for a good period of time and understand the culture of the new city that you’re in. Appreciate its uniqueness, and I think Sabrina would agree that as she is looking at transitioning from Emeryville back to Oakland, the importance of appreciating the city and the council that you work for.

EE: I’ve heard the reference to being a sponge. Absorbing. Is that a good way to describe where you’re at with the job?

Carolyn: I think it is. There’s a lot that I recognize, but it would have to be taking bits and pieces from all the different cities and organizations that I’ve worked for. As a city manager, one of the most important things you can do is to listen to and meet one-on-one with individual councilmembers and community leaders.

EE: Ok. That kind of leads us into the next question. It’s just how you’ve acclimated to what’s going on in Emeryville. How you’ve checked the pulse. It sounds like you’ve met individually with the councilmembers and community leaders, and probably had some one-on-one with key members of staff. Is there anything else? Any resources for you that you’ve incorporated to kind of just get the pulse of what’s going on?

Carolyn: Sure, I made up my mind that I was going to spend these first months renting a residential unit right here in town.

EE: You’re currently living in Emeryville?

Carolyn: I am living in town and I decided that would be important. Whatever the long-range arrangement is going to be, as I go through transitioning my own living arrangement.

EE: It’s expensive here. They must be paying you a lot [laughs].

Carolyn: [chuckles] It’s expensive, and I live in a modest rental unit. I felt it was important for me to spend time living here so that I get the full range of the experience. For example, it’s important for me to put myself out there. To be open and available for speaking engagements. I will make myself available to go speak at HOA meetings, etc.. I also want to engage in some of the recreational activities that are available here. I will be attending special events.

EE: I think people will be really happy to hear that. I’ve lived here through three City Managers, but I’m not familiar with one ever having in fact lived here. I think it provides some “boots on the ground” insight. I think people will be pleasantly surprised that you’re one of “us” [laughs].

Carolyn: It’s good because I’m able to observe up close and personal how our city projects are coming along, how the work on our city streets affects the flow of traffic. I went on ride-alongs with the police. That was really important and it won’t be the last time. I’ve also gotten a tour of the artist co-op from one of our councilmembers. I was so pleased to have gotten that kind of a cultural insight to see and understand one of the unique aspects of Emeryville. I met some of the artists and saw the studios, I realized that I was smiling. I’m quite excited to be in that kind of a dynamic culture.

EE: Any artistic skills of your own?

Carolyn: No. [laughs] When I was a Rec. leader I was more into arts & crafts. It had more to do with working with children and seniors and that sort of thing, but no real skills. [laughs]

EE: [laughs] OK. As an “outsider”, you had to kind of quickly asses the health of our city. What are your first impressions when you look things over? Our financial health, infrastructure, and then distil that into what you think the priorities for the city should be personally. What metrics are you looking at to say, “Ok, these should be my priorities”?

Carolyn: Of course, there’s two different levels here. The top-level of my job is to glean and assess what the top priorities are of the city council, and to translate and implement those into my organizational priorities. At the same time, my job also is to cultivate an organization that is high-energy, financially stable, responsive to the community, has a healthy infrastructure, and to make sure I can build these management priorities with the budgetary resources that we have. I think what I have learned is very good news. It’s very exciting for me.

EE: I think that’s what we want to hear. Do we want to hear doom and gloom, or, “Oh, yeah, Emeryville is looking OK.”

Carolyn: I think looking at the good news first, we are on very firm ground financially. One of the first questions I wanted to know is, “What are our general fund reserves?” I was pleased to hear that the city has a written policy of maintaining reserves between 25% and 50% of our operations which at this moment, slightly exceed the top-level. We are a few percentage points higher than the 50% top range. That’s very exciting, and I am talking to our finance director about the potential of presenting to the budget and governance committee the idea of how we want to expand or dedicate those excess funds. We can either leave it in reserve and just have a higher reserve fund, or we can actually use those funds to address some of the challenges that we have and that all cities have. An example might be that we take a look at proposing to the subcommittee the idea of paying down our unfunded liability for our retirement fund. That’s one of the things that is a big topic these days.

EE: Financial health is pretty optimistic. Anything sobering that you saw?

Carolyn: I think we need to be very aware and very conscious of maintaining a sustainable spending path. We need to make sure that we are utilizing current dollars for current programs, and that we’re not looking at utilizing one time revenues for ongoing expenditures, building up unsustainable expectations for services. These are common challenges that cities across the board have.

EE: Everywhere from Chowchilla to Rancho Palos Verdes.

Carolyn: Absolutely, and I think we also need to be very mindful of setting aside reasonable expenditures to maintain healthy infrastructure. Like other cities, we do have some infrastructure needs that need to be addressed. Of course, those can get into the multi-million dollars very quickly. We have to set priorities, and have a long-term view.

EE: You mentioned you’ve already been on a police ride-along and plan on going on more. It kind of leads me into my next question. Emeryville, from my knowledge of your experience, may be a little more “urban” with real urban problems than other cities you’ve been a part of. More crime, homelessness … I’ve never been to Rancho Palos Verdes, but they probably have different problems than we have. What challenges does this bring for you professionally?

Carolyn: Not all the cities, including my most recent city, have as much of an urban environment nor the challenges when it comes to homelessness. Some cities over the years have definitely had that challenge. I think that this city council operates with and sets its priorities with a social consciousness. They have a heart. They are aware and concerned about the less fortunate. That sends a strong message to me to make sure that affordable housing remains a priority and that the housing stock as well as care and safety for folks of all economic means will remain a priority. For me, it’s a matter of scale. I’ve dealt with the urban problems. I understand the full range of how cities plan for those issues, whether it’s in the general plan, making sure that we provide inclusionary housing and look for opportunities. Working with police and social services to care for those who may be at risk. It’s a matter of making sure that our city uses the full range of services that we have to apply to those urban problems. I’m up to the challenge though, and I’m very excited for the fact that I see Emeryville and this council as being action-oriented and solutions-oriented.

EE: So one of the biggest duties for you initially will be to permanently fill the vacancy of Police Chief left by Ken James and currently occupied by intern chief Dave Hall. I think, in fact, they’re soliciting input through the end of the week. What will guide your decision, and what will the timetable be? Do you in already have a short list of candidates [Note: Since this interview was conducted, it was announced that Jennifer Tejada was selected]?

Carolyn: We are working on that short list. We have a very carefully defined recruitment process. I think that the number of candidate applications range the mid 30s, which is an excellent number. I understand that we have a good number of highly-qualified candidates that we’re actually excited about. We want to make sure that we go through the process and don’t leap to any conclusions. I think the city of Emeryville is ready to take a fresh look at police services. We know from what’s going on in the national picture that there are new challenges. I think that our residents have an expectation that we will be looking for new methods and making sure that our police services reflect community policing in a true sense. Be open to new ways of reaching into the community. As for a new Police Chief, I would be looking for ethics, a grasp of community policing methods, an ability to relate to all aspects of our community, mature leadership, up on the latest management methods, and to really be able to provide a solid example that the officers throughout the organization are going to want to follow. Really to take a thorough assessment of what is working and what could be better within the police organizations.

EE: Community policing is something that we’re hearing a lot about in lieu of everything that’s happening nationally. I guess there’s an evolving standard of what that actually means. That outreach seems critical, not just in towns like Ferguson but Emeryville, California.

Carolyn: It’s not just a buzzword. I’m extremely pleased with the work that our interim Police Chief Hall is doing to set the stage very effectively for a reassessment and what community policing could look like in Emeryville. I think that we are fortunate to be looking at a very successful transition plan. I think the handoff is going to be smooth. I think that this probably is the first time that the city has publicized the ways that our citizens can communicate to us the traits that they hope we will find in a new Police Chief and we have been hearing.

EE: [laughs] I’d love to read some of these. So, at the request of residents, Sabrina initiated regular, she called it, “Coffee with the City Manager.” I attended a couple of them myself. These were kind of informal meetings with residents. Do you plan any kind of similar outreach for residents? You talked about being available for speaking engagements, HOAs, etc. … anything like the coffee series or even perpetuating the coffee meetings? [Carolyn’s first Coffee with the City Manager will be on September 9th] 

Carolyn: We will continue with the Coffee with the City Manager, and I would look to also support the councilmembers and particularly the Mayor in whatever similar efforts that they may take up. Coffee with the City Manager will be continued, but I’m also looking at my presence out in the community. Perhaps looking at ways that I can be a part of the community charity events or non-profits. I think outreach with the schools will also be a priority for me. Neighborhood Watch is something that I’m not sure whether there has been much of a presence there. It’s an opportunity, although its focus is on crime prevention, it also can be a very effective community awareness building tool. I’ve also been attending all of the advisory committee meetings to introduce myself. Whatever I can do to encourage participation from a broad range of our residents to apply for vacancies that may come up would be good, and just generally making myself very available and visible and to support the council.

EE: The press coverage in Emeryville has been mostly limited to a few local blogs including this one, which in my opinion has resulted in a low-level awareness among residents. There are of course a lot of other factors and criteria on this, but it’s always been my personal mission to let people know what’s going on with the city and provide a digest for residents that don’t have time to go to city council meetings or really engage themselves and be part of committees. Do you have any ideas for how we can get more people involved and communicate better so more residents have a say.

Carolyn: I think our city website is one area I want to take a careful look at. Although it is a very good tool and has a lot of information on it, we need to put greater effort into making sure that it remains up to date and is current and easy to use. That it becomes to kind of tool that is the first thing that people think of when they want to know something that may be going on or they want to get their questions answered or they want to make a comment and to be heard. A close-working relationship with the schools and other non-profits.

ETV (Emeryville TV) is another resource that I think is underutilized. I have started to talk to the councilmembers about the idea of using ETV to cover current projects. Reaching out to our city councilmembers in terms of city policy, current issues, some of the challenges that they’ll be taking up as a council. Also I think we can do a better job of being proactive in pushing current stories out to the blogs and to the newspapers. I think just being more proactive and making sure that my staff and my councilmembers have an opportunity to use the media and put them in touch.

EE: I think this is something all of us working professionals can relate to, that sometimes you have to push back on your bosses. That applies to city government as well. Will you, Carolyn Lehr, push back with council if you feel the timetables they’re demanding will compromise the quality and thoroughness of you and your staff’s analyses of a project and making recommendations for its implementation?

Carolyn: Sure, and as I said before, one of the things I was very attracted to in the interview process was that this is a very action-oriented, a very progressive city council. Probably more than any other council I have worked for, is open to change, open to take action. They have a very strong sense of the vision and programs that they would like to see implemented. I have not yet felt that I have been put into a position of being pushed beyond my comfort level. I’ve only been here about 7 weeks. Could it happen? Sure it could, and that could happen in any city where, for whatever reason, something bubbles to the surface and they just want instantaneous responsiveness. I think that yes, I will make sure that the council will be aware of the likely pros and cons of whatever timetable, and they would understand the timetable that I would recommend as I understand sometimes the urgency of what this council may come up with. That’s where creativity comes in. My goal is success, or whatever it is the council is trying to achieve. The talent runs very deep within this particular staff.

EE: Ok. Sabrina was just here for two years, but I feel like she made a dent in upgrading our tech. She rolled out the Engage Emeryville App, updated the city’s website which was looking pretty dated, she introduced some social media channels. We get city council meetings up on YouTube very quickly. We’re on Twitter …  the backbone for tech is there. It sounds like you and your husband have roots in tech. Do you plan on continuing to build on these initiatives of utilizing technology to improve access and communication?

Carolyn: Yes, this is a closely related question to the transparency one and how we plan to bring the city services more into the awareness of the community. I’ve actually been very pleased with our IT department. I think we are already going through some transitions. Even in the short time that I’ve been here, we are bringing, for example, our email into Cloud. I’ve noticed that the leadership and management in IT seems to be particularly dynamic. His view of what he does and his profession and his technology, he has a very broad view of his place within city operations. I’m very excited about that. I can see where technology is going to play a greater role when it comes to updating and making our website a more powerful tool, or emergency preparedness. I can see a great deal of opportunity there and potential for improving our responsiveness. Getting quick alerts out to our residents with call-backs and maybe utilizing our ETV for quick alerts and getting information out to residents.

EE: Sounds like the best has yet to come? [chuckles]

Carolyn: Yes, and the important thing is how dynamic the application of technology can be in improving the full range of our city services.

EE: Transparency is a huge part of The E’ville Eye’s mission. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve got a little bit more of a channel for getting information. I contact Planning or Public Works or call members of the police force, and they generally get back to me. I feel like there’s some momentum here, but there’s always room for improvement. I guess what I’m asking you is can we get a commitment from you that you’ll help keep this momentum by being responsive to The E’ville Eye and other sources that help facilitate communication with residents?

Carolyn: I think we need to keep moving forward. It’s unfortunate if occasionally the experiences of the past have not been always ben entirely positive. I think that the city, like other public organizations, sometimes frequently find that – we feel that there is so much that we would like to share, and so much to be proud of. Yet, sometimes there’s a tendency to focus on the negative spin. I personally look forward to working more with you, and would be quite open to the idea of us having a regular session together. I think that we can stay on top of what the challenges of the city are, and I think that as long as we can focus on accurate information, I will be happy to be someone who you can count on and that the community can count on. Whether it’s my department heads, whether it’s a councilmember, whether it’s the police chief. I’m very excited to hear that you may be interested in developing a strong working relationship with me. Not everything can be positive sometimes. We will experience challenge. Sometimes we will experience conflict, but that is all part of the business of local governments.

EE: There’s always going to be criticism on certain things, but I think that’s just part of the dialogue. I appreciate that overture. That’s thrilling to me personally.

Carolyn: It’s in the city’s best interest that we share accurate information, and that we’re up front as to what our opportunities and challenges are on an ongoing basis. The media can be a very essential and powerful tool in the process of local governments.

EE: OK, Last question. Is there anything you’d like to say to the residents of Emeryville about the city’s future and your commitment to just improving our way of life?

Carolyn: Well, my commitment is to, of course, understand the vision and the priorities of the city council. To provide whatever methods I can to seek out and implement best practice, advanced management methods. To nurture a talented staff so that we always have — I nurture the strong morale within the staff. With every single hire, I make sure that I raise the bar. I guess the bottom-line is that, with any organization that I work for, my goal would be to make sure I leave it in better shape than when I found it. I would like to make sure that I leave this organization within city hall and the staff and the achievements that are remarkable, noteworthy, and something to be proud of.

EE: Well I appreciate your thoroughness and ability to answer all our questions and your honesty here. Carolyn Lehr, welcome to Emeryville, and I’m so glad you’re also a resident.

Carolyn: I am very excited to be here.

About The Author

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who moved to Emeryville in 2003. A new parent in the community, he can often be seen walking his French Bulldog rescue "Fiona" around his Park Avenue District neighborhood, traversing the greenway on his bike or enjoying his favorite Emeryville small businesses. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

2 Responses to An Exclusive Conversation with New Emeryville City Manager Carolyn Lehr

  1. Adam says:

    Thank you Rob, a simple unvarnished interview. Much appreciated.

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