A new, but familiar, face at city hall

A Q&A with Paul Hahn, Chico's new interim city manager

Interim City Manager Paul Hahn works at the conference table in his office at Chico City Hall. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

Midday Monday (April 25), a week after taking the reins as interim city manager of Chico, Paul Hahn welcomed a guest into his office. He sat at the conference table, which doubles as his work area—he eschewed the executive desk, with its chair and its computer set-up. He’s done so for personal comfort, he explained, and he’s also leaving that space for whoever gets the job ultimately.

The City Council hired Hahn at a special meeting April 13 and ratified his contract at the regular meeting last Tuesday (April 19). The move allowed Police Chief Matt Madden, deputized to replace former City Manager Mark Orme, to step down from the interim postition and return to his post.

The city has started a nationwide search for the next city manager with a hire expected this summer. Hahn, retired since 2017 as Butte County chief administrative officer, said he will not apply. He plans to serve in the interim, as per his job title—and as he’s done, in three- to-four-month stretches in various capacities for the county and state, the past five years.

Hahn spoke with the CN&R about his hiring, his role and his priorities for his time as interim city manager.

How’s your first week on the job?

[Laughs] It’s been a whirlwind. There’s a lot of things going on. I still live in the community, and I follow things pretty regularly, but it’s different when you’re inside of it and hear all of the details of what’s going on, and a lot of them are just day-to-day things that need to occur.

But it’s been good. It’s like getting back on a bike again after a few years. Local government is a lot of the same issues in counties or cities. It’s been a hectic week but a good one.

How did you hear about the opening?

I heard about it when I got a phone call when I was on vacation in Southern California. I guess folks around here had thrown out some possible names, but I hadn’t even thought about it, quite frankly—and when I was down there, I didn’t even know what was going on with it. I knew Matt had gotten the job as interim [city manager].

But I got a phone call asking, “Would you be interested?” I thought about it overnight, talked with my wife. I am absolutely not interested in coming out of retirement and doing this full time, but for an interim situation, I figured, “Yeah, I could do it.” Basically, got back from Southern California, and that night [April 19] came in for a brief interview with the council, and they called me as soon as I got home, “Let’s make it so.”

Since you retired, have you been doing any work?

A little bit. I retired in 2017, Halloween. In ’18, we had the Camp Fire, and the county asked me to come back—I was the EOC [emergency operations center] director for a lot of that time—and to help with the aftereffects. The next year, 2019, I also got a call from the county—Cathi Grams, who headed up DESS [Department of Employment and Social Services] when I was there, and I worked with the county and the state to set up the program to get trees out of the right of way. And then for the last couple years, Cathi and I have been under an arrangement with the California Department of Social Services to help with Disaster CalFresh.

So I basically have worked three to four months a year, just to kind of keep my hands in it, since I retired.

In your first week, the fence comes off City Plaza and the Pallet shelter opens. Is this a coincidence or causality?

It’s more coincidence. These things were in the planning process. I cannot take credit for either one of those things. Certainly, the Pallet shelter opening has taken up a great deal of my time in the first week, but the plans were being implemented before I came here. Coincidence on both.

What are your priorities?

My priorities in the time that I am here are, one, to make sure that the continued opening goes as smooth as possible—to work with the Jesus Center, to work with the community, to make sure that the opening is a success. Two, obviously when the judge [overseeing the Warren v. City of Chico settlement] this week, on the 28th, rules one way or another, hopefully we get a sign-off to begin implementing enforcement of the anti-camping ordinances and hopefully do that in a systematic, organized, humane as possible way to move the camps and get people into better housing—then repair and renew the sites and open them up so citizens can use them.

That’s one priority.

Budget—we’ve got to get a budget by June 30. Again, that’s in good shape, it’s been well on its way. But getting it passed, getting it through council, is a critical priority.

The council has to decide [how] they want to put a sales tax before the voters. Probably grant some cannabis licenses—that’s coming down the pike and will probably happen during my time here. And then there are some internal things that need to be done [such as] labor negotiations.

Because of your distinct position as a short-timer who’s local, with your experience, do you feel a degree of independence to lead, to push back on the council if you have a strong opinion?

In a limited time, I’m going to be realistic about what I can accomplish. I can’t change an organization or an organization’s culture in two-and-a-half or three or four months, or whatever it’s going to be. At the same time, I don’t have to worry about this being my career, that if I insult somebody that it’s going to hurt my career.

I’m going to say and do what I think is the right thing to do, and I’m going to make recommendations to the council of what I think are the right things to do. I told them that, and I think that’s what they want me to do.

I’m not just going to be sitting here waiting for my time to end. Some of these priorities are pretty significant things, with the homeless issue in general and the budget and the sales tax and cannabis, so I will provide whatever leadership is necessary to make these things happen in my time here. But I’m also not going to take up a whole bunch of new initiatives with a new person coming in, in a short time frame.

I hesitate to say caretaker, because it’s not my style to come here and do nothing. If I’m here, I’m going to be involved as I possibly can—at the same time, not upset the apple cart because I’m the city manager and can do that. If I see something that’s absolutely not working, I might address something, but I haven’t seen that in my first week.

Your tenure in this role will be a success if …

I think if I am able to get through some of these priorities. Certainly, the organization has a lot of anxiety now just because of change. The previous city manager left; there’s an uncertainty as to who the new permanent person is going to be … and election season is coming up soon; that’s always a potential change for everybody. So I just want everybody to try to relax, do their jobs, and if everybody is doing that and we get a new city manager in a timely way, I’ll be quite happy.

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