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  Evel Knieval?
March 17, 2005

Following is an interesting column from the March 15 Chronicle about Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay. The fact is that Richmond has potential beyond belief. Optimism about that future and some pretty good things about the present are what keeps me coming back for what is now my 10th year on the City Council. If I thought this was a sinking ship, Id be long gone. Lindsay brings a perceptiveness and circumspection that is refreshing.

 Bureaucrat's Evel Knievel career move
- C.W. Nevius
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Asked the obvious question, Bill Lindsay has an answer ready.

"No,'' he says. "I don't think I am out of my mind.''

OK, so we can rule that out. Let's look for some other reason why someone would deliberately -- eagerly, even -- leave a safe and comfortable job, where he was happy and respected, to take a flying leap into the great unknown.

Granted, Lindsay's new job is not wrangling rattlesnakes or jumping motorcycles off the Bay Bridge. But in the world of city government, it is right up there.

He accepted the unenviable job of Richmond city manager.

How'd it happen?

"Well, I remember the conversation,'' Lindsay says. "I was asked if I had any interest, and I found myself saying yes, and not really knowing why.''

Yesterday, Lindsay began his fifth week leading Richmond. It's a wonderful city, with potential stretching from here to the blue waters of the bay. But there are a few ... concerns. Like that all-time classic municipal "Oops!'' moment last year, when the city was surprised to discover that it had a $35 million deficit.

We don't want to say the city manager's job in Richmond is a career train wreck, but one of the city's previous interim city managers lasted just four months before taking a medical leave.

At that point, Lindsay was completing his ninth pleasant year as city manager in Orinda -- lovely, tree-lined, wealthy, boring Orinda, where hardly anything ever happens. Sure, they have their issues, but let's face it -- it's hardly the vanguard of heated governmental debate.

"I was there nine and a half years,'' Lindsay says. "And in that time there were only seven different City Cuncil members. There was largely a consensus on issues, generally 5-to-0 votes.''

Good luck with that in Richmond. Not that officials there are any less committed to good government. But for starters there are nine council members, increasing the potential for opposing views. But that's small potatoes. As Lindsay says, "Orinda didn't have a port, or a housing authority, or a $35 million shortfall.''

Which does make things a tad more complicated.

So what possessed a perfectly intelligent (bachelor's degree from Yale, master's degree from Cal), middle-aged (48), successful city official to leave the lap of luxury to fly by the seat of his pants? It's not as if he needed the job. Just before Lindsay accepted the Richmond job, San Ramon made a run at him, and Orinda offered him a nice pay raise to keep him.

Mostly, Lindsay says, the change had to do with his bathroom mirror. He kept looking at the guy in it and wondering whether he was getting boring.

"I worried that I was going to get stale,'' he says. "I didn't want to wake up and say, 'Not only have I been there and done that twice, but three or four times.' It is fun to be learning again.''

Of course it would be nice to step in with a grand master plan that would dazzle everyone and revitalize Richmond. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. Forget the big-picture stuff for now: the dreams of a thriving port, a revenue-generating casino, a downtown renaissance. Richmond is just trying to get its libraries open.

"You can't even begin to talk about dreams or vision when you don't know where you next meal is coming from,'' Lindsay says. "They went through very, very difficult times here. And they never want to go back there.''

The problem is that Richmond has been told so often, and so enthusiastically, that it is on the verge of a dramatic turnaround that it is starting to sound like a broken record. Not that the potential is not there.

Lindsay says when he was considering the job he was given a tour of the area, and he was surprised by what he saw.

"My comment at the time was, 'It's amazing what people don't know about this city,' '' Lindsay says. "I mean, I grew up in Contra Costa County (Walnut Creek) and I didn't know.''

Lindsay sees himself as a facilitator, not the star, in the city's turnaround. Some of what he has planned, like an update of the city's general plan, has the verve and zing of microwave oven instructions. But with such steps, Lindsay believes, great things can happen.

"I feel like I'd like to put up one of those signs -- 'Watch this space, ' '' he says.

Oh we will, don't worry. You have to keep an eye on Richmond. There have been times when you could hardly make yourself look away.

Besides, just because the locals have heard about their potential over and over doesn't mean they don't support the effort. Richmond has become the municipal version of the Golden State Warriors -- chronically underachieving but with an ever-hopeful and deeply loyal fan base.

"And maybe,'' Lindsay says, "I can be (heralded new point guard) Baron Davis.''

C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area section and Fridays in East Bay Life. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.