Merced, Calif. (CVJC) – Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz, the first woman to serve in the role, received a standing ovation and tearful goodbyes Monday during her last City Council meeting.
Dietz, 43, announced her planned departure in February after seven years working for the city, starting as assistant city manager in 2016.
Dietz, who grew up in Winton and lives in Merced, previously worked in a number of roles for Merced County and a stint at UC Merced. She has been working as city manager since November 2020. “This has been the greatest honor,” Dietz said during the meeting.
During her time as city manager, Dietz said she focused on keeping the community at the forefront of the work. “There are problems in every corner, but there’s good in every corner,” she said. “The biggest resource in this community is its people and their resiliency.”
Mayor Matthew Serratto and the council thanked Dietz for her leadership and praised the work ethic she brought to the job. “From the beginning, you’ve been a star,” Serratto said. “From the beginning, you walked in and owned it. …From the beginning, you’ve been such a blessing for the city.”
After the ceremony, Serratto issued the oath of office to incoming City Manager Scott McBride and incoming Police Chief Steven Stanfield.
Nov. 15 will mark Dietz’s last day as city manager. She hasn’t publicly announced what she plans to do after she leaves city hall, but she says to stay tuned.
She recently sat down with CVJC to reflect on her time as city manager. The conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CVJC: Explain to the average resident what a city manager does.
Dietz: A city manager is a lot of things. They’re the top administrator of the city. They work for the City Council. They take policy direction from the City Council, and they implement that direction. But it’s more than that.
They are the head leader of an organization – basically, a CEO. The city is a multi million-dollar corporation, with multiple funds and 10 different departments that all provide direct service to the community.
A city manager is also a community liaison for the council, interfacing with businesses, educational partners, and nonprofit, religious, faith-based partners. It takes a relationship with all of them to run a city.
It really is not an 8-5 job, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job. Anytime something good or bad happens in the city, I was made aware …So you carry the weight of every resident on your shoulders, and it’s something that I took very seriously.
CVJC: Can you name one major accomplishment and the biggest challenge during your time as city manager?
Dietz: I was the first female city manager coming in, during the biggest pandemic our world had seen since 1900. So to be the first female, the youngest and coming in during a pandemic, that’s monumental. I can’t even describe to you the complexity of that.
Each group needed to be served and thought about differently, from Main Street businesses, churches, to schools. We really had to reimagine what life was going to look like, and still try to keep businesses open, and still try to serve the community – and not be afraid – and protect our employees.
And then to worry about the budget and the economy. You know, the economy is usually very predictable. Before COVID, we had set markers we could see, and we measured them, and we watched them, and we could feel very confident about our ability to budget.
But after COVID, nothing was normal. We really had to think about life differently. We found ways to serve the public. It was tough. It was really, really humbling to see how well the community supported us.
I had weekly calls with all of these sectors. I’d have a Thursday call with my faith-based group. At the end of the call, they would pray for me because they recognized how hard it was. They knew that my intention was to support everyone and to find a solution, no matter what situation. That’s very unusual for government and faith-based organizations. You definitely don’t expect that when you’re telling people they can’t have church.
Gosh, the community stepped up in such a big way. It was a challenge that we had to overcome collectively as a community, but one I’ll never forget. Ever.
CVJC: What are the signs of a healthy city operation, and when can you tell a city is struggling?
Dietz: You know the city’s being run well when you don’t notice them.
Your garbage gets picked up on time. Your parks are green and look nice. There’s nothing broken on the playground. The streets are well maintained. When you turn on your water and water comes out, and when you flush your toilet, it works.
I think there are lots of residents and businesses who can remember a time when that wasn’t happening for various reasons. It was not because there wasn’t a desire to do a good job, but maybe resources or the economy were different.
Construction is always a good sign that your city is healthy and vibrant, and we have construction going on in every corner of the city right now. Anytime you can see sticks and bricks – that’s what I say. And then when we’re doing maintenance, growth, reconstruction, when we’re building new parks – that’s when you know a city is healthy.
Then you do your checking up at budget. Are we laying people off? Are we adding? Do we have healthy reserves, Like we do? We have a 35% operating reserve for the first time in the history of the city. That’s monumental – and that’s cash.
Our budget, being as healthy as it is, is a huge accomplishment. I don’t think people understand the value of that.
I think my biggest accomplishment is unlocking the potential and really, really allowing people to be creative thinkers – to bring solutions, to ask if they can do something different, to really create a culture where we’re a team. I tell it to my department heads all the time – I’m not here to micromanage you. I’m not a police chief or a fire chief. Those aren’t my expertise. My expertise is creating situations where you feel empowered to do your job. Bring me a problem, and we’ll work through a solution. So I really felt like I changed that picture and really unlocked a lot of the potential of City Hall.
CVJC: The annexation of UC Merced was a long time coming. Why did it take so long, and what did it take to create forward motion?
Dietz: The first holdup is the law, the state law. You just can’t randomly annex land. In 2018, we were evaluating what’s the best way to get to the UC. We did a huge study trying to figure out who wants to come in, who doesn’t want to come in, where do we have success? My partnership with then-Assemblyman Adam Gray, at the time, was looking at this like, ‘none of this is going to work. What’s a different solution?’
He came up with AB 3312. That really allowed us to fast track the application. So the first hurdle was the state law. Adam helped make an exemption for UC. It had been done before, so it wasn’t like we were creating new law. But we took a solution that worked for a different campus, and we asked the legislature to apply it to Merced.
CVJC: Speaking of development and connecting the city to the UC – during the recession, not a single unit of housing was built in Merced. What reignited that?
Dietz: So our housing market actually started rebounding before. I think the market was right for that.
Everyone thought the UC would come, and then instantly the city would be different. No one really had a crystal ball to see how slowly those impacts would be felt in the community. So before the recession, we were approving projects and maps and master planned communities.
But really, post recession, economic factors changed. Interest rates were different, land values were different and created the right market for us. So we were seeing a pickup. In 2017, I think, we got to 250 homes. That was a big deal. Now, that’s the baseline, right? We hadn’t done apartments in even longer.
So we just started sitting down and thinking outside of the box. What can we do to help incentivize or spur more? How can we unlock this more? So things like by-right authorities, looking at all the paper maps that were approved. How can we figure this out?
So we implemented something in late 2017, called master plan approval. It’s not a unique thing to Merced. We just hadn’t done it. Every home, no matter if it was from a developer who had five models, had to be individually reviewed and approved.
So what we did, we said that we’re going to look and review (the developer’s) master plan. Then you’re going to tell us which of these master plans are going to be on which lot, so by the time you get ready to build, you’re ready to go.So that really changed things. And then you can see from 2017 to 2018, we doubled, and then we just started to kind of take off. It’s a process thing, and really kind of changing the way you serve your clients.
CVJC: Housing is still a big issue today. What important steps need to happen for the majority of people living in Merced to have secure, quality housing?
Dietz: We need to produce all types – affordable, market rate, apartments, condos, single family. Nowadays, we really shouldn’t be turning away any one kind. I think you can see that in your city council policy, and then their recent changes to their inclusionary zoning direction. They value that, and I see that and they need to attract it.
But the other thing is, we need to look at the community – not just from a housing perspective – we also need to look at it from a workforce perspective.
People can’t afford rent because they’re making the same or similar wages that they made five years ago. If you look at the factors of what impacts families, if housing increases, but nothing else does, no matter how affordable the housing is, they’ll never lift themselves.
The city doesn’t provide workforce development. But I do think that (we need) continued partnerships between the city and the county, on what industries come in. And, of course, workforce development training, and reaching those families who are in poverty, or marginal families and helping them get the skills they need to get a better-paying job.
I don’t think it’s just housing. I think this is a problem that needs a partnership to solve. And I think when we bring in workforce development, with affordable housing, I think we transform this community.
I think we need to continue those partnerships. The city has been investing in that. Merced Youth Jobs is a huge investment, starting with high schoolers, but we need to build that.
CVJC: Let’s talk about transportation. There’s a lot on the horizon for Merced, with High Speed Rail, Amtrak, the ACE Rail, Campus Parkway, the Atwater-Merced Expressway. There are many layers of bureaucracy. What role does the city play?
Dietz: So High Speed Rail, obviously, is the state’s project, and ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) is in line with that. We felt the change in our relationship started with Mayor (Mike) Murphy going and sitting down with the CEO of High Speed Rail and bringing us all along with him so we could develop those partnerships. That was back in 2017. And from that, we really strengthened our relationship with High Speed Rail.
Now, we’re in planning conversations. I talked to High Speed Rail staff regularly. We are seen as their trusted community partner, and they constantly check in to make sure we’re on track or that we know what’s happening – the changes in funding, changes in grant application,
Then conversely, we’ve built the same kind of partnership with Amtrak San Joaquins.That kind of goes together. So what you’re seeing now is a result of rebuilding those relationships and being at the forefront of the state planning.
The only thing holding that back is money and time. The state deals with how to fund transportation projects. It’s a challenging task, and I don’t fault anyone in those dialogues. I understand the complexities of that. We’ve been very patient and very supportive, and we know that time is coming. We know we’re a valuable connection because it’s the one place in this state where Amtrak and High Speed Rail meet. I personally have faith that the state Legislature will see the value in that. And I’m hopeful in the state’s federal application, because that’s a matter of time, and it’s coming. The planning is there. The foundation is there. With that comes jobs.
The ACE maintenance facility is slated to come into Merced. Jobs – 1,500, good-paying, livable wage jobs. That’s a big deal for the community. That’s transformative.
So we’re definitely having conversations with the college for programs. Do we need to put together trade programs? It’s not just about college education. It’s about skills, certification. All that takes time. So rail is a big, big pillar in our workforce development.
But that’s just one mode.
Then there’s air passengers and the airport terminal. It’s going to be built with the idea that there could be two different air services there. And the FAA sees the value in connecting our airport to High Speed Rail. So now you’ve got a multimodal connection. And with UC Merced, they’re an engineering school. So how are they going to be at the forefront of transportation?
And then roads. Roads are going to be difficult with greenhouse gasses and vehicle miles traveled policy. It’s really trying to figure out how do you create capacity while protecting climate and managing the climate issues that the Valley is plagued with.
Campus Parkway is really a city-county partnership. With our state Assemblymember and Senator getting some new funding, that really unlocks the potential for that community. You’ll see that evolve as the city updates its general plan. That will bring a change in that region.
And then the southern loop – Mission Ave – connecting south Merced with north Merced. There’s only one way to get across town without a train, and we need a better way. We’re very cognizant of that. Mission (Avenue) is on the forefront of design. We’re working through MCAG (Merced County Association of Governments) and Measure V money for that because we believe in the connectivity of areas.
Then there’s Bellevue – building out Bellevue Road to Castle. That closes out the northern loop. You’ll see that in the next 10 years. Bellevue and Mission, really kind of closing the loop, just like Fresno and Clovis, right? They have a lot of interconnectivity.
So that’s the vision for the next 10-20 years. It’s gonna be pretty hard for people today to imagine that. But that’s really, when we look to the future, we look to other cities like Fresno and Clovis, like Modesto, what does it look like? How are we growing? And what do we want to do, and what are the lessons there?
CVJC: Talking about interconnectivity and north and south Merced, what needs to be done to bridge the gap?
Dietz:I think the big focus for south Merced really is infrastructure – creating the infrastructure that attracts development. We (the city) don’t build grocery stores, we don’t create jobs. But we can create the infrastructure that makes it attractive for people to come and invest. South Merced used to just be Merced at one point. You’ve got wider streets, places that need sidewalks, places that need streetlights. So those are the types of infrastructure investments the city can focus on to alleviate some of that feel that there’s a lack of investment.
It’s a double positive thing because it creates that infill opportunity for commercial, retail and industrial development. We have industrial land all throughout this city, not just in south Merced. I think there seems to be genuinely over focus on south Merced industrial area. If you look at the general plan, there’s light industrial all over, and a lot of light industrial can happen in business centers. There’s job centers in other places.
We actually applied for a Transformative Climate Communities grant through the state’s Strategic Growth Council. It’s a three-step process. The first step is planning and community engagement. We could come in as a city and do whatever we want but I don’t think that’s genuine to south Merced. So we’re following the path that has been outlined by the Strategic Growth Council, so that we center on community.
This grant comes with technical expertise from the state to come in with climate responsive infrastructure that helps address some of these issues. So we’ll find out in December the fate of that application.
But we’ve been listening. We have a south Merced subcommittee that brainstormed on little ideas, little things we could fix now while we’re waiting on that. So they allocated funding in the budget to do some of those projects.
To me, it’s about continuing to share the message of the investments we are making, while elevating the level of planning and maximizing resources. Over my tenure,we brought in additional $120 million of state and federal resources to the city while I was at the city. That’s tremendous. We’re not going to stop doing that, and now we have a focus.
CVJC: Do you have any advice for your successor, the next city manager?
Brianna Vaccari is the government accountability/watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.