The accidental city manager: Manhattan Beach’s Bruce Moe didn’t intend to have a career in city government. The job chose him.

Newly appointed City Manager Bruce Moe. Photo

When he looks back, somehow it all makes an odd sort of sense. But 30 years ago,  if you’d told Bruce Moe that he’d one day be finance director, much less city manager, for the City of Manhattan Beach, he’d have laughed out loud.

Laughter comes easily to Moe, a 29-year veteran of Manhattan Beach city government who is now its newly appointed city manager. This is in keeping with a quality of Moe’s MBPD Chief Derrick Abell spoke about during last week’s State of the City — a kind of infectious goodwill that tends to make those around him feel better. Abell recalled running into Moe early in his own 27-year career, when Moe was a purchasing agent for the city; Abell said Moe always had a smile on his face and left him feeling, “If you have the opportunity to work in the city of Manhattan Beach, whatever is going on, you are not having a bad day.”

Moe, 57, grew up in Los Feliz. His dream as a teenager was to become a photographer, but during his childhood, some seeds were planted that would later flower into his career as a public servant. His father, Bruce Sr.,  had obtained a degree in public administration from USC and held public servants in the highest regard.  It’s something Moe thinks about often these many years later, as he observes his colleagues at City Hall.

“At some level, it’s about earning a living, but it goes beyond that —  people have a desire to help other people,” Moe said. “I remember when I was a kid, my dad once told me at the dinner table that being a public servant was one of the most honorable things you could do. He had been a police officer in Beverly Hills six or seven years, and then he went to work in hospital public administration. He always said that to me. Of course, being a snot-nosed kid, I never listened. But it’s something I remembered later in life.”

Another foreshadowing occurred in high school when Moe attended the American Legion’s “Boys State,” spending a week in Sacramento learning about local government. The kids were divided into imaginary municipalities; Moe was the fire chief for the imaginary city of Herkimer.

“I wasn’t terribly engaged,” he recalled. “The other boys were like, ‘I’m the mayor of Herkimer! I’m the city councilman of Herkimer!’ The whole thing leads to going to the State Capitol and meeting our representative and meeting with the Governor….I’ve always thought if I’d known I’d end up in local government, I’d have paid more attention at Boys State. Maybe I should go to Men’s State now; there should be an equivalent.”

Moe attended Cal State Los Angeles with the intention of obtaining his general education requirements and then going to the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to study photography. But he turned out to be an omnivorous student —  he got interested in psychology and spent a while thinking that would be his major, then criminal justice, then journalism. He took 11 years to get through college, working full time most of the time, until finally, he settled on marketing and business administration.

“I thought that might be something I’d enjoy,” he said. “I wasn’t the most motivated 25-year-old, but finally I thought, ‘You know, let’s finish this off.”

He spent nine years working as a purchasing agent for a fire equipment company, at one point working in Houston for nine months.

“For a kid who was born and raised in California, that was an eye-opener,” Moe said. “I came to appreciate Southern California a little bit more after spending a summer in Houston.”

He returned in 1989 and saw an ad placed by the City of Manhattan Beach in the LA Times for what was, in essence, a purchasing agent. He applied and was surprised when he arrived at the Joslyn Community Center —  his first time to Manhattan Beach —  to find more than 50 people taking the written exam.

“I thought, ‘What are the chances I make it through this process?’” he recalled.

But he was called back for oral boards, which again shocked him —  three people not from the city conducted the interview, very unlike the private sector. “I was like, ‘What’s up with that?” he said. He was even more surprised when he became a finalist, but then he was edged out by another candidate and didn’t get the job. Then, in a strange twist of fate, the person selected for the job couldn’t come to terms. The city’s finance director offered Moe the job.

“I was kind of stunned,” he said. “I didn’t know this would work.”

Three decades later he’s still surprised at how this has all unfolded. Moe worked nine years in purchasing for the city and was just beginning to think he might need to start looking elsewhere for advancement. “I remember telling the IT manager, ‘I think it’s time for me to move on. It’s not like they are going to make me finance director.,’” Moe said. “Well, guess what….”

The finance director parted ways with the city. The city manager at the time, Geoff Dolan, told the HR director to find someone to take the position temporarily.

“I just need someone who can run the department,” Dolan said. “I don’t need someone who can do debits and credits.”

“What about Bruce?” the HR director asked.

Moe was named interim finance director. After a couple weeks, Moe recalled, Dolan said to him, “This is working out pretty well.” This went on for nine months. “He keeps saying, ‘This is good. This is good.’ He kind of gave me a chance to grow into the position.”

Eventually, Dolan opened up the position to applicants, requiring Moe to earn the job in open competition with candidates who likely had more conventional backgrounds in finance and public administration. Moe, however, had proven himself extremely adept at both managing the department and the city’s finances and was named finance director.

Councilperson Richard Montgomery, who previously served two terms, from 2005 to 2013, said that Dolan an unusual gift for hiring and promotion. He likened Dolan’s philosophy to Gil Brandt, the former head of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys who turned the team into a dynasty by what was then considered the unorthodox methodology of drafting “the best athlete available” out of college, irrespective of what position they played.

“Geoff was like that —  he just wanted the best people, then he’d figure out where to put them,” Montgomery said. “I think Geoff liked Bruce and recognized his talent. He knew where to put him.”

Twenty years later, Manhattan Beach’s finance department is among the most lauded in the state. The city has an AAA bond rating and its investments have been impeccably handled. Montgomery said a great deal of the city’s financial stability can be credited to Moe.

“Throughout the Great Recession, most cities in California were folding, some going into bankruptcy, a lot losing all their investment funds,” Montgomery said. “We had no layoffs and our investments didn’t lose a dollar. What other cities can say that?”

Moe credits policymakers and city staff for guiding the city on a safe course. He particularly praised Henry Mitzner, a 45-year veteran of City Hall who still serves as a controller in the finance department.

“You know, it’s a great staff,” Moe said. “You’ve got people like Henry —  he has the city’s best interest at heart in everything he does. He’s ethical. It’s always, ‘What is the right thing to do? What is the most ethically correct thing do? Let’s do things the way they should be done.’ If we mess something up, we’ll own up to it, stay on the up and up and be above board.”

Moe also became one of the institutional constants at City Hall. He twice served as interim city manager, first after Dolan’s departure, and then after Dave Carmany’s departure a few years later. When the city parted ways with its last city manager, Mark Danaj, in December, he was again appointed to the position on an interim basis. It soon became obvious he was the man for the job.

Mayor Amy Howorth said Moe expressed no desire to be city manager when the position was vacated previously. But now he is ready, Howorth said, and everything about the appointment has the feeling of the right person at the right time and place.

“He lives and breathes Manhattan Beach,” Howorth said. “And I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me everywhere I go…Probably five or six random citizens came up to me and said, ‘Please, I’m going to tell you to make Bruce Moe the city manager. I’ve never done this before but oh my God, it’s so obvious.’ It was really cool. It was bubbling up.”

“He’s got that finance background, fluency, and expertise,” she added. “He has that as a base, and then all his other wonderful qualities. So he’s able to relate to the employees, but he’ll be able to make tough decisions when he has to. It’s great all around.”

“Who better than the finance director with 29 years experience in the city who knows not only where every penny is buried, but where it comes from?” Montgomery said. “He knows what makes city finances tick…He knows we can run the city in a more lean manner because we’ve done it before.”

Councilperson Steve Napolitano, who also served on the council previously, from 1992 to 2005, noted Manhattan Beach has not in recent history hired from inside. But he said Moe’s fit with the city and its needs made too much sense to ignore.

“We could do a nationwide search and go for a young guy out there, fresh out of something else, big on tech and all these other great things…or go for an old experienced hand jumping city to city,” Napolitano said. “But why would we ignore this gem right under our noses? He knows what he’s doing, he’s a steady hand, he knows city staff and the community. You couldn’t get any better.”

“I mean, the man bleeds Manhattan Beach. He’s so dedicated, he knows the organization. He’s a straight-shooter and down-to-earth. He knows what we can afford to do, and what we can’t afford to do. He knows the drill.”

Moe faces some steep challenges as he takes the helm. The city’s pension obligations will double from $6 million to $12 million annually in the next decade; its infrastructure needs — such as the aged Fire Station #2 — are glaring, with no apparent funding sources; and every one of the city’s major employee bargaining groups has a contract that expires in 2018.

But as Napolitano noted, for 29 years Moe has commuted from Orange County, arriving at City Hall by 7 a.m. with a smile on his face. His new challenges won’t change that.

“I love this community, and I just love coming to work every day asking myself, ‘How can I make this a better place today?’ That’s why we are here,” Moe said, likening his colleagues at City Hall to a village-within-a-village.  “Coming to work isn’t really coming to work if you are seeing people you consider family, you enjoy spending time with and working collaboratively with. The fact you can combine that with accomplishing what we do, serving the community,  makes it the best way to spend my days and hours and whatever is left.”  

“I’ve never charted a course. I think I’ve just been a guy lucky to be in the right place at the right time, over and over again in my career. So this is the next chapter.”


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