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From a drag racing job offer to City Manager, Rudd delivered with trained eyes of a mechanic

Fresno City Hall

From a drag racing job offer to City Manager, Rudd delivered with trained eyes of a mechanic

Bruce Rudd climbed from transit mechanic to City Manager in a 41-year career with the City of Fresno.

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The Wilma Quan-Schecter Era has begun at Fresno City Hall.

Quan-Schecter on Monday put in her first official shift as city manager of the fifth largest city in California.

For the record, Monday was also Scott Mozier’s first official day as assistant city manager.

Neither move to the new office was all that big. Quan-Schecter had been assistant city manager on City Hall’s second floor. Mozier had been Fresno’s Public Works director on the fourth floor.

We all wish the best for Wilma and Scott.

This, however, is one last look at Bruce Rudd, the outgoing city manager.

Rudd’s last day behind the city manager’s desk was on Friday. Despite that, he’ll stay in the mix as interim parks director.

City Hall on Friday morning hosted an open house in Rudd’s honor. It was a low-key affair in the city manager’s conference room. I dropped by shortly before the event ended at noon.

I had just one question for Rudd.

Keep in mind Rudd’s backstory. He’s a Fresno native who started his City of Fresno career some 41 years ago. He was a mechanic in the Transit Division. That’s quite a career jump – changing the oil in one decade, overseeing a billion-dollar-budget in another decade.

And keep in mind Rudd’s record. Fresno didn’t go bankrupt during the Great Recession, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Rudd and Mark Scott (his predecessor as city manager).

Fresno now has a solid credit rating. The general fund is healthy. Service levels are rising.

My question for Rudd: “What is it with you and your love of cars?”

“It started with my dad,” Rudd said. “He told me, ‘You want to drive?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You want to drive when you’re 16?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You want a car?’ ‘Yeah.’ So my dad spent $35 to buy a 1961 Falcon with essentially a blown engine. I was 15. His point was simple: ‘You want a car, you’d better figure out how to work on them because that comes with the territory.’

“So, I started tinkering with cars and found I was pretty good at it. I was always interested in how things work and what makes them work. My thinking went from ‘this is how it works’ to ‘how can I make it work a little bit better?’ I got involved not only with how cars work but how I can make the car go a little bit faster than it did when it left Detroit.

“I was a child of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. Muscle cars were something you just grew up around. And there was that competitive nature in me. It made me want to figure out how to make it go a little faster than the one next to me on any particular Friday evening or on race day. And that turned into my love – as staff will tell you – for measuring, for data. When you start messing around with stuff, when you try to make it a little bit better than when you found it, you also measure. ‘I’m going to spend this amount of money. OK, will it actually go faster? What’s the benefit of doing that?’ You’re constantly measuring if what you’ve done has changed your quarter-mile time or your horsepower. It goes with the turf.”

Did you catch that phrase “on any particular Friday evening”? It’s fair to say Rudd as a young man did his share of drag racing on the rural roads outside Fresno. In fact, Rudd told me, that’s how he got his job at Transit back in the mid-1970s. One night he tested his souped up 1970 Chevelle SS against the car of a man who happened to be a Transit Division supervisor. They got to talking after the race. Rudd ended up with a job offer he didn’t refuse.

Rudd was about 20 years old at the time. A lot of 20-year-olds with a talent for making fast cars go even faster wind up on the regional racing scene – sprint cars at Kings Speedway, for example, or super stocks at Madera Raceway. But other than a few efforts at Famoso Raceway, Rudd at that pivotal spot in his life decided cars would be a hobby, not a career.

He bought his first Corvette at about the same time he went to work for the city.

”By then, it wasn’t so much speed as it was restoration because it was a classic car,” Rudd said. “Plus you’re working nights and you’re working weekends. Given my propensity to be willing to work on anything at any time and anywhere, supervisors were offering me overtime. Being a young man and going to be married soon, the overtime was good.

“There were a lot of things I changed at that time. I stopped playing the drums. And my wife was looking at me: ‘You know, you need to grow up. We have other things in our life other than you messing around with muscle cars.’ So, work became the primary focus in raising a family.”

There’s a reason I asked Rudd about cars on his last full day as Fresno’s city manager. I wanted to make a point: Cars – their mechanics, their theory, their possibilities – played a pivotal role in training Rudd’s mind to be the top-notch city manager that he was.

The concept of a city manager dates back to the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. The Progressive idea was that City Hall (like just about everything in life) could be reduced to a science. Rational policies implemented by rational, disinterested and professionally trained experts would produce honest and effective municipal government.

If you sit in Fresno’s Council Chamber long enough, you come to appreciate the variety of operating styles among city managers. All those I’ve watched have been smart and dedicated. All in the heat of debate have used analogy to try to carry the day.

But only Rudd had the extensive real-world experience to analogize the mechanical arts to what often was the most esoteric and baffling public policy.

Rudd didn’t do so often, but he did it often enough for me to notice.

For example, the council in April was listening to Public Works Director Tommy Esqueda explain the city’s water conservation program. The rebate program for low-flow toilets came up. Low-flow toilets were just a tiny part of Esqueda’s larger report. But the council, as it’s prone to do, got sidetracked. Council members were headed toward long speeches about justice and equality.

This is where city managers are supposed to step in. Rudd did so with tact and firmness. But in nipping the filibuster in the bud, Rudd casually noted that it’s relatively inexpensive and easy from a parts and labor standpoint to install a low-flow toilet.

“If you know what you’re doing,” Rudd said.

It was just a throw-away comment. But it was the comment’s practicality, and the authority with which it was delivered, that worked.

Rudd did that throughout his stint as city manager. He was like Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame. Intellectual theory is fine and dandy in city government. But sometimes you’ve got to leave the clouds and get down in the muck.

Those Chevelle Super Sports can be a wonderful classroom.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

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