Last August, The Durango Herald informally endorsed José Madrigal as the right candidate for Durango city manager, a position that had been open for almost a year after the departure of Ron LeBlanc. (City Transportation and Sustainability Director Amber Blake did a superb job as interim city manager during that time. In June she left to take the position of director of transit and rail for CDOT.)
Soon after LeBlanc’s departure, city finance director Julie Brown was accused (and later convicted) of embezzling more than $700,000 from the city over a period of 11 years – on LeBlanc’s watch.
In some ways, city government was a mess, and staff members demoralized by the events.
We talked with Madrigal and the three councilors who were in office before and after his hiring about his performance in his first year on the job. All agree it’s been an incredibly tough year – and that Madrigal’s contribution has been phenomenal.
Upon arrival, Madrigal immediately had to fill the finance director and human resource director positions – two key directors a city can hardly function without. He had to dive into the budget process for 2021 with sketchy financial records and no one to explain the reasoning behind past fiscal decisions. He had to develop the 2021 strategic plan and mission and values statements with council. The city’s relationship with the county, which had been strained, needed to be improved. And then there was COVID-19. Homelessness. Workforce housing.
Mayor Kim Baxter and Councilors Barbara Noseworthy and Melissa Youssef independently complimented Madrigal’s reshaping of the culture of city hall to be more open and inclusive than in the past.
Madrigal also has fostered interaction with directors, managers and other employees.
To counter the old modus operandi, the city manager has set up leadership teams and asked leaders to create their own decision grids showing who gets to make decisions about what in their departments.
“The people closest to the problems, issues or decisions to be made have the best perspective,” Madrigal said. “I’m allowing them the freedom to make decisions.”
Madrigal also meets with each city councilor one-on-one on a weekly basis. (“They’re my bosses. Shouldn’t you check in with your bosses?”) All three councilors said the meetings make a huge difference. His predecessor met only with the mayor and mayor pro-tem.
Noseworthy said Madrigal’s relationship with the council is “extremely respectful and pushing us to lead.” A side benefit of those weekly conversations, added Youssef, is that “he keeps us all informed as to the thought flow and processes of other councilors,” which can be difficult because of open meetings constraints on their communications with each other.
Baxter applauded Madrigal’s hiring of qualified people and noted he already has built a strong network in the community.
“It’s a huge cultural shift in a very positive way,” she said. “It emphasizes customer service and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.” Still, the mayor added, some strategic initiatives need an added push she’s counting on Madrigal to provide. “I would like to see José help council create that momentum toward developing more workforce housing.”
On a personal level, Madrigal, who has spent most of his life living in and around Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, is thrilled to be in Durango. (After struggling to find a house large enough for their family, the Madrigals settled in Edgemont Highlands.)
“The welcome I’ve received here in the community has been warm and outstanding,” he said. “The heart of Durango is everything you want a community to be.”
Maybe this year will prove to be a “honeymoon” year on the job for Madrigal. Maybe next year he’ll be a lightning rod for complaints from councilors and the community. Or not.
Last year’s Herald editorial on hiring the city manager concluded, “The next city manager should be José Madrigal.” Gosh, it’s nice to be right.