One is a local resident who was thrust into Durango’s top leadership role amid a pandemic and fraud investigation after years of working with the city. The other is from Irving, Texas, with years of experience in out-of-state governments and certifications in public administration.
Both are vying to be Durango’s next city manager.
Durango residents will have a chance to learn more about both candidates as part of a virtual meeting scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. today (Wednesday). The candidates will answer questions previously submitted by the public.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, city manager finalists Amber Blake of Durango and Jose Madrigal of Texas shared a bit about themselves and their backgrounds.
It has been 10 months since the city of Durango parted ways with former city manager Ron LeBlanc. After months of reviewing applicants, Durango City Council has identified Blake and Madrigal as the two finalists best suited for the city’s top job.
“My passion is to make a positive difference for communities,” said Blake, Durango’s interim city manager. “I got into local government because I felt that it was the best place to have those positive impacts.”
Said Madrigal: “This is a great opportunity. It’s come up, it’s fitting. ... It’s the right timing, the right place and it needs the skill-set that I have, so let’s go do it.”
Madrigal is interim waste services director in Irving, Texas, and an executive management consultant for several municipal governments.
City managers are the top administrators within city governments, reporting only to the city councils. In Durango, the city manager directs and supervises all the departments, offices and agencies of the city’s government. The manager is responsible for the development and preparation of the city’s annual budget and capital improvement program.
Since LeBlanc’s departure, Durango has been shaken by a fraud investigation, an error-riddled city budget, the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting economic impacts. High-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police have also brought a wave of demonstrations to Durango. The manager will play an integral role in managing such challenges.
As a graduate student at the University of Montana-Missoula, Blake sought a way to provide needed services to communities. She realized during a political geography class that local government was a way to do that.
“I ended up going after class and speaking with (my professor) about transportation,” said Blake, who is originally from Telluride. “If you don’t have transportation, you can’t access services, education, food ...”
She worked in transportation in Missoula County, Baltimore and six surrounding counties – larger communities than Durango. She held leadership roles in Durango, still focused on transportation, starting in 2009. In 2017, she became assistant city manager.
Blake said her main strengths as city manager include 11 years of experience working with the city of Durango and her desire for efficient, transparent and effective services. Her application highlighted her work managing the city during the fraud investigation involving former finance director Julie Brown, and her leadership navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic impacts.
Blake tossed her hat into the ring in July, the same time City Council announced its initial finalists. She said she was unaware council was making a finalist announcement at the time. She was waiting for other issues, like the fraud investigation, budget process and pandemic response, to show progress before submitting her application, she said.
Her application makes mention of a 2018 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim. A staff member in Blake’s chain of command made a gender discrimination complaint, later determined to be unfounded. Blake said she was not closely tied to the issue, and she declared it on her job application to be transparent.
City Councilors Barbara Noseworthy and Kim Baxter shared concerns about Blake. They said her level of experience and professional certifications do not match other candidates’. Other councilors have supported Blake’s candidacy.
“I will be 100%, enthusiastically supportive of whomever City Council appoints as city manager,” Blake said. “My heart’s in Durango, so I don’t have any intent to go anywhere else.”
Madrigal wanted to be a lawyer, but quickly found it wasn’t for him. As a public administration graduate student at Texas Tech University, he learned about city management.
“I was like, ‘Man, that sounds like a lot of fun,’” Madrigal said. He got an internship with the city of Lubbock, and “I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
Madrigal’s grandfather was an immigrant from Mexico, and his father was a first-generation college graduate who worked on the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan and others.
“My father really taught me about hard work and that nothing in life comes easy,” Madrigal said. “There’s setbacks, and you just have to continue to pick yourself up and brush yourself off.”
Madrigal said he is the best candidate for the job because of his city management experience, strategic planning background and track record of rebuilding trust and financial transparency.
He has 18 years working in municipal government, 14 of which have been at the executive level. He has worked in cities with populations ranging from 50,000 to 228,000 people. In leadership positions, he has managed every type of department (including an airport), except for electricity services.
As assistant city manager in Irving, Madrigal and his staff helped the city win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Madrigal has also completed various trainings, including the black belt level of the Lean Six Sigma private sector training.
Madrigal would have a significant learning curve as Durango’s new manager. He would be meeting a new staff, discovering a new city, learning a new state’s laws and policies – on top of managing Durango’s response to the pandemic and other challenges.
“One of the great things that I have is that I’m a quick learner,” Madrigal said. He has already started examining Colorado-specific laws like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. He also created a 100-day plan for integrating into the community.
Madrigal has held three positions in the last two years: deputy city manager in McKinney, Texas, his interim role in Irving and his role as a consultant. He said he left McKinney to seek new challenges through consulting and took on the interim role to help Irving after the sudden departure of the former director.
Madrigal has also been involved in two employee complaints. In Cedar Park, Texas, a library director filed an age discrimination complaint about Madrigal and a human resources employee. Madrigal was cleared and said he had a productive relationship with the director after the complaint.
In McKinney, Madrigal approved the termination of a firefighter who used city property for a photo shoot for a political action committee. The employee sued, filing a free speech retaliation claim. The employee’s termination was upheld. Madrigal stood by his actions, saying the city’s investigation into the employee followed due process.
Also as deputy city manager in McKinney, Madrigal helped the city navigate a police violence incident, in which an officer forcefully restrained a teenager at a pool party. As Durango grapples with its own protests over race and policing, Madrigal said his experience rebuilding community trust would help him do the same in Durango.
“The biggest thing we did was really open up avenues to the minority communities within McKinney,” he said. “We really did a lot of listening.”