Al Zelinka relishes his new role as city manager in Huntington Beach
Al Zelinka said he never aspired to become city manager. Instead, a service career led to him being asked to play the role of Riverside in 2018. Four years later, Zelinka came to Huntington Beach.
It was approved by the city council on May 3 and started as Surf City City Manager June 27.
Zelinka took the seat once held by Oliver Chi, who resigned last November, with Sean Joyce serving as acting city manager for several months.
Zelinka, 54, earned a bachelor’s degree in public planning from Northern Arizona University and a master’s degree in regional planning from Cornell University. He lives with his wife Anna and 16-year-old son John, a junior entrant at Servite High, in the city of Orange.
Zelinka recently sat down with the Daily Pilot to answer some questions about her career.
Responses are edited for length and clarity.
Question: What led you to become a city manager? Was it something you thought you wanted to do for a career?
Answer: I have worked in urban planning and about half of my career has been in the private sector for consultants. While working primarily in California, I held various positions in approximately 28 states and over 100 cities nationwide. Urbanism allowed me to make a difference. That’s all I wanted to do in my career, to make a difference in the communities I served.
When my son was about 2 and a half years old, he started saying, “Dad home, dad on the plane?” I traveled so much for my job. One of my clients was the city of Fullerton, and at that time they had a planning officer position open. I thought, job #1 is to be a dad, so I’m gonna quit the privy council and join the town of Fullerton. This was my first major foray into public service, in 2008.
Q: Then you finally became Assistant City Manager of Riverside. What did this step look like?
A: I really enjoyed that. I like to connect the dots… There are so many opportunities for synergy between departments that can benefit the public. It was wonderful to realize that by seeing the big picture, I can help departments work together for better results. I did that for about four years.
In 2018, the city council asked me to be their general manager. I was very apprehensive about this… [but] this four year trip to Riverside was fantastic. In the end, I felt I could make a difference as a city manager because that experience I had as an assistant city manager was now magnified. I could connect the dots not just between departments, but at a higher level, the needs of the community, the needs of the organization, the interests and aspirations of elected leaders. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring all these elements together to achieve good results.
Q: What are you most proud of during your tenure as City Manager of Riverside?
A: Despite COVID…we have gone from a structural deficit to a budget surplus. We have made the decisions and adjustments necessary to bring financial health to the city, and in a meaningful way. I’m proud to have built on the shoulders of previous administrations and been able to open a new, world-class Main Library downtown. I’m proud that we were able to open the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in our former Mid-Century Modern Library.
I am proud that we were able to open the Southern California Mission Research and Test Headquarters for the California Air Resources Board. Earlier in my career at Riverside, we were part of a larger community team that competed against LA County for the consolidation of all CARB research and testing facilities, and that resulted in a facility of $450 million state-of-the-art emissions test and research. at Riverside.
I am proud to work with the board to establish a community engagement policy, i.e. in draft form…to provide the community with a minimum level of expectation for all departmental efforts, so that people can count on a certain level of community. We have also implemented a bi-annual Citywide Quality of Life Survey, to understand the pulse of the community on a range of quality of life topics.
I am proud of the many developments we have facilitated downtown and other areas of the community. We have implemented a food systems program… so that over time, Riverside will be less dependent on imported food and can develop and grow its own food locally.
Q: What prompted the move to Huntington Beach?
A: The recruiter in town contacted me and introduced me to the opportunity. During our family’s life in Orange County, we have friends in Huntington Beach and have had occasion to come to Huntington Beach regularly. We really liked Huntington Beach, so when the opportunity came to my attention, I was intrigued.
I was perfectly happy at Riverside, but I was intrigued because the recruiter made me realize that the town of Huntington Beach could benefit from some of the mindset I have. The more I studied Huntington Beach and the more I talked to people, the more I realized that it would be fun to go back to Orange County and work with a big coastal city. It is a city that aspires to many things and also wants to practice the fundamentals very well.
Ultimately, all I want to do is make a difference in the communities I serve. This has always been my career goal.
Q: You’ve been here for a few weeks now, how was the transition?
A: The city team prepared me well. Day number one or two, they had fantastic binders, very well organized…the transition was really wonderful. There is a lot to learn. I like to joke with all my colleagues, but I mean it. I’m the least educated person on Huntington Beach right now, but I’m a college student. I just learned [all] It is possible, because the more I know, the better I can serve.
Q: Do you have any areas of passion that are important to you, in terms of what you think city government should focus on?
A: Part of the decision to join the city has to do with “What excites me and does it align with what the community wants and needs? “I have extensive experience in downtown revitalization and improvement. I’m a Certified Senior Street Manager…and the council instilled in me a desire to make downtown the best it can be.
The board also communicated a commitment they have made for greater community engagement, and community engagement is very important to me. We are at the service of the public.
There are a lot of passions I have that tie together what I’m going to do over the next few years. The diversity of Huntington Beach resonates with me. I’m happy about it, and I really want to apply it and embrace it.
Q: What do you think are some aspects of the job of city manager that citizens might not be aware of?
A: All in all, the citizens of Huntington Beach need to understand that the charter they voted on is really my instruction manual. I have to be politically aware, but not political. My job is to serve the public interest, which is in part defined by the charter…to help achieve the most positive results for the greatest number of people in the community.
What it would be good for members of the community to know is that what is really important is the term “source of authority”. Are the decisions I make rooted in a source of authority? Are they rooted in the policy adopted by the city council, the city charter of Huntington Beach, the governmental code of the State of California? It comes down to serving the public interest and making sure I don’t knowingly do something that violates the public’s trust in government.
The other thing audiences should know is that this is really, really rewarding work. What I do is important for the public interest, the public trust, the public good. If I do my job well and respect everyone equally and fairly, then I do my job in a way that is very rewarding for me and for the team that serves the city.
Q: What are some of your first impressions of Huntington Beach as a city?
A: One thing is the incredible connection that so many people in the city have with the water and the beach, the whole climate and the marine environment. It’s obvious, but as a new city manager here, this magnetic attraction and symbiosis between the beach environment and the community is really cool.
The other thing is that a lot of people feel so proud to be a Huntington Beach resident or business owner. Yet against this backdrop there is a robust individualism of Huntington Beach residents, almost like an entrepreneurial spirit.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
A: My son is very involved in football and music so we are very busy with his football schedule at school and at his club. We spend a lot of time with that, and I spend a lot of time looking after my 87-year-old mom-to-be, who lives four blocks down our street.
As a family, we really enjoy cycling, hiking and walking. We travel a lot. We go up to Yosemite, Mount Hood. We do a lot of gardening and also enjoy farmer’s markets. It’s always busy.
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