Five years ago, Matt Huffaker arrived in Watsonville as an unknown understudy to the city manager. Two years later he took over Santa Cruz County’s second-largest city, even as some of South County’s movers and shakers were asking for the municipality to open the search up to other candidates.
Now, after blazing a trail in Watsonville, Huffaker, 37, is moving on to the next challenge. On Oct. 28, it was announced that he’s been selected as the new city manager for Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz City Councilmembers, in a press release, said they made a unanimous recommendation for Huffaker to take over as the city’s top official. They will vote on the appointment at the council’s Nov. 9 meeting. If approved, he would assume the position on Jan. 3, 2022.
The final details of his employment agreement will be released in advance of that meeting, according to city spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith.
Huffaker, in a press release, said that he was “humbled” and ready for the opportunity.
“I think my local experience and established regional partnerships will allow me to hit the ground running,” Huffaker said in the release. “I’m ready to get to work.”
Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra says that while he’s saddened to hear that Huffaker is leaving, he is ultimately happy for the outgoing leader, despite the fact that he had received a five-year contract extension from the Watsonville City Council earlier this year.
“Matt is young, ambitious and he is in control of his own future,” Dutra says. “If this is his choice for his future, I’m happy for him.”
First hired as assistant city manager in 2016, Huffaker has been Watsonville’s lead official since being appointed to the position in 2018.
In that short amount of time, Huffaker has done a number of good things for the small agricultural hub, says Dutra. That includes increasing revenues and stabilizing the city’s finances, advocating for the funding of a $22 million renovation of Ramsay Park, starting and completing several long-term planning documents—the city is developing a downtown specific plan and an update to its general plan—and working to bring in funding to help Watsonville recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. He also helped the city pass a renewal of a half-cent sales tax in 2020 that annually brings in some $4 million to the police, fire and parks departments.
“A lot has happened since Matt has been here—his stamp is going to be on several aspects of the city,” Dutra says. “This makes me really sad, but I’m grateful for what he has done for our city.”
Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers says Huffaker’s success in Watsonville was a big reason why they selected him over two other candidates. She says his ability to balance Watsonville’s finances—he helped double its general fund reserves—and his recent work with the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity made him the clear choice to lead Santa Cruz through a slew of challenges in the near future.
“[The police committee] was something that really stuck out for us,” Meyers says. “One of the things our community tells us is that they really want a city manager that they can engage with and who is responsive. Matt seems really supportive of that idea of a city manager being involved in the community. We scored.”
Along with its issues in dealing with homelessness and affordable housing, Santa Cruz is also in the midst of hiring a new police chief and fire chief, as well as a new finance director that will try to help the city weave its way through the projected pandemic-related recession and the budget crisis.
The city is also planning to move to district elections, a change that could further alter leadership for the complex city with an annual general fund more than double the size of its southern counterpart.
“[Huffaker] was ready for a bigger challenge, and Santa Cruz is definitely a bigger challenge,” Meyers says.
If appointed, Huffaker would step into a position vacated by Martín Bernal, who announced his retirement in February. He officially left the position at the end of July after 24 years of service with the city of Santa Cruz and more than 30 years in public service.
Huffaker earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from California State University East Bay.
Before being hired in Watsonville, Huffaker, a native of Oakley in Northern California, said he had been involved in local government for 15 years and city administration for seven years.
CITY IN FLUX
Huffaker’s departure puts Watsonville’s leadership in flux heading into a year that could see mass turnover in its elected leaders. Four city council members will either be up for reelection or will have to vacate their seats because they will term out, and another seat will be determined in a special election on Dec. 7.
In addition, the 4th District Supervisorial seat currently held by Greg Caput will head to the polls next year.
Watsonville is also actively looking for a police chief after the retirement of David Honda earlier this year.
The Watsonville City Council will meet Wednesday, Nov. 3 at 5:30pm to discuss transition plans in a closed session meeting.
Dutra and other council members say that they received several phone calls and emails throughout the day on Oct. 29 sharing concerns about the process the city would use to find a replacement city manager.
“We are taking this replacement seriously, and a decision will be made soon with the direction the council will take with this appointment,” Dutra says. “I will make sure this process is transparent with the staff and our community.”
Looking back at Huffaker’s time with the city, Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada says that he appreciated Huffaker’s ability to work with the community to address tough issues. He highlighted Huffaker’s decision to create the policing committee, his work investing in the arts and parks and the city’s response to the pandemic that helped vaccination rates there lead the county.
When asked what qualities he would like to see in Huffaker’s replacement, Estrada says he wants someone who, like Huffaker, will try to ingrain themselves in the community. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, Estrada says, to see Huffaker show up to community events with his three children and wife Jocelyn.
“He really tried to be a part of the community. I know we want someone who is going to do that, someone who wants to connect with our community, someone who is willing to put in the work,” says Estrada, who also wants the next city manager to continue Huffaker’s legacy of reinvesting back into the community.
“I don’t want that to end,” he says.
Thank goodness that the hiring committee passed on the candidate who was a former Council member and who is leaving his Supervisor position.