The Watsonville City Council appointed Rene Mendez, the current chief executive for the city of Gonzales, as Watsonville’s new city manager during its Tuesday meeting.
Mendez has three decades of experience in state, county and city government and has spent the last 17 years as the top admin with the city of Gonzales.
Gonzales Mayor Jose L. Rios says that Mendez will leave an exemplary legacy highlighted by economic growth, investment in energy independence, youth development and community involvement.
“It’s our loss and Watsonville’s gain,” Rios says. “I seriously doubt that anyone is going to be able to fill those shoes.”
Mendez will fill the vacancy left by Matt Huffaker, who late last year left Watsonville to take the city manager position for the city of Santa Cruz. Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides has served as the city manager in the interim.
Mendez is expected to start the job on July 1.
Rios said that Mendez, a first-generation Mexican American who holds a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, told the city council of the move last week. The city made a counteroffer in hopes of retaining him.
“It was a lucrative deal, I think,” Rios says. “But it wasn’t about the money. It was about the challenge.”
Watsonville not only has more than five times the population of Gonzales—55,000 compared to 9,000—but it also comes with issues that the small Monterey County city does not. Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city has seen a recent increase in homelessness and crime—issues that only worsened during the pandemic—and it has struggled to quickly build enough housing and improve its economic vitality to help its residents keep up with the ever-increasing wage gap.
In addition, come November Watsonville voters will be faced with the decision of whether or not they will extend Measure U, a ballot measure approved in 2002 that put growth restrictions on the city in an effort to protect surrounding agricultural land.
The city council unanimously recommended his appointment. They received 27 applications for the position and interviewed five candidates.
On Tuesday, many on the council said that Mendez’s community involvement and his award-winning health in all policy initiative helped him rise above the other candidates.
“I think that we, by far, got a great candidate,” Watsonville Mayor Ari Parker said. “I’m very excited about what the upcoming year is going to look like with Rene.”
He was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. Parker said that he was in Portland at a prior engagement.
Mendez signed a five-year deal with a base annual salary of $240,000. Also included in the contract: A six-month $2,000 monthly housing allowance, so long as Mendez relocates to within city limits within the first year of the deal.
Rios says that he’s excited to see what Mendez will accomplish in Watsonville. He said that he was instrumental in convincing agricultural industry giants Taylor Farms and Mann Packing to set up in Gonzales. He also led efforts to create the city’s microgrid project, a local 35-megawatt energy source that will help solve issues with rolling blackouts when it is completed later this year.
“When he told us [about the move] he said it wasn’t anything against Gonzales, but he felt he needed a challenge,” Rios says. “He said, ‘I’m 57 years old and I can’t help but wonder if I can do it in a bigger city? I want that challenge.’ I think he’s ready for it.”
So, too, does President/CEO of United Way of Monterey County Katy Castagna, who spoke glowingly of Rios’ efforts to help youth in Gonzales. Like Watsonville, about a third of Gonzales’ residents are 18 years or younger. Castagna says that Rios served as a conduit between the city, the community and the youth-serving nonprofit on several initiatives.
That includes the Family, Friends and Neighbors program that worked with informal childcare providers throughout the city to teach them how to correctly develop and educate the children they look after.
Mendez has served on the board of United Way of Monterey County for the past five years.
“Any time [Mendez’s] at the table, he’s a tremendous contributor because he’s always challenging us to think bigger,” Castagna says. “I’m excited for Watsonville.”
Castagna also lauded Mendez for his response during the pandemic. Under his leadership, Gonzales was able to quickly and effectively run mass food distributions and convince the vast majority of its residents to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
Rios says that Gonzales is the lone South Monterey County community that holds a 100% vaccination rate for people who are eligible for the vaccine.
“It’s really amazing how many people truly, truly care about the community,” Rios says.
That is, in part, because of Mendez’s effort to brand the city, Rios says. The Gonzales Way is an initiative that began under his tenure that urges residents to embrace three words while they raise their kids: Love, care and connect. Rios also highlighted Mendez’s creation of a youth council that represents the city’s young people at city council and school board meetings. The program has become so successful that other cities around Monterey County are beginning to replicate it.
“And [the council is] starting to pay off,” Rios says. “[Our young people] are going off but they’re also coming back and working in their community.”
Mendez’s involvement with Gonzales doesn’t end with his work as the city manager. He has also served as the tennis coach at Gonzales High School for more than a decade. He also had two sons who were star athletes at Gonzales High. The youngest, Gabe, is graduating this summer and has a scholarship to play football at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. lined up.
Gonzales High Athletic Director Margie Daniels says that when she first arrived at the school eight years ago as a track and field and cross country coach and teacher she only knew Mendez as a tennis coach. But when she moved to Gonzales three years ago, she was able to see everything else he does for the youth outside of coaching.
“He’s a great mentor as a coach and as city manager he’s been way more than that,” she says. “He goes above and beyond to help the [school] district … He really involved the schools in city activities. He’s a huge part of the community. This move, I’m kind of shocked right now … Watsonville better treat him right because we’ll take him back in a heartbeat.”
Rios echoed Daniels, adding that Mendez was also a part of the local Rotary club and that his wife even started a folklórico group.
“He has really embraced Gonzales,” Rios says. “I know he’s going to do the same in Watsonville.”