Merced City Council confirms next city manager

A split City Council hired John Bramble on Monday night as the next city manager, ending the seven-month search for who will oversee the budget and staffing through one of Merced's worst economic downturns.

Bramble, city manager for Brighton, Colo., will begin Dec. 1 and replaces Jim Marshall who’s been serving the city on an interim basis until the search concluded.

Mayor Ellie Wooten and council members Noah Lor, Michele Gabriault-Acosta and Jim Sanders voted to hire Bramble during a closed session conference before the meeting began.

Councilman Joe Cortez, Bill Spriggs and John Carlisle dissented.

Despite the fracture, the council unanimously voted to work with Bramble as a team after publicly approving his contract.

“My main concern is what’s best for the city,” Cortez said. “Whoever it is, I’m willing to work with them to the best of my ability.”

After the meeting, Spriggs was blunt.

“He was not the best candidate,” he said, and noting that Bramble’s 62, added, “He’ll be here for three years, and he’ll be out of here. I think hiring him was unconscionable.”

Bramble, who was not at the meeting, will come at a time when the city is projection dwindling revenues, including a 10 percent decline sales tax revenue. It’s making ends meet by relying on $12 million in rainy-day money with $5 million coming from the general fund reserves. It’s also frozen 29 positions as employees have quit.

A third of those cuts came after the budget, saving an additional $766,000 in salaries and benefits.

Marshall announced his retirement in January, capping his remarkably long 16-year run managing Merced’s City Hall. Many city managers get fired after a matter of years and often after an election because the new council members often promise change and see city managers — rightly or wrongly — as standing in their way.

Bramble will start with a yearly salary of $171,653, the same wage as Marshall. He also has four weeks vacation and a nine-month severance package.

Before the council voted on Bramble’s salary and benefits, Carlisle said he was concerned about the contract being five years and that he could cash out 10 days of administrative leave — if unused — in December, the end of the calendar year.

The city found Bramble with the help of a professional headhunting firm, which was paid about $30,000. The search lasted longer than expected, partly because the council decided to do a background check on Bramble. It came back clear, Wooten said last week.

Assistant City Manager Bill Cahill was one of the candidates the council was considering and his hiring seemed all but likely in mid-August. Word of it spread through parts of Merced’s business community and around City Hall.

One council member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that promoting Cahill was met with resistance from some staff, prompting the council to continue the search.

Bramble’s had a long history working in government. He served as city manager in Bell, Colo., from 1988 to 1993.

He was the county administrator in Adams County, Colo., for three years until 1996, when he was hired in Brighton.

There, he told the Sun-Star last week, he’s worked hard to bring more employers to the city of 34,000. A few months ago, that city landed a wind turbines maker that will employ 1,350 in the area.

Bramble said he plans to visit Merced before he officially takes over so he can meet with local department managers.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.