Commitment to city shaped Berkeley city manager’s career

Berkeley City Manger Phil Kamlarz announced Sept. 26 his plans to retire this year.
Rashad Sisemore/Staff
Berkeley City Manger Phil Kamlarz announced Sept. 26 his plans to retire this year.

Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz rolled his thumb over the trackball on his BlackBerry, scrolling through the week’s schedule. Nearly every half hour of every day was already booked with meetings with city staff, council members, union leaders and community members.

But come December, Kamlarz may instead find himself looking for appointments and activities to fill his schedule.

Last week, after 36 years of working for the city of Berkeley, Kamlarz — who will be celebrating his 65th birthday this January — announced his plans to retire, saying Nov. 30 would be his last day on the job.

In his last eight years as city manager, he has guided the City Council through trying economic times, balancing the city’s budget year after year and leading the city to its highest ever credit rating of AA+.

Kamlarz, who grew up in New York City, first came out to the Bay Area in 1969 after graduating from Long Island University with a bachelor’s degree in finance.

In 1975, Kamlarz started his first job in Berkeley as an associate accountant at the Berkeley Public Library, where he worked for one year before the city manager at the time asked him to come over to City Hall and be one of two employees in the city’s budget office.

Over the years, Kamlarz gradually took on more responsibilities, working as a budget manager, deputy city manager and finally city manager — a position that city officials have said is really a 24/7 job.

For that reason, most city managers, like many of Kamlarz’s predecessors, stay with a city for no more than three or four years before moving on to work for another city. In his 36 years in Berkeley, Kamlarz said he saw 10 or 11 people go through the job.

“Being a city manager, you either move around or you choose to work in a community, and I made that choice, the latter choice, a long time ago,” Kamlarz said. “For me, it’s more important … to work for the city of Berkeley than being a city manager.”

It was this decision that Berkeley City Council members and city staff said has defined Kamlarz’s integral work for the city.

“I’ve been on the council almost 20 years now, and we’ve been through a number of city managers, and in each case, each city manager, each meeting, each important closed session, Phil was there,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “He was there at the elbow of whoever the city manager was.”

In 2003, the council appointed Kamlarz to serve as acting city manager upon then-city manager Weldon Rucker’s retirement.

“Both Phil and Weldon have had their careers within the city … They were never career city managers,” Maio said. “Phil, because he kind of ‘grew up in the city of Berkeley in his career,’ there’s an affinity with the city, a commitment to the city, a strong relationship and identification with the city that you just can’t match off the street.”

In addition to keeping the city out of “real financial troubles,” Kamlarz assembled a talented set of department heads to lead the organization, said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.

“He’s got some really first-class people … That makes a big difference,” Wozniak said.

When Kamlarz steps down at the end of this calendar year, he will leave with an annual salary of $242,580 — an earning that he has received criticism for, especially during a time of cuts across city services.

Though his wife asked him to retire several years ago, Kamlarz said he wanted to leave knowing he had the right people in place to lead the city.

“It’s just time for me to try something else in my life,” Kamlarz said, immediately adding that he was not sure what exactly that would be.

His immediate plans involve traveling to Mexico with his family to relax and visit the three young girls they have been supporting over the last six years through the Families at the Dump mission in Puerto Vallarta.

He might even sleep in for the first time in years.

“I don’t know if I could do that, but I’ll find out real soon,” he said.


Stephanie Baer is the city news editor.