One year ago this week, the unthinkable came to pass: Life’s activities, from the mundane to the thrilling, came to a grinding halt amid the cascading closures of schools, businesses and workplaces enacted to curb the spread of coronavirus.
As residents across La Cañada Flintridge dug down in their foothills community to prepare for the unknown — stocking up on food and supplies, increasing their internet coverage and taking to social media to express widespread confusion — one thing became crystal clear for City Manager Mark Alexander.
“We very quickly needed to establish a location for people to turn to for the latest information on the pandemic that was, in fact, applicable to the city of La Cañada Flintridge,” he said in a recent interview. “The biggest challenge was how the rules and orders were evolving and changing, how there was a lag between the state’s orders and the county’s orders and then there was confusion and uncertainty about what was applicable to L.A. County and specifically what would apply to La Cañada Flintridge.”
While the state was establishing a threshold for COVID-19 guidelines, including the regional stay-at-home order back in March of 2020, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health would later issue even more restrictive rules under its “Safer at Home” order. Needless to say, Alexander recalled, questions began to inundate City Hall.
Alexander and his staff quickly established an online link to the city’s website, complete with a general summary of new orders, aptly titling them “City Alerts.” Now, 12 months into the pandemic, the city has issued a total of 28 such alerts, with another likely on the way within the next week as the county is expected to fall into the less restrictive “Red Tier” due to falling COVID-19 case numbers.
“We knew we wanted to give our residents a reliable and the most accurate source of information possible,” he said.
Like corporate entities, Alexander also knew the city couldn’t maintain business as usual while protecting city staff and the community, so City Hall closed to foot traffic the third week of March. He helped create a staggered, hybrid workforce at city headquarters in the meantime, with an “A-Team” working Monday and Tuesday, a “B-Team” Wednesday and Thursday, and a staggered day on Friday split between the two. Another third of the staff, the “C-Team,” was assigned to telecommute only as a “failsafe team, so in the case of an outbreak within City Hall, then we would bring the C-Team to take over operations.”
The strategy worked, and while there was an initial slowdown in business activity, once builders and homeowners became comfortable with construction safety protocols the online permit system implemented in 2019 was busily humming once again.
The implementation of that online permit service the year before turned out to be invaluable, Alexander noted, since anyone applying for a building permit or plan check process or business-to-business license could do so through the city’s website instead of walking in. City staff was also available by phone to walk residents through the system if they hit a snag or needed help navigating certain forms.
“The fact that we already had this place was a great help to our ability to transition to a virtual City Hall,” Alexander said. “We were a little bit ahead of the game on that and it was of tremendous help to not only us as staff but to the community as well.”
Building inspectors have since been busy, he added, and in fact, all building activity within the city has continued at a rapid clip, with revenues from building and safety permit fees coming in higher than expected for the year.
LCF’S LONGEST-SERVING CITY MANAGER
Alexander’s measured response to the pandemic comes as no surprise to those who’ve worked with him over the years. The USC alumnus has worked at the city for 33 years, first joining in an administrative staff position and working his way up to the top job of city manager 17 years ago (18 years in June).
As the city’s longest-serving city manager to date, Alexander has previously guided the community through some of the biggest challenges in its 45-year history. That includes the recession of 2008, a storm that local government successfully weathered due to its status as a contract city and its healthy reserves, bolstered by healthy property tax revenue since the local housing market largely maintained its value. Other disasters seen under his tenure include that of the 2009 Station Fire and subsequent mudslides, as well as the horrific 2009 big rig truck crash on Angeles Crest Highway in the heart of the city which claimed the lives of two and injured nearly a dozen others.
Through it all, Alexander has been known for his calm and collective demeanor with an astute eye for detail, his colleagues said.
Chamber of Commerce President Pat Anderson, who’s worked with Alexander since 2003, said she’s come to know him as unassuming and hard-working.
“Mark is a kind of quiet force of nature,” Anderson said. “He can be very serious and very detail oriented, but is also intuitive in his creative thinking. I’ve seen him cut through red tape on any subject faster than anyone and he also inherently understands the many aspects of city government, which has served us all well during the pandemic.”
During his time, Alexander has also worked successfully with decades of changing City Council members to help shape the city as it is now. His consistency has helped usher in many new members, said Mayor Mike Davitt.
“In the time that I’ve been on council, maybe 10 years now, I’ve really seen Mark grow in his job. He’s passionate about it and very receptive to council in terms of working on citywide issues that come up,” Davitt said. “One of the things Mark does that is immensely helpful to the city council is that he’s excellent at prioritizing the many different tasks at hand — there are often many different balls in the air — and he’s very good about keeping the council informed on all those different issues.”
For his part, Alexander is quick to praise his city staff and long-serving City Council members for what he said “he hopes” people view as success stories within LCF.
Throughout the past three decades, the city has evolved and improved, especially in development and aesthetics: the city orchestrated the removal of overhead power lines that used to run along Foothill Boulevard, brought sewers to half of homeowners, landscaped medians, improved architectural development along the commercial corridor and created citywide services such as the LCF Shuttle service and a recycling program.
Leading a team of 27 full-time and another 12 part-time employees, the city manager noted it takes a village to run the city’s busy calendar, one which is dedicated to routine street maintenance, tree trimming and larger projects. Coming later this year, the city will undertake three large projects, including the Link and Descanso Drive projects as well as the much-anticipated sound wall construction.
While at first saying he can’t believe “where the time has gone,” Alexander thought on it and said one reason the years have flown is because he enjoys his job so much.
“There have been a lot of improvements in the community over the last 33 years that I think we can all be proud of,” he said. “I don’t think anyone ever expects to be at one place for [33 years] but I have to admit, this has been such a wonderful, supportive community and a supportive City Council that I have really enjoyed by time … it has not felt at all like 33 years.
“One of the wonderful things about this city,” he added, “is there’s been a lot of stability on the City Council and members serve a good amount of time, which creates a lot of cohesiveness and provides good direction to city staff so we have a good understanding of exactly where they would like to go.”
Going forward, Alexander said he is eager to help the community with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. After hearing of the initial wait times and disorder at some of the massive vaccine sites, he encouraged the city to apply to hold its own vaccination site at Olberz Park, a proposal they are still waiting to hear about.
He envisions a site for local residents — especially seniors — who can’t get transportation to travel far or sit for hours in their vehicles, although so far the county has said all new vaccine sites are currently on hold.
Throughout the past year, Alexander has met regularly with a coalition of neighboring city managers from about 12 different cities throughout the San Gabriel Valley to discuss ideas, approaches and alternatives. Among those ideas, the cities are exploring alternatives to being under the direction of the county health department, an idea that will be part of a discussion going forward, he said.
For now, in accordance with the Department of Public Health, City Hall will also reopen to in-person services when the county reaches the “Orange Tier.” As delighted as he is to inching closer to that reopening, Alexander urged the community to take a measured — and masked — approach.
Above all, he added, he’s proud of how he’s seen the community rally together during an unprecedented and difficult time.
“The say that necessity is the mother of invention,” Alexander said. “Well, I’ve seen the community step up and find innovative ways to interact, educate our students, continue to support businesses … So I think despite all that’s occurred over this last year, I think the community has resisted and done very well in response.”