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California calls, Schmitz listens

City manager will take a position with Los Altos starting Sept. 10
by: ,

A few days after announcing he was leaving his city manager post in Lake Oswego for the same position in Los Altos, Calif., Doug Schmitz gave the public a rare glimpse into his stance on the controversial community center proposal.

At Tuesday's city council meeting, Schmitz said he has been a staunch advocate of looking into uses other than a community center for the city-owned Safeco building.

Namely, Schmitz thinks the council should consider moving city hall to the Safeco building on Kruse Way. That would free the current city hall lot for a retail development.

'It's a prime retail corner that is dark one-third of the year,' said Schmitz, referring to the city hall property on A Avenue and the fact that it is rarely used weekends and evenings.

Schmitz hoped to divert public criticism of the council to himself, for advocating the sale of the city hall property.

'I'm the one who has been trying to get them (the council) to talk about alternate uses' for the Safeco property, he said.

Schmitz's announcement came after a public hearing in which about half of those who testified spoke critically of the council's decision to consider using the Safeco building for a community center, a city hall or other city needs.

Critics said the city purchased the building without public support for renovating it into a community center. They want the city to sell the building, rather than using it for another city use.

For Schmitz, who spoke before a packed house, Tuesday night's speech was a chance to sway public opinion on an issue that has divided the community.

It was also an opportunity for the public to see the impassioned side of Schmitz - a low-profile, media-shy city manager who prefers to work behind the scenes, negotiating complex development projects.

At council meetings, Schmitz usually only speaks when spoken to by the council. Tuesday's out-of-character speech, in which he stood before the crowd, microphone in hand, may have been his swan song - one last plea to bring more retail to the downtown core.

Schmitz announced Friday he was selected as city manager of Los Altos and that he will begin there Sept. 10.

Taking his place as interim city manager will be Lake Oswego's community development director Stephan Lashbrook, who has been with the city for six years.

Schmitz is credited with helping transform the look of downtown Lake Oswego - bringing in upscale developments such as Lake View Village and the adjacent community gathering spot Millennium Plaza Park.

Schmitz leaves at a pivotal time, as the city faces the largest infrastructure projects in its history. They include the $100 million sewer interceptor project, a new or renovated city hall/police station, the proposed community center and Portland to Lake Oswego streetcar.

Most of the projects will require public funding.

Schmitz declined to be interviewed for this story. But he said in a press release: 'I think 15½ years for a chief executive of such a dynamic organization as Lake Oswego's, in a perpetually energized community, is ample. The organization can benefit from new leadership, ideas and priorities and I can benefit from new causes to pursue, new issues to undertake, new projects to commence and complete.'

Val Carpenter, mayor pro tem of Los Altos, said the council there is 'confident that Doug Schmitz is exactly who the city needs to address the challenges and opportunities before us. His track record in designing, funding and implementing large public projects will serve Los Altos well.'

Schmitz has been instrumental in the city's acquisition of 300 acres for parks and open spaces and implementing programs related to two open space bond measures.

'He has had a creative touch on all these projects,' said Mayor Judie Hammerstad. 'The building of Millennium Plaza Park has Doug's signature, with the emphasis on beauty and lasting value.'

Schmitz's style has been collaborative, as he worked with the mayor and council to implement yearly goals, according to Hammerstad. Schmitz, she said, gave the goal-setting sessions a sense of urgency and also played an important role in pointing out the city's infrastructure needs.

But in recent months, Schmitz, the council and mayor have taken heat for the $20 million purchase in 2006 of the Safeco building for a community center.

A group fighting the purchase gathered enough signatures this spring to put a measure on the November ballot that would restrict future land purchases by the city to $2 million or less, unless approved by voters. If the measure passes, residents would have a chance to vote on whether the city should keep or sell the Safeco building.

Hammerstad said she and the council, along with Schmitz, will 'take joint responsibility, credit and, for some, blame' for buying the building.

Jerry Wheeler, CEO of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, said Schmitz had a passion for renovating downtown.

'The changes he and the council made brought more traffic and more people downtown and a different mix of businesses,' said Wheeler. 'As a whole, the community benefits more because the businesses bring in more tax dollars.'

The new mix of businesses came at a cost, as several small, long-time Lake Oswego businesses were displaced from the downtown core or put out of business, to be replaced with restaurants or shops that are part of local or national chains.

Yet most council members agreed that the changes were for the better.

'His vision has been the consistent view of what the city could be that has led us along toward a consistently improved place,' said Councilor Ellie McPeak.

Hammerstad said Schmitz is talented in working behind the scenes with property sellers, developers and contractors - helping orchestrate deals for the city and guiding projects through completion.

While Schmitz has a strong vision for a more vibrant downtown, he has a soft-spoken public presence.

'Doug is an introvert and has a tendency to kind of hold back,' said Councilor John Turchi. 'He was a good negotiator (on property acquisitions) and didn't push people.'

Turchi said downtown has 'changed in ways I would never have dreamt possible 10 or 15 years ago,' noting both Lake View Village and Millennium Plaza Park. Schmitz is also credited with bringing the development of 20 miles of pathways around the city.

'I would describe him as a rock star of city managers, especially in the area of redevelopment,' said Turchi. 'I wish him well, but I think the city will be poorer without him.'

'He's done a wonderful job for Lake Oswego,' said City Attorney David Powell. 'Working with him pretty closely, I've seen the effort he puts into it. He's the city manager here 24/7. That's how much he cares.'

'He's able to assemble people who brainstorm and come up with good concepts and are very creative,' Powell said.

The city council this week is expected to begin work on finding an interim replacement for Schmitz. (See related story on A1).

Hammerstad said the city will look for someone who can continue work on the Lake Grove Village plan and the Portland to Lake Oswego streetcar proposal.

'I don't know how we'll get someone as fine a man as Doug,' said McPeak. 'I really am not looking forward to his departure.'

Schmitz's fiance, Mary Puskas, said the couple plans to keep their Lake Oswego home and retire here.

Puskas is director of the Lake Oswego School District Foundation and Community School. She said she will keep her job.

'We love the community,' she said. 'They (Los Altos) made him an offer that he couldn't refuse.'