Managing The City - Steve Potter
Interim-City Manager Steve Potter had a real dilemma when he started thinking about leaving the police force. He hated the word “retirement.” “I didn’t pick the word,’” he said. “I always planned doing something else.” That “something else” likely would have been going into the nonprofit world, where Potter thought he could continue to serve Napa, but that plan didn’t last long. Police Chief Potter had barely turned in his notice that he was leaving the force, after thirty-seven years of service, when City Council asked him to serve as the Interim-City Manager. The fact that he didn’t get to retire suits Potter just fine. “I love this community,” he said. “When I was being pressed about issuing a ‘retirement’ announcement, I had a hard time with it. I knew I would do something else right away.”
Potter believes in the people of Napa, and believes that the direction Napa takes should come from them. He is the City Manager, but thinks that City Council, the people that Napa hired, should set the goals for the community. “It’s not my job, or the job of staff, to set the agenda for what happens here. That’s up to residents.” As City Manager, Potter will work with the City Council to help set the City’s goals, and then with staff to implement them. “Some things, like resurfacing the streets and sidewalks in established neighborhoods, will always be a focus, as will keeping people safe.” One thing Potter will not do is assume to know what people want. “People are individuals and all have their own needs.”
The leadership style that Potter developed as an executive in the police department will carry him well as City Manager. “Leadership has to be fluid. What works for somebody in one situation might not work in a different social setting.” Potter recalled that in the past, the police department had a tendency to assume that everybody wanted and needed the same thing. That changed several years ago when management divided the city into twenty-six different districts. “Different neighborhoods have different needs and should be respected for that,” he said. Still, he believes that amenities should be balanced, and echoes Mayor Jill Techel’s “sense of one community.”
Potter wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he graduated from Napa High, and went to work at Safeway. He’d done ride-arounds with the police when he was in school, but his Dad, former City Council member Lars Potter, didn’t think that being a cop was a good idea for his son. Despite that, after a couple of years at the grocery store, Potter became a Reserve Deputy for the Napa Sheriff’s Department. In 1981, he joined the force full time. “It was lower paying with worse benefits than Safeway, so my Dad may have had a point,” Potter said with a smile. Still, it was work that he loved. In 1987, he joined the Napa PD.
His career took off, and at forty-seven, he was a Commander and second in-charge of the department. He realized he needed more than the associate’s degree he’d earned at Napa Valley College years before. He in addition to going back to school for his Bachelor’s Degree he applied for and received a Fellowship from the Target Corporation, and attended the Kennedy School of Government in the Senior Management Institute for Police.
In talking about his leadership style, Potter is quick to acknowledge what he learned as a police officer. “You have to treat people fairly. If you have a bad experience with somebody, you can’t carry it into your contact with the next person or even with that same person the next time you encounter them. It aids in a sense of fairness.” For Potter, it’s somewhat like the Golden Rule: “We all want an opportunity to rebound from our past mistakes. Why not give that opportunity to everyone?” Not taking criticism personally is also important to him. “I don’t take offense to what people say. It’s not my job to pass judgment on them.”
As a citizen, Potter believes in community involvement for everybody. He encourages people to not only vote and serve jury duty, which are generally regarded as the way people can engage, but to take it a step further by getting active with a church, nonprofit or other community group.
Potter believes in mentors, and has had more than he can count. He likes to pay attention to everyone in every situation. “You can learn something from just about anybody.” His habits have lead to a successful career, which even his Dad would admit. “Once I started having some success, he started to believe that joining the force was his idea,” Potter joked. “If he were alive today, my Dad would probably take full credit for all that’s happened.”