Santa Maria hires a city manager with a strange history

Jason Stilwell

The Santa Maria City Council has selected a new chief executive who has held management positions up and down the Central Coast and who once departed a job in Monterey County amid controversy.

On Tuesday, the Santa Maria council announced that Assistant City Manager Jason Stilwell will be taking over as city manager late this year. Stilwell, a Cal Poly graduate, joined the city of Santa Maria in 2015 after serving seven months as San Luis Obispo’s interim finance and information technology director.

Previously, Stilwell was Santa Barbara County’s assistant executive officer and budget director from 2003 to 2011 and city administrator of Carmel-by-the-Sea from 2011 to 2014. Stilwell resigned after the three-year stint in Carmel-by-the-Sea in which he fired several longtime city employees and allegedly hired friends and former colleagues and awarded lucrative contracts to cronies.

However, a grand jury report effectively exonerated him, stating Stilwell was cleaning up a mismanaged city and that citizens, council members and the local media were not cooperative with his efforts.

“Many of the articles in local media heightened or escalated local concern by echoing the one-sided viewpoints of terminated employees since the city was prohibited by law from disclosing oversight and governance,” the Monterey County Grand Jury stated in a report on Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The grand jury also concluded that the city council and citizens did not fully understand the city manager form of government, nor the rules governing how the mayor, council and administrators may interact. Additionally, the grand jury also found the mayor and council prioritized favorable media exposure and avoiding lawsuits and public criticism over good governance.

As Santa Maria’s top executive, Stilwell will oversee a city with more than 700 employees and a $162.5 million annual budget. The city council has yet to finalize his contract.