Article Features by Ken Pulskamp

Leadership in a Time of Uncertainty, Fear, and Recovery

Ken Pulskamp is executive director of the California City Management Foundation and a former city manager; he can be reached at

In many ways, 2020 has been incredibly difficult for California’s public servants. For the past few years, some of the deadliest wildfires in history have devastated the state; while many communities were still reeling from recovery efforts, widespread lightning strikes triggered another record-breaking fire season in August. On top of that, residents and city employees alike have become all too familiar with utility-initiated power shutoffs and the ensuing chaos that shutoffs bring. Cities started forming task forces and developing protocols for responding to these recurring disasters and events.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and created a newfound respect for what “emergency preparedness” truly means.

At the League of California Cities 2020 Annual Conference & Expo, Oct. 7–9, attendees will have the opportunity to hear how four city leaders have been addressing some of the most significant challenges of our time during a session titled “Leadership in a Time of Uncertainty, Fear, and Recovery.” Three city managers and a mayor will share insights gleaned from unique situations encountered in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meeting an Unprecedented Set of Challenges

Whether you are your city’s top administrator or make policy decisions from the dais, no manuals or policies tell you how to deal with the stress and pressure of leading your community through a deadly global pandemic. This is especially true when situations change so rapidly that county and state governments have to constantly shift their regulations and recommendations to accommodate new scenarios — or when your residents and local businesses see conflicting reports about what they can and cannot do.

In the City of American Canyon, the community received grim news in early April 2020 that Santa Rosa Detective Marylou Armer, an American Canyon resident, had died of complications caused by COVID-19. She was just 43 years old and the first COVID-19 fatality in Napa County. The news sparked increased anxiety in the community about what cities in the region were collectively doing to protect residents. As more positive cases occurred in the city, external communications also required delicately balancing the community’s desire for details with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations about patient privacy. In the upcoming conference session, American Canyon City Manager Jason Holley will discuss his proactive approach to communications, such as his push to prepare a statement in case one of the city employees was diagnosed with COVID-19.

But what happens when you are one of the infected employees? Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig was diagnosed with a mild case of COVID-19 in late March 2020. “I am in good spirits, will continue to work from home, and expect to make a full recovery,” Pietig said in a virtual statement during a city council meeting. At a time when his agency was tackling the complexities of a very publicized battle about closing its public beaches, the city faced the additional challenge of its top administrator leading while in quarantine. As a small seaside town that relies heavily on tourism to support city services, Laguna Beach’s anticipated $27 million loss in revenue from March 2020 through June 2021 dealt a heavy blow to its economic recovery efforts. In the conference session, Pietig will describe his approach to leading the city through this difficult time.

Santa Clarita, with Mayor Cameron Smyth at the helm, was one of many Los Angeles County cities frustrated with the ongoing “yo-yo” of regulations from the state and county about how local businesses should modify their operations in response to the pandemic. In late May 2020, the city petitioned its Fifth District county supervisor to request a variance from county ordinances. And in June 2020, the city partnered with multiple local economic entities to launch a program called Santa Clarita Safer Business Commitment. Mayor Smyth will discuss implementing a pledge for businesses to commit to slowing the spread of COVID-19 through practices such as conducting temperature checks on employees, intensifying cleaning and disinfection practices, and implementing contactless payment.

Drawing on her experience in leading her community through challenges, Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman will preside on the panel to guide the conversation and garner key insights from the panelists. Feldman has implemented strategies from the Woolsey Fire emergency response to reach and inform Malibu residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing her leadership skills on disseminating information and resources. She learned that in times of crisis, it becomes critical to take advantage of all communications media, from sandwich boards to sophisticated digital alert systems. Feldman will guide the conversation through lessons learned during COVID-19 toward key takeaways for use in current and future multi-layered crisis situations.

All these stories may contain familiar elements that you have experienced in your own city or region. The strength of their leadership, the collaboration among multiple levels of government, and the willpower to make unpopular decisions set these particular cities apart. The speakers’ stories about embracing leadership in a time of uncertainty, fear, and recovery will offer practical tips, inspiration, and hope.

Annual Conference Session Will Cover This Topic in Depth

Collectively, California had one of the most aggressive responses in the nation when it came to stay-at-home and social distancing directives during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. This approach also meant a longer timeline for reassuring worried residents and business owners who were impacted economically and itching to return to normal life and activities.

Plan to attend the League of California Cities 2020 Annual Conference & Expo session titled “Leadership in a Time of Uncertainty, Fear, and Recovery” to learn how four cities —  American Canyon, Laguna Beach, Malibu, and Santa Clarita — coped with unique situations and kept their communities informed, calmed their staff, and paved the road to economic recovery.

Related Resources

A New Day: How the League Has Adapted to COVID-19

In an Unprecedented Crisis, Local and State Leaders Step Up

Building Just and Equitable Communities