CITY HALL — Less than three weeks into the top job at City Hall, Rod Gould says he’s already learned at least one valuable lesson about Santa Monica — “a small city that acts like a big city in many ways,” as he put it.

With a large city staff to lead, a host of community leaders to get to know and some significant challenges on the horizon — among them a looming $13.2 million budget gap — he said he’s come across an axiom about the town that rings true: “Prioritization is easy in Santa Monica because everything’s number one.”

In a wide ranging discussion in his office this week, Gould told the Daily Press about his first days on the job, his view of City Hall’s relationship with the community and, well, his priorities for the coming year.

With the City Council beginning to formulate next year’s budget, Gould said one of his first tasks has been to put City Hall’s financial picture in context.

“We have a budget gap now, and it’s real and it must be addressed,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean City Hall is facing severe cuts that will change the face of the city.

“It’s not a crisis. It doesn’t mean wholesale loss of dear projects, services and activities,” he said.

He plans to continue the practice of holding community budget meetings leading up to the June deadline to adopt a 2010-2011 budget, though he may tinker with the format.

At the meetings he said his aim will be to engage community members by getting them to think about tradeoffs, since City Hall’s revenue shortfall means difficult decisions will have to be made. He said he wants to learn what services people are willing to give up and what services they’re willing to pay more to keep.

“I’d like to figure out a way, through civic engagement, to get the residents to make the kind of decisions that the council is making where they have to balance” program wishes with budget realities, he said.

He said resolving City Hall’s shortfall will probably take 18 months and involve the careful use of reserve funds in addition to cuts, which he said he expects to make “around the edges” without having to resort to layoffs or furloughs.

There is a “soft hiring freeze” in effect, he said, which means public safety positions will be filled but vacancies that arise in other departments may remain open.

When it comes to interacting with community groups, the new city manager said he sees value in getting out of the office to visit with neighborhood councils, business groups and political organizations as much as possible.

“I don’t know that City Hall can exist by having relationships with just some groups in town and shunning others,” he said. “We have to be open to everybody.”

Considering the breadth of City Hall’s services, he said it’s important to recognize the role businesses play in making the City Council’s vision a reality.

“If people want all of these services, programs, facilities [and] amenities, then they need to worry about the local economy and they need to be somewhat open to local business changes and expansions,” he said.

With the City Council expected to adopt the long-studied Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) this year, he said he believes City Hall will soon have a blueprint for development that achieves the appropriate balance of protecting neighborhoods while permitting a limited amount of smart growth.

“The LUCE is, I think, a very ingenious, creative means of trying to have it both ways,” he said.

For the time being, Gould is staying in a hotel during the week and commuting home to his family in San Diego on weekends. He and his wife plan to move to Santa Monica this summer after their daughter, the youngest of the couple’s two children, graduates from high school.

Leading Santa Monica, he said, is like stepping into a dream job.

“This is as good as it gets, I think, in city management. As I’ve looked around I don’t think there’s another California city that’s got as much going for it as Santa Monica, so I couldn’t feel more fortunate … to have this opportunity come.”

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