Matt Huffaker.
(Via City of Watsonville)
Civic Life

A ‘community listener’: Watsonville colleagues paint impressive picture of Santa Cruz-bound city manager

The Santa Cruz City Council will vote Nov. 9 to appoint Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker to become the next Santa Cruz city manager. If appointed, Huffaker will be tasked with hiring for several vacant leadership positions, preparing the city budget amid the pandemic’s economic fallout and running special projects like the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women.

After Martín Bernal retired earlier this year as Santa Cruz city manager, the city council announced this week it will be voting to replace him on Nov. 9 with Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker.

City officials from both Santa Cruz and Watsonville told Lookout his experience serving in Watsonville made him the right candidate for the job.

“He’s obviously very capable, even in a completely unprecedented situation he was able to lead a city, keep his council apprised and keep the community safe,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers.

Following the departure of former Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal earlier this year, the city council began its...

Huffaker started working at the City of Watsonville as assistant city manager in 2016 and became city manager there in 2018. Prior to that, he worked at the City of Walnut Creek for 10 years, serving in several capacities including business manager, assistant to the city manager and deputy city manager.

Watsonville City Council Member Rebecca J. Garcia told Lookout that Huffaker will be missed for the positive energy he brought to the job, how he engaged with the community and how he helped the city navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been very pleased that he’s provided the leadership that we needed here in Watsonville, particularly, in terms of listening to the community,” she said.

Garcia recalled how during the first few weeks of the pandemic, she went to Huffaker about the need to have an eviction moratorium. She said he immediately called an emergency meeting to discuss how to make it work.

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“And as a result, we were the first jurisdiction in Santa Cruz County that had an eviction moratorium,” she said.

Watsonville City Council Member Francisco Estrada told Lookout that when he was new on the city council in 2018, Huffaker helped guide him as he transitioned into the role.

“He is a great listener, he has good vision, long-term thinking, very strategic and very empathetic,” he said.

Estrada said Huffaker’s leadership was also instrumental after the murder of George Floyd and the community’s demands to address systemic racism. He said Huffaker listened to the needs of residents and helped build momentum for the creation of the ad hoc committee on policing and social equity.

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Estrada and Garcia said Huffaker will be missed, but they’re excited about what he’ll do in Santa Cruz.

Meyers said among Huffaker’s biggest projects will be hiring a police chief, a fire chief and a finance director. Those positions are currently filled by interim city staff members.

“I think my local experience and established regional partnerships will allow me to hit the ground running,” Huffaker said in a release. “I’m ready to get to work.”