‘A marathon at sprint pace’: Matt Huffaker is off to the races as Santa Cruz’s new boss, but can his feet move fast enough?

Santa Cruz city manager Matt Huffaker
City manager Matt Huffaker held the same title in Watsonville before taking over in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the city of Santa Cruz, it’s been a rough, tumultuous stretch for all elected officials and staff trying to triage issues — largely centered around homelessness. New Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker calls this a “medium-size city with big-city problems,” and he’s trying to be the type of leader to facilitate solutions.

Matt Huffaker hit the ground running, mainly just to avoid getting sucked into the heaving, churning vortex below his feet.

Q&A Matt Huffaker

Being the CEO of the City of Santa Cruz, the job he took on in the form of city manager in November, is jam-packed with to-dos: hire a police chief, a fire chief and a finance director ... prepare for an election season that turns an “at-large” city council setup into a district system and maybe creates an elected four-year mayor ... navigate the bureaucratic tentacles that come with affordable housing projects ... try to convince people of the importance of a sales tax measure.

Oh, and while you’re at it, help fix the homelessness problem.

“I don’t idle well,” Huffaker says. “I enjoy the fast pace and unpredictable nature of being a city manager.”

Good. Because there will be no idling any time soon in Santa Cruz.

It’s been a rough, tumultuous stretch for all elected officials and staff trying to triage issues — largely centered around homelessness — in what Huffaker calls a “medium-size city with big-city problems.”

There were plenty of problems to deal with in Watsonville, where the 37-year-old Soquel resident, husband and father of three served in the same capacity for five years after cutting his teeth in similar roles in Walnut Creek. But the pace was not this furious. And the list of to-dos not so vast.

Huffaker — who is at least getting what many would consider big-city compensation ($266,000 per year) for his efforts — is impressing the councilmembers who advocated for his hiring early on with his boots-on-the-ground, policy-first approach to attacking the issue of homelessness. “This is the first time we’ve had (a policy) codified,” said Councilmember Donna Meyers. “This is the sea change.”

While there is much more work to be done, the seeds of progress appear to be planted — largely thanks to the $14.5 million windfall from the state, as it disbursed part of its large surplus, last year.

As city manager, he’s the full-time executive reporting to his bosses, the part-time city councilmembers. Santa Cruz voters could opt for a new four-year elected mayor position as the city moves to districting, but that wouldn’t affect Huffaker’s reporting relationships.

How will Huffaker & Co. make certain these well-laid, and well-funded, plans on homelessness pay off better than previous ones? How will he find the right police chief, advocate for a sales tax increase and keep his feet moving fast enough to handle all the other challenges before him?

We got him on Zoom and asked.

The following interview was edited for clarity.

Lookout: It’s been a pretty tumultuous stretch for everyone, but particularly it seems for the city of Santa Cruz. Were you able to follow that closely from Watsonville?

Matt Huffaker: First of all, I would say there’s a lot to love about Santa Cruz. It’s no accident that we have visitors that travel from all over the world to see our coastline, parks and open space. And we have really unique small businesses in downtown. Santa Cruz is a special place. Santa Cruz is also a microcosm of the biggest challenges facing our state and our country. From homelessness, to the housing crisis, to solving for reliable water supply, to the wildfire risks that our community has been facing with this ebb and flow of drought.

So, I was attracted to this opportunity because I love a challenge. You kind of have to be in this line of work. And I was intrigued by the work that Santa Cruz is doing to put sustainable solutions in place to homelessness, to champion and advance really important affordable housing projects with over 2,000 housing units in the pipeline. And to really take on some of these big challenges head-on. I would best describe my first three months here like running a marathon at sprint pace.

Santa Cruz city manager Matt Huffaker
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What’s surprised you most in the first few months on the job?

Huffaker: I would say that Santa Cruz is a mid-sized city with big-city issues. I’ve been surprised by the volume and pace of work throughout the city. And also we have some incredibly talented employees that are doing some really impressive work on a number of fronts. So I’ve been doing my best to keep up with this marathon. But it certainly does feel at times like I’m drinking out of two fire hoses at once.

Lookout: What attracted you to the job?

Huffaker: Santa Cruz operates as a community twice our size with really complex issues, from homelessness response to financial health and sustainability to filling key leadership positions. We currently have an interim police chief, interim fire chief and interim finance director. So it’s definitely a season of change for the organization. And I knew that coming into the role. It’s part of what attracted me to have an opportunity to help shape our leadership team and the future direction of the city.

Lookout: How would you rank the top challenges facing the city?

Huffaker: Our moonshot is finding sustainable solutions to homelessness. That is the No. 1 challenge; it is the most complex issue that we are working on. It’s also the No. 1 issue of interest that we hear from the community on as well. And it’s been decades in the making. So I do think we’re taking steps in the right direction of shifting our approach from reactive to a more proactive, sustainable solutions approach. But that work is going to be ongoing, and we’re certainly not going to solve a challenge that our country has been struggling to solve overnight.

Lookout: What’s going to make this attempt more successful than the many which have come before it?

Huffaker: I think there’s been somewhat of a false premise around whether Santa Cruz has a choice in having a role in solving homelessness. Every department has been impacted by our homelessness response efforts, from public works to parking to parks and rec. It’s affecting every aspect of our operation. So I’ve been trying to reframe our approach to putting sustainable solutions in place. Rather than spending our time on cleaning up illegal encampments, let’s spend our time and energy on standing up effective shelter. Approaches that are based on models that work, based on models that we have seen success here locally, that can really get individuals on a path toward permanent, sustainable housing. I think that’s the pivot, moving from reacting to the impacts of homelessness to investing in solutions that we know work.

Lookout: Santa Cruz had a pretty unique police chief who has since moved on. What kind of input is the public giving you on potential replacements?

After Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills announced his resignation last week, discussions have kicked into high gear...

Huffaker: Chief Mills [Andy Mills, who took the job as police chief in Palm Springs in 2021 after four years in Santa Cruz] certainly left his mark on the community and the department and the organization as a whole. Last week, we closed a community survey that we put out to collect input from our residents around what they’d like to see in their future chief, and not surprisingly we heard feedback around wanting to have someone who holds high ethical standards, is approachable, and is actively engaged with the community. There were also a lot of comments about wanting to see someone that has local roots, that has a local understanding of the unique challenges facing Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz’s unique culture and an appreciation for what makes Santa Cruz special. So I found that feedback encouraging as well.

Lookout: Are you seeing some good candidates with local roots?

Huffaker: I think we’re fortunate to have local candidates that check those boxes, that do have local roots and understand that you have unique challenges in Santa Cruz and know how best to navigate those effectively. We’ll likely be setting up a couple panels of community stakeholders, local business leaders, community leaders, to help weigh in on that process as well. It’s important to me that we do it in a transparent way and make sure that we get the right next chief of police.

Santa Cruz city manager Matt Huffaker
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: District elections will be a major change ahead, and so will a four-year elected mayor if voters choose that. What are the challenges you see?

Huffaker: I don’t think the significance of moving away from at-large elections, particularly for a city that’s been electing their council for over 150 years in that way, can be overstated. I’ve really been encouraging community members to to visit our website to get informed in terms of what it means, and over the course of the next month the council will also be selecting final maps for both the six-district and the seven-district structure, so now’s the opportunity for the community to weigh in on what will really be a permanent, significant shift in our local elections structure. The biggest challenge is ensuring that the maps represent the unique character of the communities we have across Santa Cruz, that there’s equitable representation across those communities. Also ensuring that we can continue to look at the communitywide impact of issues and projects as they move through the pipeline. And I’m confident we’ll be able to do that.

Lookout: Watsonville was one of the state’s first cities to go to district elections, back in 1989. What lessons can Santa Cruz learn from that?

Huffaker: I have seen where it works well. And, similarly with a seven-member council, where they can come together on issues of importance to the community as a whole. I’m confident that Santa Cruz will be able to do the same. From a staff standpoint, you need to be intentional about ensuring that there is equal investment being made, equal attention being paid to each district. That’s always the case. And that’s true of infrastructure investments, street improvements, traffic safety improvements.

Lookout: Talk of a half-cent sales tax increase measure is back after failing to get sufficient council support a year ago. What’s your pitch for its importance?

Huffaker: Santa Cruz has been outpacing its resources for many years now. And it’s no secret that the last several budget cycles that the city has had to make some difficult decisions around the services and standard of service we can provide. Without additional resources, we’re gonna continue to see an erosion of the range and quality of programs that we can offer, not the least of which are plans to really bolster and expand our capacity around putting forward homelessness response solutions. So the declaration of fiscal emergency and the move to bring the sales tax measure question to the June ballot was really aimed at trying to get the city on stronger financial footing so that we’re in a better place really sustain the services that the community is telling us are most important.

Lookout: What does Matt Huffaker do for fun around here when he has a spare moment?

Huffaker: I’ve got young kiddos that are 11, 8 and 5, so we spend our weekends watching Little League games and teaching my middle child how to surf. We’re big outdoor enthusiasts, so mountain biking, cycling, running and just enjoying all that Santa Cruz has to offer.

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