Rosanna Bayon Moore: Courage Under FireBy Gary Redfern
The busy office often has dim and dusty nooks, habitats for the misplaced and the forgotten, things bereft of usefulness, or in the limbo between nostalgia and trash. Common denizens are battered paper-stuffed ring binders, cumbersome to move, much less sort through.
Such a binder rests near the desk of Brawley City Manager Rosanna Bayon Moore, and while if it were a person it would be almost old enough to vote, it is anything but forgotten and useless, though it does also retain quite a bit of nostalgia for its owner, a woman who seems constantly on the move and yet able to deftly reach back amid the daily tumult and grasp the stabilizing knowledge, love and caring upon which she has built her career and her person.
“Some weeks are tougher than others,” Moore sighs during a respite in her busy-looking office that has a small conference table covered with city planning maps. “Fortunately, I work for a city council that wants to do the best it can. The challenge is stretching the resources and doing it so it reflects the needs of the community.”
Just days after giving the interview Moore and Brawley had a very tough week in the wake of a swarm of earthquakes on Aug. 26 that fractured buildings, ruptured waterlines and generally disrupted the flow of daily life in the community of 25,000. Moore wasn’t ruffled. When she took the job in September of 2011, she inherited some of the most daunting circumstances to face cities in decades, and it has little to do with Brawley itself.
In the wake of the global economic slide, Brawley, like many cities, has thousands of residential lots in various stages of abandoned development, causing an erosion of expected tax revenue, and are now potential blight. California cities also recently lost state redevelopment funds that allowed them to expand services and assist business development. Now those funds, along with the city employees for which they paid, are gone.
“Our struggle is to deliver with fewer people. Someone here asked the other day: ‘Where is everybody?’ This is everybody. There were some really painful decisions made by the council. You never want to see people go,” Moore says.
Yet, like its energetic city manager, Brawley has much going for it, even if that future may look very different.
“Why do people resist change? Some of us thrive. I enjoy that challenge,” she adds.
Asked what she sees as the city’s greatest asset, Moore does not hesitate: “Probably the enthusiasm. This is a friendly place, and we have a very responsive staff, a group of folks very interested in facilitating opportunities.”
While some of the city council’s discussions that led to Moore’s hiring may have been held in closed session as a personnel matter, a review of her background makes it obvious why she was a good choice: has ties to the Imperial Valley but varied experience outside the area, degrees from top universities, strong work ethic, relates well to others, positive energetic outlook.
“I was very fortunate in my life to have lots of adults who opened doors for me,” she recalls.
Moore, 39, was born in the Los Angeles area to father James Moore, a longtime El Centro attorney, and mother Josie Bayon Moore, who worked in the financial industry. The family moved back to Imperial Valley for several years before her parents divorced, and Moore and her brother went back to the Los Angeles area to live with their mother.
Recalling she and her brother were what are now termed “latch-key kids”, she says, “My parents were good even though they were divorced. They had the biggest influence on my life. My mom would be gone in the morning, but our lunches would be made. And she got home late. It forced us to be self reliant.”
A pivotal decision was when Moore’s parents enrolled her in Mayfield Senior School, an all-girls high school.
“It was an amazing gift my parents gave me,” she says of attending the small school. “The head mistress was a nun who had been a trial attorney. It was completely focused on actions, not words. I don’t remember any underachievers.”
Certainly not Moore. She was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, where her ambitious double major earned degrees in political science and English in 1995. It was at Berkeley that she met future husband Dean Syrengelas, now a special education teacher at Frank Wright Intermediate School in Imperial. The couple has two sons, Vasilios, 9, and Jimmy, 7.
Moore and her husband first went to New York where she attended Columbia University. In 2002 she earned a master’s degree in public administration with a focus in urban policy and advanced management techniques. After Moore’s graduation the couple moved to El Centro where she worked as a planner and later chief operating officer for the Holt Group, a planning and development firm.
While a graduate degree from an Ivy League university is a resume heavy hitter, it was her experiences in the Bay Area between college stints that Moore says set the cornerstone of her career path and the work to follow.
That old binder is her vital link to those days and the ideals then developed.
“My five years between undergrad and grad school focused on community development and neighborhood initiatives. To me, that was a crossover of many topics. It’s problem solving from the bottom up,” Moore stresses.
The binder is from her time in a public affairs fellowship operated by Coro of Northern California, a private non-profit training organization. While with Coro she developed a program that linked community colleges, corporations, nonprofit organizations and construction companies with the objective of training and employing the unemployed.
“To this day I have that Coro notebook behind my desk. It reminds me there’s no one sector that has all the answers. The nonprofits in San Francisco are very resourceful. They are looking for revenue streams,” says Moore, who is finding such determination useful as the city she now manages faces arguably the toughest fiscal climate in decades.
In the Bay Area, Moore also performed independent work for Luster, a community development group. She recalls an assignment monitoring whether trade unions were complying with a court-ordered consent decree to hire more minorities.
A slight woman with a high voice and a cheery demeanor, Moore concedes she was no figure of intimidation to rough-and-tumble union bosses and did not try to be.
“I had to go to each union and collect the racial data. The unions were reluctant,” she smiles with mock surprise. “They said, ‘What do you want this for? Who are you?’ It turned out they had made remarkable progress.”
Those efforts impressed her employer.
“After the first month they pulled me aside and said I needed to think about grad school. So I even had connections from San Francisco when I went to New York. I had all these people looking out for me. I was their little bird,” Moore says, smiling again, this time with sincere appreciation for the help she received.
These days, she is the one doing the looking out. While the Aug. 26 earthquakes jarred nerves, buildings and infrastructure, they pale in comparison to the long-term challenges California municipalities face. Additionally, Brawley has situations unique to it, including the Highway 86 bypass that will skirt traffic around a struggling downtown area, environmental issues with the nearby Salton Sea and a proliferation of renewable energy projects, including solar and geothermal. All present risks and opportunities.
“With the Brawley bypass what happens to downtown? This will dramatically alter traffic. I hope it spurs a rejuvenation,” she says.
Upcoming major projects include road repair projects under local Measure D sales tax funds, enhancements to Cattle Call Park, which may rightly be called the city’s jewel, connecting areas of scattered development, a non-motorized transportation plan and a state-funded project to meet state requirements for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Asked how that latter effort will play in typically conservative Brawley, Moore, in character, takes the bold approach.
“There are more valid sustainability questions that take us out of the realm of polar ice caps melting. How can we be more efficient, as well as the added benefits to the environment?” she says, linking the initiative to the city budget through fuel savings.
“We were recently awarded funding from the Strategic Growth Council to develop a climate action plan. Brawley and Calexico had successful applications that will make us both the first jurisdictions in Imperial County to take on this topic. The City will inventory our own municipal carbon emissions footprint and identify ways to minimize our impact from a greenhouse gas point of view.”
Moore adds that the climate action plan is a great companion to the Brawley Chamber of Commerce’s vision for a green city. With green energy production a growing part of the local economy, she says she expects “common ground” with the business community.
With the city manager’s position often in the crossfire of city council ideologies and personalities, the needs of a demanding public, managing and developing city employees, and ever-changing state, local and federal issues, keeping a cool head is paramount. Moore says she knows she’s ready. After all, she’s got that old white binder and all the experience it represents.
“Did I dream of becoming a city manager? Well, I would always start out in jobs and then pick up all these other roles along the way. This is really challenging. I want to love my work and this job makes that possible,” Moore says.