ENCINITAS — Karen Brust said her first 30 days as the city manager of Encinitas have been all about listening.
Listening to the City Council members articulate their vision and goals. Listening to the city staff members express their concerns and desires.
And listening to people in the community talk about what makes Encinitas great and what they want from their city government.
“It has been great,” an upbeat Brust said Wednesday — her 29th day on the job as the new head of the city’s daily operations. “It has been so nice to work in the community I call home. We have such a beautiful city and I have been getting to meet so many wonderful people.”
Brust, who has lived in Encinitas with her husband Mitch and their children for 15 years (two years in Cardiff and the rest in Olivenhain), was chosen out of a group of 60 hopefuls to succeed former City Manager Gus Vina, who left earlier this year to take a job in Brentwood, Calif.
She served as the city manager in San Juan Capistrano and Del Mar before her arrival in Encinitas.
“The best part about all of these communities are the people,” she said. “It’s what makes the communities so beautiful. It has been a pretty incredible career being able to serve these communities.
“These communities are rich with character, history, pride and community engagement, and these are values that I uphold,” Brust said. “And we want to uphold those values.”
Brust said she has been in a lot of meetings over the past month. She has met with each of the council members and is working on a planning session with council in which they will create a two-year work plan that will implement elements of the city’s strategic plan.
“That will be very helpful,” Brust said. “Because we will know exactly how to move forward and it will articulate how to get the best results for our community and result in the best quality of life for our residents.”
Looking ahead, Brust said that looming large on the city’s ambitious two-year plan is the housing element, which is scheduled to go before voters in November 2016.
The housing element is the city’s first comprehensive overhaul of its housing and residential zoning map in more than 20 years, and will map out where an anticipated 1,300 units of affordable housing will be placed within the city.
Under Vina, the city embarked on a very elaborate public outreach campaign, which included a number of large workshops and the use of the city’s now-defunct online engagement platform, e-Town Hall. The results of the campaign were decidedly mixed, and drew criticism from a number of residents.
Brust said as city manager, she plays a critical role in ensuring that whatever plan goes before the voters both complies with state laws and satisfies the residents of the city’s five distinct communities.
One idea she said she will propose to the council is the use of “community conversations,” which would call for city staff to host informal informational sessions about the housing elements at residents’ homes rather than at community centers.
The city would seek volunteers to open their homes for these conversations, and assist with inviting neighbors to hear about the housing element.
The goal, Brust said, would be to reach people where they are most comfortable — their homes — and stimulate dialogue on the topic.
Brust said she successfully employed a similar strategy in Del Mar.
“It is really effective in reaching people that we maybe necessarily couldn’t reach with traditional methods,” she said. “We want to hear from everyone.”
In addition to girding herself for the housing element, Brust said she has had a number of meetings with staff, both individually and in employee groups. Her focus: stressing the importance of good customer service, which she said is something she has valued over her career.
“I wanted to be in public service because I wanted to serve people,” Brust said. “One example I’ve given is when we answer the phones, rather than asking ‘Can I help you?’ we should ask ‘How can I help you?’
“We know we are going to help them, that’s not in question, but it is a matter of how we can assist, and that is key,” Brust said.
Brust, in addition to speaking to staff about their roles, has also asked how to support them, as they are the ones that will do much of the groundwork to help the city realize its ambitious goals over the next two years.
This includes ensuring employees have the support system in place that will allow them to thrive in their respective roles.
“The key is taking care of our employees, and support them in the way that they are able to give us our best,” Brust said. “If we want someone to run through a wall for us, then we should be there to support, guide and give them the tools to be successful.”