After more than three decades at San Jose City Hall, the city’s top administrator is calling it quits.
With the city reeling from a mass shooting at a VTA rail yard earlier Wednesday, City Manager Dave Sykes sent an email to the city’s workforce letting them know he’s retiring this summer.
“I immigrated to the area at a very young age and grew up in San Jose,” he wrote in the email obtained by San José Spotlight. “This community embraced us and became our home. Throughout my career, I have worked—in some way—in every neighborhood in our city. Although I spent most of my career working in the built environment and getting to see the tangible results of that work; I have spent the last seven years in the City Manager’s Office supporting the needs of the entire community.”
Sykes began his career in San Jose in 1987 as a part-time engineering trainee in the Public Works Department. He worked his way up to become director of the department and city engineer.
His career, however, took a detour the last four years when he was tapped in 2017 to become city manager. He replaced Norberto Dueñas, a beloved administrator who retired and found himself leaving the country to help hurricane-torn areas like Puerto Rico recover.
“I will admit that the last four years as City Manager were certainly not in my original career plan,” Sykes wrote in the email. “I accepted this role out of love for the city and our organization. It was my privilege to do so and I enjoyed most of it immensely.”
The detour turned into the bumpiest ride of Sykes’ career.
He took over just as San Jose began to reconcile how heavy rains in February 2017 ravaged the city, displacing 14,000 people in three neighborhoods and leaving behind $100 million in damages. Sykes, who served as the emergency operations director, took the blame for the city’s lack of preparedness as San Jose, Santa Clara County and Valley Water faced a high-stakes lawsuit from flood victims.
Just a few years later, Sykes was thrust into the throes of a global pandemic that killed 2,118 locals and sickened nearly 119,000 people countywide. Once again, he played the role of emergency manager as City Hall grappled with a lack of vaccine supply, a virus that highlighted systemic inequities, shuttered businesses and drained city coffers. He was again front and center as San Jose faced lawsuits and scrutiny over its confrontational police response to Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“This was not an easy decision, but I feel the time is here,” Sykes wrote in the email. “This last year has been extremely challenging for our city, but I am really proud of the work that we have done together. Although there are certainly big challenges ahead, I truly believe we have turned the corner on the pandemic as we transition into recovery mode.”
Sykes’ colleague, Carolina Camarena, said Sykes handled the last few years of crises with grace and strong leadership.
“What I can say about Dave is he is an incredibly calm individual and he’s a great listener, and that’s fantastic because it translates to him listening to the community,” Camarena, who serves as the city spokesperson, told San José Spotlight. “He cares deeply and thinks hard about our actions and how they impact our community before providing direction.”
Sykes, who worked for the city for 34 years, will resign his position in July. Camarena said the mayor and City Council will name an interim city manager before July. The City Council ultimately votes to appoint a city manager.
The role could dramatically change in the near future. San Jose allows its city manager to hire, fire and direct staff—but that could change under a proposal being considered to make San Jose a “strong mayor” city where the mayor would have those powers.
Sykes was born in the United Kingdom but grew up in San Jose. He graduated from Gunderson High School and San Jose State University.
“City Manager Dave Sykes has been a great partner, but his leadership proved invaluable during one of the most difficult times in modern history,” said East San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco. “Especially for the East Side, this meant reaching and supporting residents when they most needed it. I am grateful for his steadfast commitment and dedication to our city and our residents. I wish him and his family all the best.”
Sykes told San José Spotlight he isn’t sure what’s next, but he plans to stay local.
Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.