Aaron Adams, who played a supporting role in Temecula’s administration for 17 years, has recently stepped into the spotlight.
That shift has sharpened the focus on the soft-spoken administrator who has quietly climbed through the years from intern to interim city manager. And that focus could sharpen further as Temecula emerges from a management shakeup and Adams builds a leadership team he hopes will keep him in place and the city on the move.
“I’m very much looking forward to working hard and bringing the city to a new level,” Adams said in an interview that took place amid boxes of personal items that were yet to be placed on his office walls. “Temecula has a bright future. It really does.”
Adams takes the helm as the dust settles from Temecula’s first management upheaval, a shakeup that played out during a string of public meetings that began Nov. 14, 2012. The separate firings of Adams’ predecessor, Bob Johnson, and the city’s finance director, Genie Wilson, have been unprecedented for Temecula, city officials and observers agree.
Fast forward to today, Adams is forming a new management team that he will task to the challenges ahead.
“You have the next generation of leadership coming up, and Temecula has always done a good job of preparing its next generation,” he said.
Adams’ status was formalized on Dec. 11, 2012, which was when the city council approved his employment contract as interim city manager. That contract boosted Adams pay $10,000 a year to $192,000 annually. It said Adams would return to his previous city position if he is not picked as the permanent manager. It said he would receive a six-month severance if he is released by the city while interim manager.
After that meeting, City Attorney Peter Thorson said there has been no council discussion of a possible statewide or nationwide search for Johnson’s permanent replacement. Thorson said any future council discussions about a permanent manager would probably be held in closed session.
The council will likely judge Adams’ performance by evaluating the city’s day-to-day operations as well as whether Temecula meets the goals identified in its Quality of Life Master Plan. That $130,000 planning document, which was approved by the council more than a year ago, lists an ambitious slate of public works projects, youth and senior programs and heightened maintenance of existing facilities through the year 2030.
Adams, 41, might also face the challenge of convincing people that he and his team are tough enough and experienced enough to run a municipality that has seen its boundary expand and its population nearly quadruple since it became a city 23 years ago.
“I acknowledge that I look young, and maybe someday that will be a blessing,” he said. “I consider myself a relational manager, but I can be firm when the situation calls for it and I’m not afraid to say ‘no.’ ”
Wilson’s firing, along with the previous exodus of two of Temecula’s top administrators, will force Adams to go deep into his bench to fill upper-level positions. He must also decide whether to hire one or more assistant city managers or create a new leadership structure.
But Adams takes over amid accolades from two previous city managers – Ron Bradley and Shawn Nelson – and Adams is certain that his experience at various levels of city government will be an asset in his new job.
“I’ve had the privilege of viewing the organization from six or seven levels,” Adams said. “I’m going to make new mistakes along the way, but I’ve been a student of local government for years and I’ve learned from the best.”
Bradley and Nelson both served as interim city managers before they were alternately hired for Temecula’s top post. Nelson was one year younger than Adams is now when he was tapped for the interim manager’s job. Bradley was recently hired to serve as interim city manager for Hemet. He also worked as Murrieta’s interim manager for nearly a year in 2007.
In a recent interview, Bradley said he has “always been impressed” by Adams.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Aaron will do well,” Bradley said. “I’m sure he has the confidence of the city council and the staff, and working together they can achieve what they set out to do.”
Nelson seconded that assessment in a separate telephone interview.
“Aaron’s a very wise person,” Nelson said. “He’s professional. I think he’ll do very well.”
Family roots planted in area
Adams can trace his family’s background to a pivotal point in Temecula’s history. His grandfather, John Adams, was a civil engineer. While Aaron was growing up in Los Angeles, he would sometimes hear his grandfather talk about “an amazing community called Rancho California” where he worked as a consultant.
The company he worked for at the time was developing Vail Ranch, a vast cattle ranch and farming operation that was sold as federal plans to build Interstate 15 were taking shape.
Voters rejected the developer-suggested name of Rancho California in favor of Temecula when they cast ballots in 1989 to form a new city in the fast-growing community.
“I find it incredibly serendipitous that my grandfather was here and now I find myself working in the same community,” Adams said. “That’s kind of cool.”
After a stint in Arizona, Adams and his family moved to Valley Center in northern San Diego County. His father worked as a city engineer and an assistant city manager of Escondido. His mother was a social worker for a hospice agency.
Adams was hired by Bradley in 1995 as a Temecula intern. Adams, who had focused on personnel management while in college, worked as a Temecula intern for nearly a year.
Adams was then hired by the city of San Clemente as a management analyst. He worked at San Clemente for about a year until Bradley created a similar analyst position in Temecula.
Adams soon began rising through the ranks in Temecula and he was promoted to senior analyst in 2000. He was promoted to assistant city manager in 2006, the same year he received a master’s degree in management and international business.
Adams was one of several internal candidates for the manager’s job when Nelson retired in January 2012. Johnson had worked as a Temecula assistant manager for nearly five years before he was picked over Adams and others for the city’s top post. Johnson served as city manager for less than a year, and no reasons have been given for his abrupt dismissal.
Adams’ parents, who live in Valley Center, attended the Dec. 11, 2012, council meeting in which their son was named interim manager. Adams’ brother-in-law is a pastor at Valley Center Community Church. Adams and his family are active at Rancho Community Church in Temecula.
As Adams climbed through the city ranks, his wife carved out a niche at the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce. She switched jobs and business groups when area tourism promotion efforts were shifted to the Temecula Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Kimberly Adams is the president and chief executive of the tourism promotion group that operates independently of the city and chamber.
Area hotels and motels agree to annually assess themselves to fund bureau operations and promotion programs. The assessment rate is routinely reviewed and adopted by the City Council.
The visitors bureau leases office space from the city in Temecula’s Civic Center complex. The bureau is located on the ground floor near a police department substation. The council approved the lease in November 2009. The agreement calls for the bureau to pay $2,832 a month for the first two years. The rental rate for the remaining three years of the contract can increase according to the consumer price index, city records show.
Aaron Adams said his job as interim city manager likely won’t intersect with his wife’s work helping to guide area tourism promotion efforts.
“Our professional jobs we’ve always kept separate,” he said. “It’s intentional.”
Nonprofit’s efforts harmed
The couple has played a visible role in a local nonprofit group that is emerging from a turbulent year. About eight years ago, Aaron and Kimberly Adams began attending meetings held by the Temecula chapter of Empty Cradle, a regional nonprofit group that assists families who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.
The couple was drawn to the chapter after one of their three children, a son, died at birth. Their loss led them to other parents who had experienced fetal or infant deaths. The Temecula-area families are a branch of a San Diego-based group that has functioned for nearly three decades.
The group meets monthly and provides counseling, operates a lending library and creates “memory boxes” that are distributed to families who experience fetal and newborn deaths. The boxes, which are provided to local hospitals, contain a wisp of the infant’s hair and a footprint as well as a shawl, blanket, heart-shaped pillow, poem and condolence card. The boxes are meant to give families a permanent keepsake of their lost child.
Since the local chapter was formed, Empty Cradle has received more than $8,000 in Temecula community services funds, according to city records. The city council annually allocates such funds – in amounts that have totaled about $70,000 in recent years – to nonprofit groups that provide a range of programs and services to the community and the region. Dozens of nonprofit groups and service organizations typically apply each year for available funds.
Empty Cradle also raises money through private donations and from an annual community walk. A balance sheet that the group submitted to the city indicated it had $22,720 in funds and other assets at the end of June 2010. Empty Cradle has not sought any city funds since the council approved a $1,000 allocation in February 2011.
Last year, the couple watched from the sidelines as the chapter’s volunteer treasurer was arrested, charged and later convicted of embezzling about $25,000 from the group. That financial loss nearly depleted Empty Cradle’s accounts, a volunteer coordinator said in a January newspaper interview.
Elizabeth Ann Lower, an El Cajon single mother, volunteered to serve as the group’s treasurer after the loss of her baby daughter. Group leaders became alarmed and alerted authorities after some bills went unpaid in November 2011. Lower was 29-years-old when she was arrested in January 2012 and charged with embezzlement.
Lower pleaded guilty to the charge on Feb. 2, 2012, according to Riverside County Superior Court records. She was sentenced to spend nearly a year in county jail and ordered to comply with 19 conditions of probation. Those conditions include paying a fine and restitution and avoiding any contact with Empty Cradle, Aaron and Kimberly Adams and two other volunteer leaders of the chapter. Lower was also barred from ever handling money for a volunteer organization.
Adams said the theft scarred the nonprofit group, but it did not halt its work or alter its commitment to grieving families.
“This has been a huge setback, and it was devastating for us to get through,” he said. “But it’s behind us and we’re still here helping to restore lives. We’re making the best out of something horrible – being robbed from right below our nose.”
Adams said the financial loss underscores the vulnerability of nonprofit groups that rely on volunteers to perform key duties. He noted that several local support groups and athletic booster clubs have been victimized in the same way in recent years.
“It was a learning experience,” he said.