REEDLEY – City Manager Nicole Zieba will walk the stage this Oct. 18 when the Marjaree Mason Center holds its 40th Annual Top Ten Professional Women and Leading Business Awards at the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center.
Zieba received the news on Aug. 8, when the executive director of the Marjaree Mason Center (MMC) Nicole Linder called her to tell her she had been nominated.
“I thought it was lab-related,” Zieba said, after weeks of handling her part in the situation around an illegal lab discovery in Reedley. “She said, ‘No, Nicole. It’s not about the lab at all. I have good news.’ And I still wasn’t expecting what she said.”
The MMC is a social service organization that provides emergency and longer-term safe housing for victims of domestic violence, along with a variety of other support services. Upon hearing about her nomination, Zieba said the news brought her to tears.
“For 20 years I have been going to this event, watching these awesome women – these leaders in the community – walk across that stage,” she said. “It never dawned on me that I would be one of them.” She added that being nominated is one of the highest accolades she has received in her 25 years of public service.
Zieba said as a city manager – and simply living in this world – she sees incidents of domestic violence all the time.
“We see the police stats, we talk to our officers who have gone out (on domestic violence calls),” said Zieba.
Zieba said she knows it is very hard for women to get away from their abusers. They must uproot their children and their lives. Many – most – don’t have jobs because their abusers isolate them.
MMC leased a house in Reedley but had to abandon it when the funding dried up. In 2013, Reedley applied for a grant.
“There was $500,000 sitting in a pot up in the state for transitional housing for prisoners,” Zieba said. “But the fine print didn’t specify prisoners. It only said transitional housing.”
Zieba said the city received the entire $500,000. The money went into rehabilitating the house. The facility is a family transitional shelter. It serves victims of domestic violence and also families who are about to become homeless.
“We’ve helped over 100 people through this house,” said Zieba. “That’s a pride point for me.”
Ashlee Wolf, MMC director of philanthropy and communication, said the center’s judging committee for the awards looks at various criteria when considering a candidate. This includes significant contribution – both personally and professionally – to the community, demonstrated leadership, including serving as a role model, and demonstrating both personal and professional purpose in daily life.
Wolf said that among Zieba’s many accomplishments during her 12-year tenure as city manager, the judges were impressed by how she and her staff responded to the COVID pandemic, as well as the city’s proactive response to last spring’s flooding.
AMID THE COVID PANDEMIC
“This city did something a lot of cities didn’t do,” Zieba said. “It never closed its doors.”
As a low-income community, residents of Reedley needed the city to remain open because they needed to go to work each day.
“If they’re going to work, we’re going to work, too,” Zieba said.
In her role, Zieba focused on keeping open the utility-billing counter because many Reedley residents lack technology support – i.e., they do not pay their bills online. Instead, the city changed how it conducted business. It installed plexiglass partitions so the public could safely interact with city staff. The city also live streamed city council meetings.
“We never closed our doors during COVID,” Zieba said. “That is something you’re not going to find in cities around us.”
Zieba said her staff now laughs at how over-prepared the city was for the heavy rains last February and March. Every department head carried a satellite phone in case communications went down.
“We were hearing it was stormageddon,” she said.
From Zieba’s account, the city was told the water would rise to the bottom of the Olson Bridge, flooding nearby homes. She and members of her staff set up a command center in city hall where they monitored the flood flow on a graphic information system (GIS) map.
“I didn’t go home for a couple of nights,” she said.
Zieba and Reedley police officer John Cardinalle, who both own Jeep Wranglers, parked their vehicles down at the river during what was supposed to be heaviest night of rain.
“We were literally going to get people out of their mobile homes, if need be,” she said.
The storms were severe. Zieba said in some locations, manhole covers popped off. Despite the intense rainfall, only one street flooded and that was because the city could not transport a pump to the location.
“I am proud of how our team pre-planned and we were ready,” Zieba said. “We did it.”
CITY WORK IS IN HER BLOOD
Zieba received her bachelor’s degree from Cal State Fullerton and her master’s degree in public administration from USC (University of Southern California). She entered public service through the backdoor, first working as a recruiter for folks like herself; including city managers, fire chiefs, police chiefs, etc.
In 2001, Zieba’s company tasked her with recruiting Fresno’s city manager. Zieba said she did not recommend the individual who was hired. Apparently, this individual did not hold a grudge because he asked Zieba if she wanted to be his deputy city manager. She moved to Fresno.
She left government service, briefly, when Fresno Unified School District recruited her to be an executive director of human resources.
She lasted only a short time before she was recruited back to work for the city.
“Cities are in my blood,” she said. “City law, city policy.”
The Times asked Zieba what she considered her greatest accomplishments while serving as city manager. She said fixing the city’s financial problems and providing the opportunity for low-income students to pursue careers in aviation.
33% UNEMPLOYMENT AT THE START
In 2011, Zieba was recruited to be Reedley’s city manager.
“What the hell was I thinking about taking this job?” she said.
In 2011, Reedley, like the rest of the country, was reeling from the housing crisis of 2008. The Valley was trying to recover from successive cycles of frost and freeze. With no fruit to pick, farmworkers were out of jobs.
Reedley’s unemployment rate stood at 33%; the city was about to file bankruptcy. The city police chief was on leave pending an investigation. A city council member was under investigation by the state attorney general.
“Well, it can’t get any worse because it’s pretty damn screwed up,” Zieba recalls thinking when she accepted the job.
The city was at an impasse with city workers. To stave off financial ruin – and after laying off 40 employees – the city asked the remaining employees to take a 15% pay cut and pay for their own medical insurance.
“Some people would have been paying us to work here, if that was the case,” Zieba said.
Zieba talked the council out of taking draconian measures, and the 15% pay cut initially proposed to employees was brought down to a 5% pay cut instead. She herself also took a 5% pay cut, reasoning if she expected city employees to take the same cut, she should do the same. The employees agreed.
In the end, the city ended up not filing for bankruptcy. Zieba said there were some lean years since, but Reedley pulled through.
“We now stand with a strong general fund reserve. In all of our operating funds, we have at least a 90-day reserve. And our unemployment rate is in single digits,” said Zieba.
“We have the largest concentration of all electric aircraft around the globe – sitting here, in Reedley,” Zieba said. Four planes, in fact.
In 2019, with the city still courting bankruptcy, Zieba said she began looking for opportunities to generate revenue for the city, with a desire to keep them local and in the city’s own backyard. She took a mental inventory of the city’s assets, and one in particular came to mind.
“We had an airport,” she said.
At the time, the airport was in the red; meaning it was on the verge of bankruptcy. However, not long after her airport epiphany, Zieba said the opportunity arose for the city to apply for a grant in a new technology fund.
“I applied for this million-dollar grant on a lark,” she said. “We got it.”
Zieba said, around this time, she became aware of a new type of plane being manufactured in Slovenia. It was a two-seater, all electric aircraft.
“We bought four,” said Zieba.
Why? There was money required to complete certification, to log the requisite flight hours to become a pilot, along with the price of fuel topping the list of expenses. However, Zieba had a strategy in mind to not only sustain the airport, but take it even further.
“What if we could drive down the cost of flight training so that families in our low-income areas of town could afford to send their kids to be pilots?” she said. “Pull kids out of generational poverty?”
BOEING, BOEING, BOEING
Not long after acquiring the planes, Zieba said she received a call from Boeing Co., an American aircraft industry company that designs, manufactures and sells items like airplanes, rotorcraft, rockets, etc. The company had heard of Reedley’s nascent flight training program and asked to see the planes.
Boeing’s chief pilot flew the planes, and its chief of maintenance inspected the planes. When the company learned why Reedley purchased the planes and what the city was trying to accomplish for the low-income community, it wanted in.
Commercial airline pilot attrition is high as pilots are retiring. Ninety-five percent of commercial pilots are white, male and over 50. According to a Boeing study, 800,000 pilots over the next 20 years will be needed to keep up with industry demand.
Zieba said Boeing told her the company was constantly looking for programs to generate interest in aviation among young people. Impressed by what Reedley was attempting, the company donated two near, fully functional flight simulators.
“There’s one in Jefferson Elementary and one in T.L. Reed Middle School,” said Zieba.
Reedley applied for an exemption with the Federal Aviation Administration – at present, only gas-powered aircraft can be used in flight training courses. Zieba said she expects the exemption will be granted soon. When it does, Reedley will have the first all-electric plane flight training course in the country.