Creditors were at the door, and the city's financial ruin seemed unavoidable. Grappling with the same, grim circumstance a decade ago that thousands of homeowners face today, Gardena, Calif.'s nearly $27 million debt — resulting mostly from two failed business ventures — left the city with few choices, one of which was bankruptcy. If that wasn't enough to make the community's residents lose faith in local government, its city manager was convicted and jailed on several charges.

Having reached a nearly hopeless situation, Gardena finally caught a break when Mitch Lansdell was named city manager. In addition to Lansdell's 12-year experience as assistant city manager, he possessed the best antidote to Gardena's ills: genuine leadership skills in a time of crisis.

As a good manager, Lansdell started by assessing the damage, which resulted in budget and staff cuts and hiring freezes. His leadership, though, was expressed through candor with the people who were going to be most affected by the outcome of the financial crisis. That included the city's staff, residents and, of course, the banks that loaned the city money and initially agreed to lessen the burden by allowing interest-only payments for the next five years.

Lansdell met with city workers and described the extent of the problems and his plan to keep the city whole as they attempted to solve them. He slowly gained the confidence of the employees, who were unhappy with their zero raises, and the residents, who were concerned that services would disappear or at least diminish. He did not offer false hope, but instead, told them that the plan for escape would be difficult. But, at least there was a plan.

True to his word, Lansdell continued to negotiate with the banks and communicate with the public. As late as January 2006, though, the city still was hamstrung by its debt. The banks, too, were growing impatient and eventually demanded full payment, this time from the mayor. He pushed back, saying that the city would declare bankruptcy if they didn't work with Lansdell to create a plan the city could afford. Lansdell, the banks and credit rating agencies went to work, eventually restructuring a loan with fixed payments over 30 years. By the end of 2006, Gardena's general fund witnessed something it hadn't seen in a while: an $8 million surplus.

You could say that we gave Mitch Lansdell our Municipal Leader of the Year award because he saved his city, and you would be right. You could say that he saved his city because he created a plan and communicated it well, even if the plan was to take it all one day at a time — and you'd be right again.

I can tell you that Mitch Lansdell won Municipal Leader of the Year because his inner strength and endurance were transparent to his colleagues and his community. And, even though doubts for a positive outcome persisted, Mitch Lansdell kept the faith and, as a result, inspired confidence in the future. We gave him our Municipal Leader of the Year Award because we just couldn't think of a better definition of a leader.
bill.wolpin@penton.com