Clovis City Manager Ray Mondragon, left, jokes with his secretary Vicki Reyes Thursday in his office at city hall while thanking his employees for their service over the years. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor
On Ray Mondragon’s desk in city hall, phone messages from residents pile up on a note spike.
It’s a small sign he’s done his job, he says, as each returned phone message reiterates his “hands-on” management style.
“It’s important to return every phone call from every resident,” he said. “Despite the issue, whether they were for it or against it, I appreciate their thoughts.”
The outgoing city manager who said he refused to manage the city from behind a desk accepted a job with ENMR-Plateau last month, leaving the city in the middle of an economic growth spurt. His last day will be Friday.
A city employee the past 30 years, Mondragon said it’s time to move on because “life’s too short” to do the same thing forever. He said as city manager his job always came first, and he’d like to spend more time with family.
His future includes promoting the economic well-being of Clovis, and he’s even thinking about going into politics in a few years. While Mondragon wasn’t specific about those aspirations — he said it’s too soon to talk about in detail — he said he may want to serve on the governor’s cabinet.
And while city officials say Mondragon’s departure is a loss to the city, they’re confident incoming City Manager Joe Thomas will do well in carrying the baton and leading the community.
Ask coworkers and city commissioners how to describe Mondragon and you’re likely to hear praise about his ability to communicate with others.
“Raymond is unlike anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Assistant City Clerk Claire Burroughes said. “He attempts to be all things to all people. He communicates better than anyone I’ve ever worked with. He has a new-style leadership. He shares power.”
It was a style he learned as an employee with the Clovis Police Department, first as a 17-year-old dispatcher in 1974. After 25 years in the department, he worked his way up to police chief, a title he held until his retirement in early 2001.
A cop’s worst nightmare
It was a standoff with a 16-year-old boy that helped inspire Mondragon to leave law enforcement.
There had been a string of robberies in which bandits held pizza-delivery drivers at gunpoint, robbed them of their cash and fled.
It was in January of 2001 when Mondragon drove up on a pizza delivery robbery at the corner of Plaza and Thornton streets. In his unmarked vehicle, he followed the two suspects and called for backup; with no bulletproof vest, Mondragon was gravely concerned for his own safety.
The vehicle pursuit ended near La Fonda and Plains avenues, where Mondragon and another officer became involved in what looked to be a deadly game of hide and seek.
After one suspect was detained, Mondragon was on his own in a hunt for the other, who was armed with a shotgun. He chased the suspect over a fence into an alley. When Mondragon turned the corner, he saw the youth crouched over with his gun held to his own chin behind a dumpster.
No training could thoroughly prepare Mondragon for what happened next: Mondragon asked him to drop the gun; the youth didn’t comply.
“I thought he was going to kill me. Every cop’s nightmare is having to take someone else’s life,” Mondragon said.
The standoff lasted 25 minutes. Eventually the youngster dropped his weapon.
“I thought I was going to have to kill that kid,” Mondragon said. “I gave him my cell phone and let him call his mother.”
Although Mondragon was considering retirement anyway, the incident prompted Mondragon’s decision to leave law enforcement sooner than planned.
“Life’s too short,” he said.
Months later, in Mayor David Lansford’s back yard, Mondragon was asked if he would like to be city manager. He liked that idea.
A great staff, and tough days as city manager
When Mondragon became city manager, he made sure to retain finance director Don Clifton, public works director Harry Wang and city attorney David Richards.
Mondragon describes Clifton as a guru with numbers and finance; Wang graduated No. 1 out of 73,000 Chinese who took a test to study in the U.S.; and Mondragon said Richards provides quality legal advice to the city and himself.
He also hired Joe Thomas as his assistant city manager. With experience in law enforcement and several years as the director of public works, Thomas made Mondragon’s job easier.
“My staff has made my job successful,” Mondragon said.
He said he feels the same way about the mayor and commissioners, who have given the city the opportunity to grow.
But not everyone in the area wants growth. Mondragon said his toughest days involved extraterritorial development in 2002. That’s when many Curry County residents attempted to halt city efforts to regulate subdivisions within one mile of Clovis city limits.
Despite their efforts, the regulations were eventually approved by the City Commission.
“Many people had a pitch-fork mentality on that issue,” Mondragon said. “But the regulations were important for the city’s growth.”
The king is dead — long live the king
When Mondragon retired from his city manager’s position last month, Burroughes couldn’t help but describe the departure with a phrase used in her homeland of England.
“The king is dead — long live the king,” she told him.
In a joking manner, Burroughes was referring to Mondragon as the king who died, and Thomas as the city’s new king.
It’s Mondragon’s friendship, she said, that allowed her to feel comfortable enough to use the phrase.
She said Mondragon had been more than her boss in the years she has worked for him. At one point, when Burroughes was having family problems, Mondragon and his wife insisted on Burroughes staying at their place one evening.
“He seems so high-profile, but at the base he’s a very simple man who has a happy family and loves his wife,” she said.
Burroughes said she will always remember how great a communicator Mondragon was during his tenure.
She will also remember some of the more light-hearted moments, like the mornings Mondragon would walk around the office singing country tunes.
The day earlier this year when Mondragon helped public works officials barricade an area during flash flooding is an example of his hands-on management style, Burroughes said.
“What made him great was not what he did when everyone was watching. It’s what he did when nobody was watching that made him a great leader,” she said.
Lansford saw those qualities when he thought of Mondragon for the city manager position.
“Raymond has always strived for the best in whatever responsibility he was given,” Lansford said. “His attitude and work ethic are something you can’t really teach.”