WATSONVILLE — Matt Huffaker has been handed the reins of Watsonville’s top job.

The Watsonville City Council unanimously agreed to appoint Huffaker as the new city manager Tuesday evening.

He will replace Charles Montoya, who served as city manager since late 2015. Montoya, who accepted the city manager position in Avondale, Ariz., announced his resignation in May.

Huffaker, 35, will start his new position following Montoya’s last day in Watsonville, which City Attorney Alan Smith estimates to be in mid-July.

“Watsonville is a special place, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to continue serving the community as the next city manager,” Huffaker said.

Huffaker was hired as Watsonville’s assistant city manager in June 2016 after having spent 10 years with the City of Walnut Creek, serving in a variety of roles, including deputy city manager.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, and graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from California State University East Bay.

According to the four-year contract approved by the council, Huffaker will receive a base salary of $200,000 in his first year, in addition to benefits. His performance will be reviewed annually, and will receive a $10,000 salary increase every year through 2021, if he receives a positive review from the council.

Smith said the contract recognizes that this will be Huffaker’s first top city manager position by starting his salary at less than Montoya’s $222,000 as well as other city managers in the area. By comparison, Santa Cruz City Manager Martin Bernal’s base salary is $224,554 and Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein’s base salary is $190,232, but increases to $262,308 with benefits, according to Transparent California, a public pay and pension database.

Huffaker said he has been involved in local government for 15 years and city administration for seven years.

“My roots are in city government,” he said.

He added that he felt “excitement” when he found out he was being considered for the position.

“I’m just feeling humbled to have the opportunity,” he said.

Huffaker said the city’s focus will continue to be on housing affordability and economic development.

“As a community, we have many strengths to build on and I look forward to working with the city council, our dedicated employees and community to continue the positive momentum,” he said. “We’ve made great progress, and I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

A subcommittee of Mayor Lowell Hurst and Councilmembers Trina Coffman-Gomez and Jimmy Dutra met twice to negotiate a contract for Huffaker. The council reviewed the contract in closed session Tuesday before approving it on consent agenda during the public portion of the meeting.

But before the council met in closed session, a group of nonprofit officials urged the council to consider an open recruitment process to find the next city manager.

Laura Segura, executive director of Monarch Services, read a letter signed by her organization as well as the Community Action Board, Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust, Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, Salud Para La Gente, Watsonville Law Center and Watsonville YWCA.

“Because hiring a city manager is such an important decision and impacts the future of the city and its residents so significantly, it is appropriate to be very deliberate,” she read. “For the sake of our community, it is critical that a thorough, well-defined process be used to select the best candidate possible.”

MariaElena de la Garza, executive director of the Community Action Board, suggested the council create an interim city manager position and form a community group to give input on the selection process.

“We have a strong foundation and a good relationship with Matt,” she said. “It’s not about the person, it’s about the process.”

Hurst said Wednesday the council chose to fill the position quickly rather than deal with the “unknowns” of a recruitment process.

“While I too think a thoughtful and thorough process is important, in this case it is the results that really matter, rather than some long drawn out procedure where you really never know what we would end up with, how much time would go by, or the cost,” he said.

He added that the council received many messages, calls and letters in support of Huffaker, although he did receive one that was “rather negative.”

“The public support for Matt was very consistent,” Hurst said. “We believe we have protected the public interest and filled the important position in the most expedient and effective manner with a highly qualified and experienced person.”

Steve Trujillo of Watsonville encouraged Huffaker to introduce himself to the community and say why he feels qualified for the job.

“Do not take any personal umbrage, Matt, but a lot of us don’t know you,” Trujillo said. “People watching on television have no idea who you are.”

Watsonville resident Ari Parker said she supported Huffaker as city manager.

“We need people who are invested in the community, and he has shown he is,” Parker said. “Sometimes you choose practicality over process.”

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