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Jennifer Sparacino: She Spoke Softly But Carried a Big Influence

The death last Monday of former city manager Jennifer Sparacino gave the final punctuation to the end of an era in Santa Clara — an era of long-tenured City staff who came up through the ranks, as Jennifer did; getting her lessons in municipal management from legendary city manager Don Von Raesfeld.

Her lowkey style tended to obscure  her truly momentous achievements — starting with her first big achievement: the purchase of the land under Great America in 1983. But it was never about Jennifer — it was always about the community. She had grace and was widely respected by everyone, both inside and outside of Santa Clara.

She was a consummate practitioner of the art of the possible, and her careful stewardship contributed in no small part to the City’s reputation as a well-managed city. Since her retirement in 2012, time has proven the wisdom of her advice. She was sound and practical and never indulged in “big deal-ism” or trumpeted her own achievements.

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While Jennifer’s public achievements will be widely heralded in many places in the coming weeks, I want to talk about the impact she had on me and my ability to understand what goes on in City Hall.

When I moved here in the 1980s from New York, I was completely unfamiliar with city manager-run cities, but I quickly found out how effective that kind of municipal organization can be.

I remember calling the city manager’s office in the 1990s about something. (This was long before I started working for The Weekly and had gained my present notoriety.) I can’t remember what I called about, but I remember not knowing what department of the city to call and figuring someone called the “city manager” probably did.

Not only was I surprised about how quickly the problem was resolved, I was even more happily surprised when someone called me back to check that it had been resolved. Where I previously lived in upstate NY, no problem would get that kind of attention unless you were a relative of the mayor’s.

I enjoyed working with Jennifer and her deputy city manager Carol McCarthy, a remarkable team, and appreciated the open and honest relationship I had with the City during the time they were there. Through them, I got an education on municipal policy, management, land use, budgets and venerable Santa Clara traditions like Teddy, the City Christmas Tree Bear.

I can’t think of anything I write about Santa Clara that isn’t informed by something they taught me. Jennifer had no less on her plate than any other city manager and yet always had time to meet with me.

The first time I covered the city budget, she met personally with me and walked me through it. That’s where I learned what a “structural deficit” was, something that was to become a fixture in City budgets. I learned much from her patient and clear explanations at council meetings.

Jennifer set a standard to which leaders should aspire.

During the “Great Recession,” when City employees had to choose between pay cuts and layoffs, most took the pay cuts in the form of one-day-a-week furloughs, although many still worked full-time. One reason they were ready to do this was the example Jennifer set. She was the first to take a pay cut while continuing to stick to her 60-80-hour work weeks and insisting on her signature theme: “on time and under budget.”

I think of these things often during the course of my work. Watching the current state of things in Santa Clara right now, I appreciate her wisdom even more. I am fortunate to have known her.

Funeral services and memorials for Jennifer will be held on April 2 & 3. Please visit the following link for more details. For more about Sparacino’s achievements, please read this previous article about her.

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3 Comments
  1. Buchser Alum 4 months ago
    Reply

    Carolyn,
    .
    Thank you for the lovely tribute to Jennifer Sparacino.

  2. Jamie McLeod-Skinner 4 months ago
    Reply

    Jennifer Sparacino was the epitome of a great city manager, leader, and public servant. I had the great privilege of working with her when I served on served on the Santa Clara City Council (2004-12) and would meet with her the day before council meetings to go through the packet. I always felt like a graduate student sitting down with a distinguished professor. She was informative, helpful, and we could talk though different approaches to serving the city, even when we differed on the best approach.

    I loved attending community events that she was a part of because of her focus on wanting everyone to feel welcome. And while I learned so much from her, the thing I remember most is her character and commitment to ethics. In the noise of politics — now and back then — she serves as a shining example of service-before-self and what excellence in government can be. It broke my heart to hear that we’ve lost her, but her legacy lives on in us.

  3. Carlos Gaona 3 months ago
    Reply

    Jennifer was straight forward and professional when dealing with represented bargaining units with the city, at least you knew how she was coming to the table, she never had a circus show of management staff like there is now, and she knew employing from within was the value investment she could give the city. I will miss her and I will appreciate her service as my City manger.

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