Walking into the Pleasanton city manager's office this month presented quite a different scene from prior years in Nelson Fialho's administration. The walls were mostly bare, save the nails on which photographs and plaques once hung; no large piles of paper on the desk; fewer mementos and books on the shelves.
The chapter is closing for Pleasanton's longest-serving city manager. Fialho is stepping down next Tuesday after 17 years leading the city government and more than three decades working in civic service overall.
"I feel like I should have a better reason, but the reality is 25 years is a long time in one city," Fialho told the Weekly during a sitdown interview on Nov. 12. "I've been in local government for 31 years, and I feel in light of everything in regards to the pandemic and entering into a new calendar year that now is the right time to make a transition."
"I was 100% all-in to this community, and I always put the community's best interests at the forefront all the time. Some would argue sometimes maybe not in my best interests, but I felt strongly that that's how we should lead and guide," the 53-year-old said as he approached a retirement from public employment that is not necessarily a retirement from "working" -- and certainly not one from community service.
"I'm going to still be involved in some way in the community, just in a different way ... And I'll still be here in Pleasanton living; you'll see me on Main Street, at Peet's, hiking, enjoying the amenities that we have here in town."
A San Leandro native educated at Cal State East Bay, Fialho arrived in Pleasanton in his late 20s with work experience from the cities of Hayward, San Dimas and Campbell under his belt.
He began as assistant to the city manager, followed by promotions to director of human resources and labor relations and deputy city manager before he competed for and earned the city manager position in 2004.
Reflecting on the breadth between those bookends, Fialho viewed the biggest difference for the city from 17 years ago to today as lying with housing and development.
"I would say that what was central back then was a mindset, a very strong mindset and rightly so, of slower development. That was sort of the political philosophy of the time, which is to try to figure out a way to preserve the small-town feel and to ensure that development didn't outpace our infrastructure's ability to support and sustain it," he said.
"Housing was a concern 17 years ago, but now housing remains a concern but a different kind of concern," he added. "No. 1, I think every city including Pleasanton is struggling with affordable housing and how to produce it and how to do it the right way ... now, we're trying to maybe not slow it but try to find a way to do it right and do it so that it can be impactful for those who need it."
The second key factor now at play in the housing debate, in Fialho's mind, is "17 years ago we didn't have state intrusion into local control."
"All the legislation that really incentivizes housing production for the purposes of creating housing, and some affordable housing, and that's a challenge that wasn't as significant as it is today," he said. "Not only the volume that we have to accommodate, but also the erosion of local control that's occurred over the years because of state legislation."
Fialho also pointed to the community's shift demographically during his tenure -- "I think that's probably a source of strength of Pleasanton; it was less diverse 17 years ago."
Pressed to pore over his nearly two decades leading Pleasanton and select a single proudest professional accomplishment, Fialho barely hesitated.
"If I look back on my legacy, it's going to be the people that we've employed here at the city, that we've trained and developed, that we've promoted over time and at the end of the day those individuals build the culture and build the capacity for us to do a lot of things as a city," he said, adding:
"We're Pleasanton because of the people who work here and support not only the city manager, but the mayor and the council and the community. That to me is what I'm really proud of, and that's what I'm going to miss most."
Picking a favorite project came after more of a pause, with Fialho framing it as "the most interesting project" he worked on -- the city-owned Callippe Preserve Golf Course.
"Because it's so much more than just a golf course. It's an open space preserve, it's a residential development project, it's a golf course, it's a trail," he said. "It was done partly to create a golf course amenity for our community, but it was also designed to stop future development beyond Pleasanton's urban growth boundary for the area that we call Happy Valley."
"When people go out there, they see a golf course. But I see a lot more to it," Fialho said.
Other memorable "interesting" projects off the top of his head included the Firehouse Arts Center, Patelco Sports Complex in Bernal Community Park and the Castleridge land acquisition.
"Financially, we're in a great spot," he added. "Our philosophy of not relying on debt, accelerating the payoff of our obligations like PERS and OPEB, and putting money aside for our reserves really put us in a good position to not cut services during the height of the pandemic or cut staff like police and fire and public works."
The coronavirus pandemic was front-of-mind for Fialho too when discussing the tough moments at the helm.
"If you had asked me this question 18 months ago, I would have said my biggest challenge was navigating the housing cap lawsuit and getting to the point that we had resolution," Fialho said. "We had to fast-track that effort ... We were very intentional and accelerated in our actions."
"We were dealing with things like a voter-approved housing cap that got undone by a court, and we had to not only fix it but we also had to educate the community about why we had to undo it and blow through, for planning purposes, what the housing cap suggested we would never do as a community," he continued:
"We were dismantling the holy grail of Pleasanton urban planning. That was hard, on multiple fronts: politically, legally, community-wide, organizationally."
... "But the pandemic has been the hardest thing."
"There was nothing that we could look to for guidance," Fialho said looking back on those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. "Everything was changing by the day, weekly. We were responding real-time on social media and with information on our website. We went from 500 people here daily, to most of them being at home."
"And so pivoting to a virtual environment, keeping the lights on and the lawns mowed during the height of the pandemic was a surreal experience, but we've gotten through it and we're coming out of it," he added.
Perhaps the only bit of unfinished business as he departs, he said -- "the full reopening and restoration of city services is the work that still needs to be done."
Fialho addressed head-on some of the speculation out there from people wondering why he'd step away from the city manager post at his age.
"Well, I'm not leaving because of state intrusion. I have the capacity to get through all of that if I wanted to," he said. "I'm not leaving because there's a change in the political majority of the City Council. That is the environment that good city managers expect. You don't pick your council members, the community does, and you're expected to transition through that over time."
"I'm leaving because 25 years is a long time, and 17 years as a city manager is a long time," Fialho added. "And I think I have an opportunity, while I'm still young, to take a short break -- which I'm going to do -- and then pursue some other interests in the community but also professionally."
The options he's actively considering include lending his expertise to local nonprofits, pursuing teaching opportunities at the college level and private consulting either on his own or by joining an established firm.
"I'm treating this as: I'm taking December and January off, and then come February I'll reassess and decide what I want to do," Fialho said.
As for the future of the city government, council members have tapped assistant city manager Brian Dolan to lead on an interim basis until they complete a nationwide recruitment for a permanent city manager during the next four to six months with the help of a consultant firm.
"Brian Dolan is a fantastic administrator. He's going to be able to steer the ship in partnership with the mayor and council in a very good way," Fialho said. "He's also supported by a great group of department heads who are experts."
"Given what we're going to be dealing with -- like the Housing Element, the Climate Action Plan, district elections -- he's in the best position to navigate that while the council does the recruitment," Fialho said of Dolan. "I have 100% confidence in him."
And now that the final chapter is all but written, how should Nelson Fialho's 17-year tenure as Pleasanton city manager be judged?
"That's hard for me. To say anything else sounds egotistical, right?" he said before obliging.
"I think it's been wildly successful. I mean, if you look at the metrics, we've done really well. We're on a bunch of recognition lists and our surveys consistently come out well. We've had stability administratively, and even politically. Our infrastructure is good. Our park amenities are great. And it's like one of the darlings of the Bay Area. But I also think that others might be more objective if you ask them that question," Fialho added, finishing with a grin.
"I walk out feeling pretty good."